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Beating the heat in Miami-Dade County: a coordinated approach

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Photo by Jonne Huotari on Unsplash

Miami-Dade County is one place that is leading the way in addressing extreme heat. In this article Mayor Daniella Levine Cava discusses the work she is leading to understand and adapt to this challenge in a coordinated and equitable manner.

Known as the “silent killer,” heatwaves cause more deaths than any other climate-driven natural disasters in the U.S., threatening the health and wellbeing of billions of people across the globe.

In Miami-Dade County, we know heat! We live in the sub-tropics and heat has always been part of our lives. Even our basketball team is the “Miami Heat”. However, as our climate changes and the impacts of heat grow, they are further compounded by urban development, hurricanes, floods, and sea level rise. We also know extreme heat does not impact people equally– disadvantaged communities, and Black and Hispanic people bear the brunt of the public health impacts. More and more, we are hearing from our residents that heat is impacting them in their daily lives, and that the old ways of dealing with it aren’t working as well.

In 2020, a group of community-based organizations funded by the Kresge Foundation, conducted a series of focus groups and surveys to better understand the issues of greatest concern related to climate change in the lower income, more marginalized communities of our county. Increasing economic and health risks related to extreme heat and fears of displacement due to climate gentrification were the top two concerns.

For that reason, in April of 2021, I appointed Jane Gilbert to be the world’s first ever Chief Heat Officer (CHO). In conjunction with that landmark announcement, Miami-Dade County joined the City Champions for Heat Action (CCHA) initiative, a cornerstone program of the  Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance (EHRA) . This announcement was made in partnership with the  Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center  (Arsht-Rock) – a global team committed to providing one billion people with resilience solutions by 2030. EHRA founding members – along with Miami-Dade County – include Athens, Greece and Freetown, Sierra Leone. Since then, more and more communities are appointing Chief Heat Officers including Phoenix, AZ and Los Angeles, CA.

I knew that appointing Miami-Dade’s first Chief Heat Officer would help expand, accelerate, and coordinate our efforts to protect people from heat and save lives. I am proud to say that our efforts are already proving fruitful.

Since being hired, CHO Gilbert launched a multi-lingual public awareness campaign during summer 2021 to raise awareness about the risks of extreme heat and what people can do to protect themselves and others. The campaign reached over 250,000 people locally through social and traditional media, posters in public spaces, and educational programming in summer camps. Gilbert also co-developed a Climate and Heat Health Toolkit that serves as the overview needed to inform internal and external stakeholders about what can be done to better manage and mitigate extreme heat.

Now, in partnership with The Miami Foundation, we are engaging diverse groups of stakeholders and the public in the development of a detailed three year plan to improve coordination and accelerate action on initiatives to prevent the increase of heat related illnesses and deaths. This includes a Heat Vulnerability Assessment by Florida State University professor Dr. Chris Uejio and a Climate and Heat Health Task Force, which is hosting a series of public workshops and planning meetings. Each workshop has had between 60 and 90 stakeholders in attendance and they have been offered in multiple languages to ensure our planning is equitable and holistic.

I’ve fast-tracked this work to address extreme heat because it continues to threaten our communities and also has direct effects on other community-wide issues like access to green spaces, safe and affordable housing, improving public health, and more. The nexus between the environment and many socio-economic issues is crystal clear.

Through our workshops and community conversations, we realized that we needed a multi- pronged approach and that we not only needed to make policy changes, but to work at a more grassroots level in our most vulnerable neighborhoods. The CHO has now developed a heat enhancement training for the County’s Citizen Emergency Response Team (CERT) disaster
volunteers. These trainings are currently being provided over a series of neighborhoods and, at the end of the training, each volunteer receives a Heat Response Tool Kit with thermometer, instant icepacks, electrolytes, cooling towels, etc. Neighbors checking on neighbors and communities watching out for their own is a key approach in our strategy. Preparing engaged citizens with the knowledge and tools to help their communities is priceless.

Finally, we are currently planning for a Heat Season campaign between May 1st and October 31st, that builds on our public awareness from summer 2021 and elevates it to the level of hurricane preparedness outreach that is done every year. Heat Season will become part of our community’s vernacular and our residents will all be prepared to recognize and address the signs of heat-related illnesses or stress.

I am incredibly proud that Miami-Dade is leading the way in this important work. We’ve learned so much from engaging everyone, from healthcare professionals, outdoor workers, scientists, social workers, school kids, and environmentalists, among others. It truly is a community-wide effort, and therein lies the success we’ve seen so far. I will be excited to share in a year the progress we’ve made and the lessons we’ve learned. So, to all the readers out there, stay cool and stay informed!

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