This story was co-published as part of a partnership between Latino news and culture site Austin Vida and Austin PBS' Decibel, a community journalism project currently reporting on housing issues in Dove Springs.
After a long day of cooking, Bertha Hernández puts styrofoam plates with three pupusas into a small cooler, grabs a water bottle and puts on a cap before braving the heat to go deliver her food. Hernández, a 65-year old Dove Springs resident, used to go door to door to offer her homemade meals, but she stopped because of the relentless summer heat and now depends on phone orders. When it’s time to deliver though, she opens her front door and steps into a neighborhood that’s up to 8 degrees hotter than the rest of Austin. “It feels like it is burning as soon as you go out,” Hernández said in Spanish.
With fewer trees and miles of asphalt, her Southeast Austin neighborhood traps more suffocating summer heat than other parts of the city. Hernández is among the thousands of Austinites experiencing the unequal effects of Austin’s urban heat islands, which leave residents with higher temperatures, more expensive electricity bills and greater risk of heat-related illnesses.
The urban heat island effect means higher temperatures in places with less greenery. In Austin, which recently experienced a 45-day streak of 100-degree weather, the impact is greater in lower income communities like the Eastern Crescent, which consists of the central East Austin, Colony Park, Del Valle, Dove Springs, Montopolis, and Rundberg areas, according to Kevin Lanza, assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the Austin regional campus of the University of Texas Health Houston. A recent heat mapping conducted by a team of UT faculty members, city departments and community members showed striking temperature disparities in urban heat islands including the Rundberg area reaching up to 15 degrees hotter than the rest of Austin.
Urban Heat Islands Urban heat islands lead to higher temperatures because buildings and asphalt absorb the sun’s energy, trapping heat near the surface, said Lanza. A lack of tree canopies and green space can worsen the situation.
In lower income communities, Lanza said, older homes may not be as well insulated, leading to higher temperatures and trapped heat.
Older homes are particularly vulnerable to this because Austin has only had a building code since 1982, said Dr. Zoltan Nagy, an assistant professor at the University of Texas specializes in architectural engineering and building energy and environments. “So anything before that is really not well built to any sort of daily normal standard,” Nagy said.
The people most affected by heat islands tend to be “elderly people who live alone, people who are separated from society because of language barriers or low income or don’t have access to transportation,” said Marc Coudert, the climate resilience and adaptation manager at the City of Austin Office of Resilience. The heat also causes difficulties for people who work outdoors for long periods of time.
As the temperature outside increases, the air conditioning has to work harder, added Nagy. This leads to an increase in the cost of electricity, which hurts resident’s pocketbooks.
High temperatures can have other economic effects on residents. After the heat forced Hernández to stop selling door-to-door, she saw her business decrease. The fewer tamales that Hernández sells, the harder she finds it to balance her budget each month. In July, her electric bill rose to $415. Her family has resorted to turning off their air conditioning units for nearly half the day to try and save money. “How do we pay rent?” Hernández asked. “How do we pay for the light? You either pay for the light, or pay rent, or pay bills.”
Health Risks Hernández starts her days as early as 4 a.m. to prepare her ingredients for tamales and pupusas. The air-conditioning unit is across from her gas stove, so she often turns it off so that it doesn’t blow out the flames. She spends her day cooking until about 3 p.m. Hernández said the hot kitchen makes her feel faint and so she keeps her blood pressure monitor near her for easy access.
Higher temperatures can lead to a variety of health risks like dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, Lanza said. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include “dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and profuse sweating,” Lanza added. The humidity in the air makes it harder for the body to cool down through sweating because of the moisture in the air.
Hospital visits also increase with the temperature. “We have that first spike usually in mid-June and that’s when most people end up going to the emergency room,” said Ashley Hawes, an epidemiologist within the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program at Austin Public Health. As people get used to the heat, the number of hospital visits decrease. “We do see spikes when heat advisories and excessive heat warnings are released,” Hawes said.
Extreme heat can also affect the mental health of people. “There’s a cascading effect of heat on social dynamics within a family where outdoor construction workers were coming home tired and in a bad mood from prolonged time exposed to these high temperatures,” said Lanza. “When they came back home, they weren’t in the mood to play with their children and were more irritable.”
Potential Solutions Adding more green canopies around the city could help cool areas down because trees can “reduce temperatures through shading and evaporation from plants,” said Lanza. But it can take years before trees grow and show results.
Other ways to help reduce exposure to heat and cool neighborhoods include providing shade in areas where there is direct sunlight, using cooling pavement technology and adding bus shelters, said Dr. Dev Niyogi, a professor at the schools of geosciences and engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Coudert’s team at the city’s Office of Resilience are making some of these recommendations including improving bus stops, planting trees, and encouraging people to go to recreation centers to City Council.
Hernández plans to keep selling her homemade meals even if she’s not sure how her situation will improve. Despite the challenges that the heat brings, she hopes residents find a way forward. “We have to work and we have to get ahead,” Hernández said. “I hope that we are all fighters. People who fight to get ahead one way or another.”
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