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Story from the Field: Climate Change Health Crisis: Urban Heat, COVID, and Housing Insecurity in New Orleans

Nov 23, 2020 | Juliette Frazier

In 2020, the New Orleans Health Department partnered with climate technology platform ISeeChange on a pilot heat-monitoring program. The effort generated critical insights regarding heat data, health risks, and housing insecurity that will improve the city’s heat risk outreach policy and seeded the expansion of localized heat monitoring sensor networks in critical neighborhoods.

Health Departments and emergency managers depend on National Weather Service alerts to notify residents of real-time heat risk; however, those alerts are not designed to predict health illness. The alerts, which are issued using data from NWS stations in shaded grassy areas, are simplified for communication purposes. The alerts can’t account for hyper local heat conditions in neighborhoods, many of which are historically underserved or underinvested in.

In addition to these data gaps, there are critical communication and engagement gaps faced by officials seeking to address urban heat risks. Risk exposure conditions are poorly understood in the south, where air conditioning is more widely available and where heat is commonly considered part of daily life.

These gaps leave the most vulnerable New Orleans residents at risk. In addition to those typically high risk for extreme heat – the very young, elderly residents, and those with chronic conditions – the pilot revealed a fundamental link between housing security and heat vulnerability, conditions that were exacerbated by COVID in 2020.

ISeeChange test piloted several sensor and engagement strategies to a) provide more granular data at hyperlocal levels b) beta test real-time alert notifications and c) design more effective strategies to reach those most impacted by extreme heat.

ISeeChange expanded its real-time heat network to a third neighborhood identified as having elevated temperatures and increased numbers of vulnerable residents affected by heat. The sensor network, which transmits data via LoRaWAN, sent test email alerts to ISeeChange staff to internally review and then send in app notifications and emails to ISeeChange users.

The ISeeChange platform investigation on heat was co-designed with NOHD staff to include questions regarding health and daily life impacts as well as data entry on indoor and outdoor heat. Additional low-cost scalable sensor approaches were tested to compliment the real time heat sensor network, including digital hygrometers and infrared cameras. This included an urban heat mapping effort in partnership with NOAA and CAPA strategies. Finally, the team tested several engagement/ recruitment strategies to communicate risk and reach those most impacted. This included earned media, social media, flyering at COVID19 testing centers and local businesses, internal recruitment among the ISeeChange’s community, and outreach to local environment and housing advocates.

Early data suggests that a) neighborhoods experience as much as 6-10 degrees difference from official NWS weather stations b) shade trees provide critical benefits during the day, but less at night due to thermal inertia and c) wind is a critical underappreciated cooling factor in public planning. Seventy-six alert notification emails were launched from the sensor network to ISeeChange staff to assess if a heat warning should be sent. We noted a tendency to “over notify” and need to adjust the system to account for heat duration and time of day. Low-cost sensors and infrared photos to both inform and engage residents regarding heat risk were surprisingly effective: the hygrometers provided data engagement and dialogue in real time on the ISeeChange platform.

Engagement and dialogue were successful with ISeeChange community members and participants in the car sensing efforts; however, overall, these residents are not among those most impacted by heat. Our most effective outreach and engagement efforts were in partnership with housing advocates and legal support services for renters. Access to air conditioning and heat risk is fundamentally related to many of these cases, particularly as tenants face dangerous housing conditions and negligent landlords.

Given the ambitious scope, resources, and engagement constraints with COVID19, the project proved incredibly insightful despite challenges. Improvements that could be made include: procuring equipment with much more lead time as well as understanding the City purchasing constraints in the scoping of the work. Ideally heat work begins earlier in the season - April or May- ahead of June heat waves, however COVID19 and logistics were in play for our start date. The ISeeChange’s part-time local staff did more than full-time work to achieve these results and the lessons learned will provide dividends in future efforts. Several policy opportunities were identified that could benefit from the insights generated.

The New Orleans Health Department, ISeeChange, and RAND are finalists for a National Institute of Health grant and we are fundraising for a more fully-funded effort to continue the momentum of this work begun with NACCHO. We attribute the success of this project, and our engagement success with low-income residents, to the ISeeChange team and the work of local housing advocates who saw synergies and overlaps with our efforts.

For more information:

https://nola.gov/health-department/climate-changes-health/

https://nola.gov/getattachment/Health/Climate-Change-(1)/Planning-Tools-and-Data/Climate-Change-and-Health-Report-2018-Final.pdf/

www.iseechange.org/neworleans

https://stories.iseechange.org/new-orleanians-team-up-to-document-effects-of-summer-heat-with-stories-and-sensors/


About Juliette Frazier

Healthy Environments Coordinator
City of New Orleans Health Department (New Orleans, LA)
jefrazier@nola.gov

More posts by Juliette Frazier

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