Detroit needs a better plan for extreme heat, experts and advocates say

Researchers found Detroit would likely suffer more fatalities than either Atlanta or Phoenix during a heatwave when power remained on, in part because of limited access to air conditioning.

Meghan Richards first got involved with disaster response following 2021’s widespread basement flooding, after Eastside Community Network helped her fill out a FEMA disaster relief application for her Morningside home. Now she’s on staff at ECN, helping residents prepare for future emergencies. And heat is at the top of her mind.

“People in our neighborhood don’t know how dangerous heat can be,” Richards told Planet Detroit. She added that she wasn’t fully aware herself of the dangers of heat stroke and other problems until she took a Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) to learn how to respond to disasters like heatwaves and power outages.

Indeed, heat is the deadliest weather-related disaster in the United States, causing an estimated 12,000 fatalities a year. In 2021, a heatwave and power outage in the Northwest led to around 600 excess deaths

And the risk is increasing for Detroit, especially if a blackout accompanies the heat. New research shows an estimated 220 Detroiters could die during a heatwave, like the one the city experienced on June 15-19, 1994, if it coincides with a power outage – a distinct possibility in an area served by DTE Energy, one of the worst-performing utilities in the country for the time it takes to restore power following a blackout. 

Meghan Richards manages Eastside Community Network’s community resilience program. Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.

The City of Detroit adopted a Hot Weather Response Plan in 2020  as “a framework for the implementation and coordination of hot weather response activities which focus on reducing the negative health impacts of extreme heat in Detroit.” 

It notes that the city has experienced a 172% increase in hot, humid days and a 338% increase in hot, dry days over the past 52 years. The plan includes guidelines for issuing warnings and advising residents to visit cooling centers across the city and procedures to protect city workers during hot temperatures. 

Experts say the plan does not go far enough. They want to see more proactive approaches for creating heat resiliency and reducing the city’s risk of heat-related illness and death. Heat response plan guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control mentions several interventions not addressed in Detroit’s plan, such as energy assistance, fan and water bottle distribution, and changes to the built environment like increasing the tree canopy and installing reflective roofs.

Erin Stanley, director of climate equity for ECN, said the plan is reactive, noting language that says “a prolonged heat event would likely impact public health, although this would need to be confirmed at the time of the event.” Stanley pointed out that the dangers of heat are well-documented, and the provisional language indicates the city may not be taking the threat seriously enough.

Maria Galarza, deputy director of Detroit’s Office of Sustainability, said the city “is engaged in a plan to address public health concerns caused by climate change, including intense heat.” 

She said the community center in AB Ford Park will also function as a resilience hub with solar and battery power to help it operate during power outages. Galarza added that the city is looking into options for adding battery storage to proposed solar fields in the city, which could kick on during outages and hopes to provide four cooling centers with backup generators. 

But some aspects of the city’s current heat strategy seem likely to draw criticism. Garza mentioned that police precincts and fire stations will have backup power. The city has previously suggested these could serve as emergency cooling centers, although their use for this purpose “is not confirmed,” according to Garza.

However, numerous recent instances of police violence in Detroit and other cities could make going to a police station an unpopular option.

Meanwhile, air quality goes unmentioned in the city heat plan. Stanley points out that high temperatures can increase ambient ozone levels, and wildfire smoke will likely become a more significant threat. 

“People then have to choose. Do I close my windows and make it hotter in my house?” she said. “What do you do if you don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford even to run the air conditioning?”

Stone said Detroit’s reliance on relatively few cooling centers across a large city could be problematic. He added that “the greatest deficiency is the lack of any analysis of what regions of the city are most vulnerable to heat risk.”

Richards, who manages ECN’s community resilience program, says part of the problem is that the city looks at heat preparedness as an individual problem rather than a communal one. 

For example, the city sends out emergency alerts about heat via text message, telling residents to “take extra caution to keep cool” and use libraries and recreation centers for cooling. But Detroit only provides enough cooling center capacity to help a tiny fraction of the population.

“This is an issue that we are all going to face together,” Richards said. “I would like to see the city address it and take it on as such.”

Heatwaves could overwhelm hospitals, imperil water systems

 The recent heatwave research shows a concurrent heatwave and blackout could overwhelm emergency departments, increasing the risk of death in Atlanta and Phoenix. A lack of emergency department data for Detroit made specific projections difficult. Still, Stone said the risk of hospitals being unable to handle a heat emergency in Detroit is likely substantial.

“We find that the healthcare system gets overwhelmed,” said Stone. “And when that happens, actually, that estimate of mortality of 220 in Detroit is probably way too low, because that assumes a functioning healthcare system.”

Researchers found that in Atlanta, around 15,000 residents might visit the emergency room during a combined heatwave and blackout, with the number rising to 200,000, or 40% of the city’s population, by the end of the century. The numbers for Phoenix were far higher, and Stone said the mortality there was “off the charts.”

However, the researchers found Detroit would likely suffer more fatalities than either Atlanta or Phoenix during a heatwave when power remained on, in part because of limited access to air conditioning. Detroit also has a slightly larger percentage of residents over 65 than the two other cities and a higher poverty rate, which corresponds to increased heat-related mortality.  

Stone and his co-authors drew attention to the lack of cooling center capacity in Detroit and other cities, saying these would be able to accommodate only 1-2% of the population. And certain groups may need special attention from the city and community groups.

“We’ve got to make sure everyone has access to cooling, particularly elderly people,” Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, told Planet Detroit, adding that the risk of heat-associated heart problems increases after age 40. Children and those with health conditions like respiratory problems, heart disease, and diabetes are also at greater risk.

Overpeck previously told Planet Detroit that southeast Michigan is somewhat protected from the heat domes that have hit parts of the country this summer by its northern latitude and the heat-disrupting moisture provided by the Great Lakes.

However, he cautioned these heat domes, which can last for weeks, will creep north as the climate crisis accelerates. Southeast Michigan also experienced fast-moving storms known as derechos last month, knocking out power to 160,000 residents in southeast Michigan during a small heatwave. These storms often form above heat domes, potentially cutting power during hot periods.

This outage led to problems at Ann Arbor’s water treatment plant, where some pumps lost power, and water use restrictions were put in place.

Researchers said cities should be prepared to provide drinking water if water systems fail.

A hyperlocal response

In Detroit, ECN and other grassroots groups are building a network of resilience hubs – places people can go to stay cool and access other resources – along with the social networks needed to bring people to these spaces.  

Amanda Paige is working to fill in some gaps in the city’s heat planning by creating a cooling center that feels safe and inviting in Detroit’s McDougall Hunt neighborhood.

Amanda Paige directs the Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation. Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.

“No one wants to…sit in some weird space, in uncomfortable folding chairs, with a bunch of strangers just to get some air conditioning,” said Paige. “That’s not anybody’s idea of a good time.”

Paige, director of programs for the Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation, believes the nonprofit, which supplies other resources like computers and games for children, is crucially positioned to assist in emergencies.

“People trust the grassroots neighborhood people who are there all the time,” she said. “Smaller resilience hubs can adapt to individual circumstances or hyperlocal circumstances.” 

These neighborhood hubs can help reach residents who may not have the transportation needed to get to city libraries and recreation centers.

Nearby, Tammara Howard is doing similar work with the Good Stock community development corporation, which, like Bailey Park, partners with the ECN to share resources.

Tammarra Howard runs a small resilience hub on Detroit’s east side. Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas,

Howard runs a small resilience hub in a trailer with air conditioning, a refrigerator to help store medication during blackouts, and a gas generator to supply backup power. Good Stock’s space can only accommodate 15 people, although Howard says she can get transportation to take residents to ECN’s larger resilience hub further east. 

She’s also begun giving out solar-powered yard lights that residents can use indoors during outages, as well as insulated bags to keep food cold, and she’s soliciting suggestions for items to include in more comprehensive emergency preparedness kits.

Stone’s work uncovered several high-impact strategies for increasing heat resilience across all the cities his team studied. These include improving electrical grids, installing “cool roofs” that use special tiles, membranes, or other materials to reflect sunlight, and planting trees. The report found that cool roofs alone could lessen heat-related mortality by 37% and street trees by 20%.

Trees can be a powerful tool for reducing urban heat islands by shading hard surfaces that radiate heat and through evapotranspiration, where moisture from tree leaves cools the surrounding air. However, Stone’s estimate presupposes at least a 50% tree canopy cover when Detroit currently has around 24%. The tree-planting nonprofit American Forests is working with the city and the Greening of Detroit to increase tree cover, aiming to plant 75,000 trees by 2027.

So far, more than 6500 trees have gone into the ground. But a massive investment in planting and community outreach would be needed to approach 50% canopy coverage – if that’s even an achievable target in Detroit, where residents have complained of poorly managed and dangerous trees for years.

Planet Detroit previously reported that it would take 200,000 trees to get to 30% canopy cover, which means reaching 50% could require around 800,000, far beyond any efforts currently being considered. 

Jenni Shockling, a senior manager with American Forests, told Planet Detroit the group wants to plant trees in especially hot areas that lack shade, as they have done around Kemeny Park in Detroit’s 48217 zip code. They are also conducting a study on targeting parking lots and commercial corridors. US Forest Service research has shown that hot parking lots can increase temperatures up to a quarter mile away.

Galarza said the city is seeking funds to expand the tree planting program, including a $44 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.

Whatever plans or strategies Detroit adopts, Stone says the city must have a good plan for extreme heat because its residents are so vulnerable. However, he added that there aren’t a lot of well-developed models in other cities to draw from.

“Even if that plan is to park a bunch of buses and let them idle and run AC, that’s a plan,” he said. “They don’t have to be particularly fancy or expensive techniques.”

Both Howard and Paige say the city could do more to assist their organizations with resources like generators and that there’s a need for more of these spaces across the city, especially on the west side of Detroit. Howard said there should be a master plan for dealing with heat waves.

“We’ve got to start that conversation with the city and different organizations,” she said. “What if a heatwave comes? What are we going to do?”


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