Shobha De, the doyenne of Indian media, stepped onto the stage in a loose kaftan and dark shades. The mercury had climbed to 94 degrees at the South Asian Art and Literature Festival in Menlo College, Atherton, California, on October 8th. The organizers hurried to move presentations out of the packed, enclosed, heat-trapping theater to the outdoors. Umbrellas were put up, scarves were pulled over heads and large containers of iced water were replenished quickly. Behind the stage lay sunbathers who had seen this as an opportunity to bask in the sun. Wearing the bare minimum they lay on the grass soaking in the extended summer.

  • A woman sits on stage
  • A woman in a kaftan onstage next to a man

“These are not your grandmothers’ summers,” said a panelist at a September 26th Ethnic News Media briefing attended by Braden Kay, Extreme Heat and Community Resilience Program Manager for California’s Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. 

Climate change is causing unusually severe hot days – known as extreme heat events. 

As the world gets hotter and U.S. health systems gear up to fight heat strokes, it is Braden Kay’s department that is responsible for ensuring Californians understand this new heat. “We have a critical need to support behavior change and mind-shift for a lot of people who feel their bodies should be able to handle the heat, but are just not able to,” said Kay. 

Kay managed heat events and was the sustainability and resilience director in Tempe Arizona.  His new job in California entails updating California’s extreme heat action plan and the state’s heat warning system. Kay’s new Extreme Heat and Community Resilience Program has $180 million in grant funds to help tribes, cities, counties, and businesses wanting to work on the challenges of extreme heat.

What communities are doing to keep residents safe

“What has worked,” said Patrizia Hironimus, Executive Director of the Butte Environmental Council at the EMS briefing, “are home weatherization and extreme heat awareness workshops — where students and other community members learn to use household materials like cardboard to deflect heat and bounce light from windows.”

Dr. Maggie Park, San Joaquin County Public Health Officer said county public health staff are advising people on how to recognize the signs of heat-related illness, and giving tips for cooling down.  Having cool buddies who check in on each other, and neighbors who check in with older adults during heat events are efforts that will keep communities resilient in the face of extreme heat and reduce chances of heat fatalities.

To the many unhoused people who don’t want to leave their tents and belongings to go to a cooling center, county public health staff have provided frozen water bottles, mobile shower units, and information about safe food storage. 

Climate chaos impacts vulnerable populations more. Low-income neighborhoods have more density of concrete buildings, less vegetation, fewer trees, and less heat-absorbing surfaces. The concrete parking lots magnify the sweltering heat, circulating the air like a convection oven. 

The more educated and wealthy neighborhoods maintain green areas, says Advancing Earth and Space Sciences Journal 

A golf course
Sunnyvale golf course next to highway US101 (image courtesy: Ritu Marwah)

According to an analysis from the San Francisco Chronicle, only about 15% of San Francisco has tree cover. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has a tree canopy cover of about 21%, while roughly 30% of Seattle and Portland are forested.

Taking a page out of India’s book to tackle extreme heat

The attendees at the South Asian Art and Literature Festival in California picked up scarves at the marketplace from Marigold Row to beat the heat. In India, clothes are chosen to cover all parts of the body.  Wrapping scarves around the face to prevent burning is becoming increasingly common.

A woman with her face covered by. a scarf
A Facebook group of Women and girls covering face for pollution and dust in India has sprung up (image courtesy: Ritu Marwah)

Loose cotton fabrics that don’t trap body heat, and circulate air around the body are worn. Pastel colors that reflect light off the body are preferred. Dark colors that absorb heat are given a miss. 

Heat natives arrange their days around heat. During the hottest parts of the day, people avoid going outdoors. Early morning or late evening walks are preferred. Most activities are conducted outdoors during the cooler hours of the day, early mornings at 5 or 6 am or late evenings sometimes at 9 pm at night. The ticket counter to visit Qutub Minar, one of the tourist attractions in Delhi, India’s capital, is open at 6 a.m.! The afternoon scorching sunlight and hot air are dangerous. An afternoon siesta or indoor activity in the coolest part of the house is a survival mechanism. Markets close in the hot afternoons but remain open until late in the night. 

Two women stand side by side
Ritu Marwah at the South Asian Art and Literature Festival wearing a Marigold Row scarf (image courtesy: Ritu Marwah)

California must prepare for a sudden onslaught of heat

California is adapting and adopting practices followed by residents from traditionally hot areas. “Summer heat waves can be dangerous. Extreme heat can be sudden,” said Kay. The onslaught of heat on the weekend of October 7-8th took everyone by surprise.  

“It is not just climate change but it is actually climate chaos. It’s going to be very unpredictable. We must adapt and learn to deal with the climate emergency,” said Kay. 

Photo by Jordi Vich Navarro on Unsplash

Ritu Marwah is an award-winning author ✍️ and a recognized Bay Area leader in the field of 🏛 art and literature. She won the 2023 Ethnic Media Services award for outstanding international reporting;...