During the hottest part of the day, Sam Gomez gets to work. He puts an 18-gallon red bucket in the back seat of his silver hybrid car and stacks of black umbrellas adorned with the words “South Phoenix Love.”
He goes down Central Avenue and looks for people walking or waiting at makeshift bus stops along the meandering line of cars through the labyrinth of light rail structures.
Every interaction starts the same: “Hey brother (or hey ma’am), do you want some water?”
And suddenly the mood changes. The burden of walking in the heat that wrinkled their faces seems to be gone, lost to a toothy smile and big, bright eyes. Some say thank you and others pour out their hearts, shake hands with Gomez and share their names.
Gomez said he sees a lot of stress every day from people crouching under trees and then walking to the temporary stop when the bus arrives, or people walking through traffic to avoid walking further to a crosswalk under the intense sun to have to.
But Gomez doesn’t want to be a hero. Neighbors do that.
“It’s really cool to see and feel the energy transition when people are being looked for or when someone is thinking of them,” he said.
“We see it every day”
A heat warning was issued on August 26th when Gomez was on what he calls a “heat patrol”. He operated from Fast and Friendly Car Wash on Central Avenue, where the street was limited to one lane by trams on either side, leaving chilled water and umbrellas for people who needed a respite from the heat.
In the south of Phoenix it can get up to 13 degrees hotter than in the surrounding areas due to decades of underinvestment and a lack of shade, green areas such as parks and cooling infrastructure such as public swimming pools or paddling pools.
Gomez fears that the construction of the light rail, which will take another three years, will exacerbate thermal inequality and affect the quality of life for local residents – from construction stress to the strain on small businesses.
He began the heat patrol when he noticed some shady bus stops along Central Avenue were being removed due to construction. The effort resulted in dozens of posts supporting the effort and commenting on the need for shadow.
“It’s starting to promote the conversation that is there, but we don’t really talk about it,” said Gomez. “We see it every day, we deal with it every day, but we don’t deal with it in a major conversation with the community and the city and the contractor.”
So far, three of the 24 covered bus stops on Central Avenue have been removed. The rest will be gradually removed as the construction works. Valley Metro advised its passengers to familiarize themselves with their thermal protection messages and use the Valley Metro app to check bus arrival times to limit the time outside. The contractor for the Kiewit south-central light rail project bought the umbrellas that he sells.
Valley Metro said in a statement that shadow infrastructure will be improved once the project is completed.
“The shadow and cooling effect of the corridor is greatly improved,” wrote Hillary Foose, the agency’s communications director. “All bus stops will have shadow structures (compared to the current almost 50%). And the light rail project will allow for a 43% increase in shade trees across the corridor, adding trees to the sidewalk areas. “
Currently, 65% of Phoenix’s roughly 4,000 bus stops are in shadow, with more to be added with support from the T2050 program, said Brenda Yáñez, spokeswoman for the Phoenix Department of Public Transportation. In 2015, voters approved an expansion of a voter-approved tax that finances public transport. The plan takes a broader approach to transportation and includes road maintenance, bike lanes and sidewalks.
City looks to the future
Phoenix’s budget for fiscal 2022 includes $ 475,000 to create the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, which will work to keep communities cooler and keep Phoenix from getting hotter. The office would work with city authorities to implement plans that would counteract the extreme heat.
The city is currently discussing how the office would bring in the thermal protection infrastructure fairly by analyzing data on where heat crises and deaths occur most frequently and where shadow structures are missing.
The budget also includes funding an office for Diversity, Justice and Inclusion, which would help in efforts to distribute resources fairly and bring in voices from all communities.
“We reach the communities – be it through partnerships or block workshops – and ensure that the resources reach the people who need them most,” said Deputy City Director Karen Peters.
Last year, 323 people died from heat-related causes in the Maricopa district. Fifty-three people died in just one week this year, June 12-19, when temperatures reached 118 degrees. Peters cautioned not to take the heat lightly because it is so common.
“It’s so important that people be educated about heat,” she said. “Because people don’t always think about it. It’s not like a hurricane; it is invisible. “
Phoenix recently closed its comment deadline on its Climate Change Plan, which outlines initiatives like the Tree and Shade Master Plan. The plan promises to build 30 “cool corridors” in underserved communities or kilometers of stretches with up to 200 trees and other shady structures by 2050.
Environmental groups criticized the city’s handling of the comment period, saying that communities like South Phoenix, where more than 60% of the population are Latinos, have been excluded due to unsatisfactory public relations and the Spanish version not being published at the same time as the English version.
The city promised that their efforts to involve all communities would improve as the plan evolves. Peters said Phoenix is open to suggestions from local residents and would seek comments from them as new initiatives emerge. The city will again seek comments on the climate plan if it is revised in 18 to 24 months.
Gomez imagines his heat patrol as a collection of vans patrolling the city, especially in areas with no shade, to help people out in the heat. He sees it as a way to create part-time jobs and divert money to prevent heat-related deaths. While Valley Metro was responding to his concerns, he wants the heat patrol to act as a catalyst for investment in permanent solutions like trees and green spaces.
“We should have something like this and it makes sense and it should be invested,” said Gomez. “It doesn’t sound like ‘How does it work?’ It works because we might get some heat relief here and there, but we talk about every day. It’s like the ambulance and fire station only work on Tuesdays and Fridays. But what about the fires on Saturdays and Sundays? “
Do you need some heat relief?
The Maricopa Association of Governments operates the Heat Relief Network, a collection of hydration and thermal protection centers around the valley to help prevent heat-related deaths.
You can find a map of these cooling stations at phoenix.gov/heat. The website has information on heat safety and resources to help renters struggling with repairing their air conditioners. According to the refrigeration ordinance of Phoenix, all habitable rooms in all rental units may be cooled to a maximum of 86 degrees with cooling with evaporative cooling and a maximum of 82 degrees with cooling by air conditioning.
Those who think they are having a heat-related emergency should call 911.
Are you a South Phoenix resident who has experienced extreme heat? We want to talk to you! Reach reporter Megan Taros by phone at 602-904-3794, email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @megataros. Your reporting is supported by Report for America and a grant from the Vitalyst Health Foundation.
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