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Climate and Environment

Extreme Heat Is Around The Corner. Here’s How LA Is Preparing For It

A person drinks from a water bottle as the sun bears down.
It's hard to image after our record wet and cold winter, but a hotter-than-normal summer is expected this year.
(Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images)
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As a likely hotter-than-normal summer looms, the city of L.A.’s Climate Emergency Mobilization Office launched on Wednesday an extreme heat public awareness campaign, while highlighting some progress made on longer-term heat resilience efforts.

The office, established in 2021, has the role of coordinating across city agencies to build a cohesive response to extreme heat, which centers the most impacted communities.

The #HeatRelief4LA social media campaign aims to raise awareness about the health impacts of extreme heat and how to protect yourself and your loved ones. The goal is to help prevent deaths and heat injuries.

“We do not want to lose any lives, but unless we get the messaging out and unless we teach Angelenos how to best prepare, especially our most vulnerable communities, we will see fatalities related to heat as we have in the past,” said Carol Park, the General Manager of the city’s Emergency Management Department.

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The information will be shared via social media and flyers in multiple languages and distributed via partnerships with more than 65 local community-based organizations. The campaign will run throughout the heat season, from June through October. Last year, the campaign only ran the first week of July.

The campaign is just one part of L.A.’s efforts around extreme heat, said Marta Segura, who became the city’s first Chief Heat Officer last year.

“There's this short-term planning that has to do with the level of communication and emergency response and deployment of resources that we can provide as a city to save lives,” Segura said. “Then there's the long-term that has to do with infrastructure investments, creating a better built environment that will reduce the urban heat island.”

  • Unhoused people and people with chronic health issues are some of the most vulnerable to extreme heat. So are older adults, children, outdoor workers, pregnant people and pets. 

  • Read more about how Marta Segura says she’s working to tackle extreme heat in L.A.’s most vulnerable communities.

Authorities promise to be more prepared this summer

When it comes to offering emergency resources, Segura said the city is “a lot more prepared” this summer than last, when a prolonged heat wave in September driven by human-caused climate change led to a jump in hospitalizations, while many cooling centers were closed during times of critical need.

Segura said during that heat wave, only 16 cooling centers were operating with extended hours. She said this summer the city will ensure more city-run facilities, including 73 public libraries, will be open beyond regular hours when extreme heat strikes.

“We want to make sure that we have more of those facilities available and operating when they're most needed,” Segura said.

The city also aims to raise awareness of cooling centers through an app called Cool Spots LA. It can be downloaded to smartphones and viewed online so Angelenos can more easily find their closest “cool spots,” which include hydration stations, splash pads, recreation centers, libraries, senior centers, public pools, and libraries.

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The city, in partnership with UCLA, has crunched data of which cooling centers were most used and which ones weren’t used much at all last year. Segura said improved extreme heat data, including this heat map put together by UCLA researchers, has also helped the city pinpoint where more cooling centers are needed.

Unsurprisingly, those areas include some of the most historically disinvested neighborhoods in the city. Segura said the city is prioritizing boosting education and cooling centers in these areas this summer.

A woman with dark shoulder-length hair dressed in black crosses her arm across her chest and poses for a photo.
Los Angeles appointed its first chief heat officer on June 3, 2022. Marta Segura will help coordinate the city’s emergency response to extreme heat.
(Heidi de Marco

But that’s only a “short-term” strategy, Segura said.

“We're going to increase our cooling centers in these areas, but we're also going to need to retrofit a lot of our city facilities.”

Segura said in the longer-term, the city is working to turn city-run spaces, such as senior centers and libraries, into “resilience hubs.” They will be powered by solar panels with battery storage so they can provide a safe place for community members to ride out power outages caused by extreme heat.

According to Segura, they’re also working with community-based organizations to fund such improvements in other trusted community spaces in the hottest neighborhoods, which are mostly home to low-income communities of color. However, that planning is just in preliminary stages.

Long-term efforts still slow

Segura and other city leaders emphasized they’re continuing efforts to expand longer-term solutions, such as cool pavement, cool roofs and adding more tree canopy.

For example, Board of Public Works Commissioner Susana Reyes said the city has:

How extreme heat is changing southern California
  • Extreme heat is the deadliest natural disaster in the country, even more than wildfires and hurricanes. The climate crisis is already making heat waves in L.A. hotter and longer, with dangerous health consequences. Already, worsening extreme heat is fueling more than 1,500 excess emergency room visits per “heat day” in L.A. County, according to 2022 research from UCLA

  • If global emissions continue on their current trend, parts of L.A. County that have historically seen 30 to 40 days a year of temperatures above 95 degrees are expected to experience 90 to 100 days per year of extreme heat before the end of the century.

Government bureaucracy and siloed city departments have been big factors in slowing heat resilience efforts in the neighborhoods that need it most. That’s a large reason why the Climate Emergency Mobilization Office was established in 2021 – to bridge those siloes and help coordinate efforts across city departments. Segura said there’s been fruitful progress on that front, but impacts on the ground are still slow.

“The upside is that we are aligned, that we have Council alignment, Mayor alignment, alignment with departments and myself,” Segura said. “The challenge is, gosh, we wish this would've happened 10 years ago.”

Tree canopy still struggling, but some progress made

One of the key efforts to make L.A. more resilient to extreme heat is planting more trees in neighborhoods that most lack shade and green space.

In 2019, former Mayor Eric Garcetti released a plan to plant 90,000 trees in L.A. with a longer-term goal of boosting tree canopy by 50% in L.A.’s most tree-poor neighborhoods by 2028. So far, about 65,000 trees have been planted across the city.

The pandemic, recent drought and the fact it’s actually not that simple to just plant more trees, has slowed those efforts.

“We know we have work to do,” said Rachel Malarich, the city’s Forest Officer.

The vast majority of existing tree cover is in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. About 20% of all of the city’s trees are in just four neighborhoods: Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Los Feliz and Shadow Hills, according to research by Loyola Marymount University.

Malarich said the main challenges to getting more trees in high-need areas are:

  • Lack of space in high-need communities, which are often the most paved areas of the city. 
  • Building public trust that the city will maintain new trees. The city currently lags on its maintenance due to lack of crews, Malarich said.
  • Identifying species that are drought-tolerant, not too big or small, but also provide shade. 

However, some progress has been made in recent years, Malarich said.
For example, more than 600 trees were planted in 2016 along Vermont Ave in south L.A., from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the 105 freeway. A recent analysis by NASA found that helped increase tree canopy by 5% in the community.

A colorful map of tree cover in LA
NASA analyzed how tree cover has changed in the city since 2016.
(Courtesy of NASA-JPL)
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