As temperatures rise in Va., researchers report sparsely located cooling centers

Few are located in rural areas.

By: - July 19, 2023 12:06 am

A first of its kind study looked at disparities in temperature in communities across Virginia. (Getty Images)

Summertime heat has long been a characteristic of the Southeast, referenced in hundreds of films, reports and books.

“Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932,” author Harper Lee wrote of the fictional Alabama town where the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” takes place. “Somehow, it was hotter then. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning.”

Although Virginia has traditionally been cooler than the Roll Tide state, the U.S. has set new records for high temperatures this summer. But even as summers get hotter due to climate change, research recently accepted to be published in the journal Southeast Geographer shows government-run cooling centers, which provide an opportunity for the public to beat the heat, are sparsely located throughout the state and mostly centralized in urban areas. To avoid grave health issues in underserved areas, state emergency management should collaborate with public health officials to make the centers available to more people, the researchers further say.

“We have to better manage how we respond to extreme heat to keep people safe, while also acknowledging that we need to be acting more rapidly to reach zero emissions from heat- trapping gasses so we can halt and ultimately, hopefully turn back climate change,” said Jeremy Hoffman, director of climate justice and impact at the environmental justice group GroundworkUSA, and one of the cooling center researchers.

Temperatures in some areas of the U.S. have recently reached triple digits; Phoenix, for example, reached 110 degrees or more for 11 consecutive days. In Virginia, last Thursday marked the hottest day of the year, with weather monitors at Dulles International Airport reaching 96 degrees.

“The heat has been coming later than it has in previous years, but now it’s here,” said Bob Mauskapf, director of emergency preparedness at the Virginia Department of Health, which helps coordinate the opening of cooling centers with local health districts. “The rest of the summer is not going to get any cooler, it’s only going to get warmer.”

According to the research, Rappahannock County is a locality in one of the state’s rural regions without a cooling center listed. Despite the findings, County Administrator Garrey Currey stated that cooling center options are available. 

“Most every locality has de facto cooling centers in the form of public libraries and other government buildings that are generally open to the public,” Currey said by email. “In addition, typically communities have many commercial opportunities for cooling such as retail establishments.”

Data on heat 

The Southwest and Midwest regions of the country have experienced record-setting high temperatures as summer progresses, and Virginia is starting to have higher temperatures, too, according to reporting from the Richmond TImes-Dispatch.

Historical readings from the National Weather Services’ monitors at Dulles International Airport show that the region had a long-term average high temperature of 87 to 88 degrees fahrenheit for the month of July. The record high for the month is 104 degrees, set on July 16, 1988. The most recent daily high temperature record set was 98 degrees on July 19, 2020.

The temperatures Virginia is seeing so far this July are 3.5 degrees above the long-term average, NWS meteorologist Kyle Pallozzi said in a phone interview last week. But the heat the state is experiencing now is coming after colder weeks in June, which was 1.9 degrees below the long-term average, Pallozzi noted. 

“If you remember back, we had a lot of Canadian smoke. Along with that our winds were out of the northwest, so that was pulling an air mass out of Canada towards our area and we had a lot of below-normal temperature,” Pallozzi said. ”Whereas this month, it’s started to warm up. The last few days we’ve had winds out of the south transporting the warmer air mass in from the South.”

The rest of summer isn’t going to cool off, Pallozzi added. According to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, Virginia has a 50 to 60% chance of seeing above average temperatures through September.

While Pallozzi referred to resources outside of the NWS to comment on how climate change might be a factor in the rising temps, researchers have continuously pointed to increases in greenhouse gasses from human activities, such as carbon emissions, as a reason for trapped heat within the planet’s atmosphere that is causing hotter weather.

“Human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gasses, have unequivocally caused global warming, with global surface temperature reaching 1.1°C above 1850-1900 in 2011-2020,” states research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Counting the cooling centers 

The research found that the majority of cooling centers are clustered in Northern Virginia, as well as the Richmond, Virginia Beach and Danville areas of the state, with a few sprinkled throughout the rural parts.

Dozens are in Alexandria and Centreville, as well as the Portsmouth area. About 15 are in Richmond and about a dozen are in the Danville area. A handful are in the Staunton, Charlottesville, and Winchester localities. The remaining centers are spread out, with only a few in certain locations, such as Lynchburg and Fredericksburg 

The data was gathered from government-sponsored cooling centers operated by localities, explained Hoffman. One of the takeaways is that the regions with fewer cooling centers, the rural parts, are ones where people experience a high level of energy burden, which is the amount of monthly income they spend on electricity for their personal use, including cooling their homes.

One recent study from Virginia Commonwealth University, commissioned by The Nature Conservancy, found that rural areas of the state’s Southside experience some of the highest levels of energy burden in the commonwealth. Homes in the Southside and rural regions may use more energy to cool because of poor ventilation and leaks that decrease energy efficiency, Hoffman said. Those areas, Hoffman’s research found, are within the vacuum of cooling centers in the state.

“They might have to make a decision between using some of their energy to cool their space, or alternatively they might have the ability to travel to a cooling center to remove themselves from the heat extreme,” Hoffman said. 

The recent data from Hoffman doesn’t include information on more informal cooling centers, he acknowledged, which can include other government buildings, local restaurants or a neighbor’s home with a pool. But the data does further mark the geographical areas that are within a 15 minute drive or walk to a cooling center. That data builds off of a 2022 study that found 65% of Virginians live within that cooling center access threshold, but less than 7% of Virginians living below the federal poverty level do.

“The cooling centers that are in urban areas tend to serve wealthier parts of the community,” Hoffman said. “What it highlights is the disparity in access to these very important and potentially life-saving services like cooling centers.”

Health concerns 

The data shows cooling centers are a way to escape the heat that can cause heat-related illnesses, or HRIs, such as heat cramps, exhaustion and stroke.

Compared to other natural disasters, such as flooding and tornadoes, research based on National Weather Service data states that heat has caused the most deaths across a 30-year average between the period of 1991-2020.

In Virginia, one person in Essex County died from hyperthermia, or overheating of the body, in April, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Last year saw three deaths from the same cause; 2013 had five deaths. There were 21 heat-related deaths in 2012, the most since 2007.  

“People who are beginning to feel uneasy, beginning to stop sweating, beginning to feel light headed, the advice that you see everywhere is to get into a cooler place, get hydrated, drink plenty of water or electrolytes so they can assist themselves,” Mauskapf said. “The worst is heat stroke, when the body reaches 106 degrees in a matter of about 15 minutes. That’s a life-threatening condition.”

Data in the Virginia Department of Health’s online tracker for heat-related illnesses show there have been 910 visits to emergency departments or urgent care clinics so far this year, as of July 13. HRI visits last year totaled 2,960; the year before had 2,840. 

July typically has the most heat-related illness visits, according to information from VDH. From 2015 through 2020, about 6% of all emergency department and urgent care visits in Virginia between May andSeptember were attributable to heat, including heat-related illnesses and exacerbation of other existing conditions. 

“It’s been a better summer than many of the recent summers,” said Mauskapf. “The very old and the very young are most at risk. People who work outside and have a difficult time finding any type of cover, [who] are not near any type of a cooling situation, those people who live in housing without cooling, those are the most at risk for heat-related injuries.” 

Mauskapf noted that the East Coast is typically cooler, with the ocean nearby, and that “central Virginia is typically the area that receives the highest temperatures” statewide. 

The heat can also exacerbate other health issues, such as diabetes, and be an issue for pregnant women, added Samantha Ahdoot, a pediatrician and chair of the advocacy group Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action. But the age group most likely to experience heat-related illnesses are younger men since they’re typically outside workers, she said. Rural areas’ lack of cooling shelters become a critical issue when “minutes really matter” to cool down from heat stroke.

People who are “working outdoors, particularly agricultural workers, are going to be at risk from heat and heat illness and those are often the people who will be in rural areas, which aren’t close to designated cooling centers,” Ahdoot said. “If you’re in the heat, your heart has to work harder to dissipate heat. We know that air conditioning is really the most important thing. If you’re in air conditioning it’s very protective. But not everybody has access to air conditioning, which is why cooling centers are so important. It’s lifesaving.” 

With the increased number of HRIs visits also comes larger medical expenses. A recent study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Virginia Commonwealth University found that about $1 billion in health care costs will be spent every summer because of extreme heat increasing as a result of climate change. The study based their findings on analysis of insurance claims in Virginia. 

“The growing threat of extreme heat requires all levels of government and the private sector to confront the fundamental crisis of climate change,” said report co-author Dr. Steven Woolf, senior fellow at CAP and director emeritus of the VCU Center on Society and Health. “The price of inaction is costly, dangerous, and unsustainable.” 

The way to cut down on those costs is through prevention, which can include use of cooling centers and neighbors keeping an eye on each other to watch for signs of HRIs, Mauskapf said.

“As with anything with healthcare … if we address through prevention rather than response in a healthcare setting, obviously that lowers the cost for medical support,” Mauskapf said. “That lowers the incidents of bringing emergency medical services out. Prevention is the primary strategy if you’re looking at lowering the cost of treatment. That’s not just in heat, that’s in everything we look at.”

Locality interest in cooling centers 

According to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the operation of cooling centers falls under the jurisdiction of the localities they operate in.

In Virginia Beach, cooling centers are offered at the city’s recreation centers and library locations.

“Since these locations are open most days during normal business hours and staffed accordingly, there are no additional costs incurred by the City to operate them,” said Bryan Clark, media and communications coordinator for the city.

But in the western, rural area of Rappahannock County, which doesn’t have any centers listed with the study’s data, Curry stated that, “If there was a prolonged/persistent need expressed by our citizens, there are several community resources that could be used (churches, fire halls, schools. etc.)” as cooling spaces, even though the county’s Emergency Operations Plan doesn’t specifically identify cooling centers.

“The other escape from the heat for our citizens is to spend a day along the ridgeline in Shenandoah National Park,” Curry said.

A lack of official cooling centers in rural areas likely comes down to a lack of planning for them as they require coordination and are intended to be sited in highly populated areas close to where many people are living, Ahdoot surmised. Her group is using a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with the Carilion Clinic, Virginia Tech and the City of Roanoke, to create a network focused on dealing with heat in Roanoke.

“One thing we had learned was there are no identified cooling centers in Roanoke [city], and Roanoke has some of the highest rates of heat illness in Virginia,” Ahdoot said.

While Hoffman acknowledged some of the challenges to creating cooling centers include updating HVAC systems, having cold water and offering educational resources on dealing with heat illnesses, converting other public buildings for cooling purposes is an opportunity to keep people safe from heat-related illnesses,  he said. 

“Libraries, public schools, community centers, all of those are public assets that could be rebranded during a heatwave to provide a safe, cool place for people to visit,” he said. Another solution, Hoffman said, is “working toward grander goals of actually reducing heat trapping gas emissions that are ultimately the cause of these ramped up heat extremes.”

This story was updated to clarify there were no identified cooling centers in Roanoke city. There are identified cooling centers in Roanoke County.

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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.