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While the heat blazes on, city cooling centers close for the day

Tuesday, July 12, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison warned last month that the city did not seem prepared for a summer heat wave that might leave any number of residents looking for air-conditioned shelter. As it turned out, the Council member herself became one of those residents when the power went out in her East Austin home on Monday.

As she explained on the City Council Message Board, “I’m currently typing this post from City Hall, where I had to bring my children following a power outage in East Austin that left more than 3,400 Austin Energy customers without electricity, my home included. Earlier in the afternoon, the heat-index in our neighborhood hit 114 degrees. This is a heatwave we all knew was coming, but I worry we nonetheless were still not fully prepared for.” She had warned about such a possibility in a June message to her colleagues.

The National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning for Travis County starting Sunday, urging residents to heed the warning to avoid becoming overheated. The temperature reached 110 degrees on Sunday and was expected to be as hot or hotter on Monday, though a brief isolated rain shower brought temperatures down to a high of 109 degrees. The forecast for Tuesday was 107 degrees, according to KXAN.

Harper-Madison was particularly concerned about her constituents and others who might not have the resources to escape the heat on their own. The city does offer cooling centers, which include selected recreation centers and libraries scattered throughout the city, that have been designated as places where Austinites can go to escape the heat of the day. Although libraries regularly stay open until 8 p.m., few of the recreation centers stay open after 4 to 5 p.m.

“Cooling centers are operated during daylight hours to coincide with peak temperatures. Overnight cooling shelters are dependent upon widespread power outages and estimated time of power restoration,” according to the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.  Although ERCOT warned Texans it might be forced to require electric outages throughout the state on Monday, that did not happen. But there is a possibility it could happen anytime this summer.

Austin Public Library spokesperson Baylor Johnson said all libraries are designated cooling centers that are “open to the public for anyone seeking to get out of the heat during normal business hours.” The Central Library and all branches are open Monday-Thursday 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (except the St. John location, which closes at 4 p.m. Saturdays).

Early Monday, the city’s website offered no advice on whether cooling centers would be open for additional hours on Monday, Tuesday or later in the week. By late afternoon, the city advised that the excessive heat warning would continue through 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Harper-Madison and District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen were among those particularly concerned about where residents might go to protect themselves from the heat after the cooling centers close. Kitchen told the Austin Monitor via email that her office had not received any concerns or questions from District 5 residents. However, she said her staff had helped some residents of District 3 over the weekend when the air conditioning stopped working.

District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said via email, “This extreme heat weather advisory is not limited to traditional business hours of operations. I’m deeply concerned for our vulnerable populations and their safety during these extreme weather conditions. With ERCOT issuing a conservation appeal and the threat of rolling blackouts, the city of Austin needs to have plans for evening and overnight cooling centers to help our vulnerable residents. We should be proactive and communicative in multiple languages regarding these plans.”

District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo said she had heard concerns about limited hours and a prohibition on pets from social media and a constituent whose air conditioning was not working properly. Pets – who also suffer from the heat – are excluded from the cooling centers though service animals are permitted.

Tovo added, “I reached out to staff earlier to make them aware and to see if the city has plans to extend the hours of any of our cooling centers. I also asked if there was a list of cooling centers and hours that I could share (rather than the page that links to individual facilities).”

Late in the day, Tovo heard back from Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which had updated information for those who might seek shelter at a recreation center or public library branch. The city is urging anyone planning to visit one of these cooling centers to call ahead or call 311 to make sure it is available.

Harper-Madison also expressed concern for those who rely on medical devices that depend on electricity. According to spokespersons for both the library and parks department, none of the cooling centers has a backup generator. The only library building with such a generator is the History Center, which does not offer shelter for those trying to stay cool.

“We have seen time and time again that these events fall disproportionately harder on marginalized residents, including Black, brown and lower-income Austinites. Our unhoused neighbors are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather. As a matter of environmental justice, we are obligated as a municipality to have in place the sort of resilient strategies that will protect the least among us even in the worst of situations,” Harper-Madison concluded in her post on the city’s message board. “Worsening climate change will continue to bring increasingly erratic and severe weather, but that’s no excuse. Expecting the unexpected should be our guiding mantra, and I look forward to working with each of you, and with city staff, to search for innovative, equitable solutions.”

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication based on a clarification from a Code Department spokesperson who explained that the department “does not own or issue A/C units” to residents. 

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