Cooling our shelters and neighborhoods to tackle extreme heat in Miami-Dade County
By Nancy Dahlberg
In South Florida, we know heat. Yet the rapidly rising temperatures risk the health of the local economy — and our lives.
“It’s a silent killer. It’s been something that hasn’t been talked about as much, but it’s the leading cause of death for high school athletes. And it’s the leading weather-related killer across the nation: more than floods, hurricanes, and storm surge, more than forest fires and tornadoes,” explains Jane Gilbert, Miami-Dade County’s first Chief Heat Officer.
In June of 2021, Gilbert took on the newly created position, supported by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), to improve coordination and accelerate action to address the increasing health and economic risks associated with extreme heat. A report released in August by the national nonprofit climate research group First Street Foundation underscored the urgency of taking action: Miami-Dade could see the sharpest increase in the nation of dangerously hot days over the next 30 years. The findings mirror previous studies projecting extreme heat in South Florida, including Miami-Dade’s heat vulnerability report.
Opportunity Miami spoke with Gilbert about the societal, environmental, and economic impacts of rising heat in our region and what’s on the roadmap to address the risks. Here are excerpts of the conversation, edited for brevity.
You are more than a year into your new role. How has it evolved?
When community-based organizations went out and engaged in lower-income communities through surveys and focus groups about what their top concerns were related to climate change, extreme heat was the number one concern. My position was created to respond to that.
We did a lot of public education and outreach efforts. We’re finalizing an action plan that has been developed by putting together this 15-member committee. We’ve had municipalities, the National Weather Service, the Florida Department of Health, nonprofit groups, residents with lived experience, and the private sector all involved and contributing towards the plan. We engaged over 300 stakeholders in the process and then also did a couple of different vulnerability assessments. We had to understand the problem.
We did two studies, one looking at excess heat-related deaths here in Miami-Dade and at what temperatures those happen. We found that we’re having an estimate of 15 times more deaths than are actually recorded related to heat. And the majority of those deaths are happening at thresholds lower than when the National Weather Service issues an official heat advisory. The other study looked at zip codes where the heat-related emergency hospitalizations occurred, and the strongest correlation was where there was high levels of poverty.
Tell us about your plans moving forward.
Basically, there’s three goal areas we need to make movement on. We need to cool our neighborhoods, particularly those with the highest heat. Our partners at FIU and the University of Miami and their Shading Dade citizen science initiative are finding that [lower income] neighborhoods can have temperatures 10 to 15 degrees higher than what the National Weather Service is reporting and not getting a heat advisory for it. That’s something we’re working on.
We have great tree giveaways and tree grant programs already in place at the county. We’ve had a goal of going from an average tree canopy of 20% to 30%, but we missed our deadlines for reaching that goal in the past. [Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levina Cava] and the County Commission have charged me with leading the effort to come up with a plan to get us to that 30% — the last five years we’ve been flat at 20%. That’s in part because we had Hurricane Irma, the rapid development going on, and some state laws that are making it easier to remove trees without having to pull a permit. It makes it more challenging, but I think we can get there. There’s already been an increase of focus on tree planting efforts by Million Trees Miami and the adopt a tree program to really reach out to our neighborhoods that have the lowest tree canopies.
The second big bucket area is cooling our homes and shelters. One of the biggest economic burdens of extreme heat is the AC cost, and not everybody can afford it or to replace that broken wall unit, and it can be a life-or-death situation. The County has already expanded their budget for single-family weatherization programs, for retrofitting multifamily programs, and already requires this for all new housing. It has to be built to very high energy efficiency standards to keep those utility costs at bay. We’ll also be looking at other opportunities to make housing retrofits and support a more accessible system for homeowners and renters to access services that they need to keep their utility costs down.
We’re creating the plan and driving the train at the same time. We’ve already increased our weatherization funding for low-income housing and created new funds for retrofitting affordable housing multifamily rental properties. The county already provides utility assistance to 30,000 households a year through the Department of Energy program. But we will continue to be looking at how do we make these programs more accessible.
The third big bucket is to continue to inform and prepare our communities for responding to these inevitable threats of extreme heat. We will continue with the heat season campaign, but I really want to work on more trusted messengers, more buddy system building, more social capacity to make sure that people are looking out for each other in times of heightened heat.
What are the biggest challenges facing Miami-Dade in addressing the increasing heat?
One of them is the economic burdens that we’re facing. It’s in the billions of dollars that we’re seeing in terms of increased burden on utility costs and then lost work time, with outdoor workers as being one of our most vulnerable populations. And we have over 300,000 outdoor workers here in Miami-Dade. There was a report that just came out recently looking at the economic impact to lost work time, and estimates the current impact at $10 billion a year here in Miami-Dade County. By 2050, it’s expected to double to $20 billion. [Read the report.]
That’s a huge economic impact. How does your heat strategy address creating jobs or helping our region economically?
Part of our tree plan is going to be around how do we create a workforce training and job creation opportunity out of that. Same with the housing retrofit plans. Those are local jobs and local job training opportunities. We are looking at, with the climate tech partners, how do we lead on the innovation in terms of building materials [such as cool roofs and cool pavements] and testing those different designs right away in our buildings. I think this is another area that we have an opportunity.
How does all this fit in with the county’s sustainability initiatives?
For instance, the climate action strategy has goals around retrofitting buildings, it has goals around tree canopy. Ours takes it another step in how we are going to implement that. We’re working together with the carbon mitigation on those actions. And with sea level rise and areas that are flood-vulnerable, green infrastructure can help on so many fronts. It can help with stormwater absorption and water quality out to the bay. Trees absorb carbon and relieve us from heat in addition to property value appreciation, habitat protection, and all the other good things that a tree canopy provides — don’t forget mental health!
What are the major trends or data points that you most keep an eye on with regards to rising heat and addressing these challenges?
We look at how many days over certain heat indexes. We look at average daily temperatures as well as the average daily heat index because it’s not just extreme temperatures that we get but it’s whether people are getting relief at night. That’s important. We look at how is the average daily heat index shifting over time. And there was a recently released national climate risk assessment on extreme heat. It came out and it showed that Miami-Dade County is going to have the highest increase in days a year with a heat index of 100 or more than any other county in the United States. 41 more days — from 50 to 91 days — by mid century. [Read the report]
Since you’ve been appointed, a number of other cities around the world have followed suit. How has that changed the way you work?
I was the first heat officer and now there’s eight of us in just over a year. I was in DC [in September] with six of the other heat officers from around the world to exchange notes and learn together. So we do that — we exchange best practices and learn from each other — and our mayors talk to each other around national and international policies that they need to be thinking about, as well. [Read the Arsht-Rock Heat Action Platform].
In your view, what does the future of the Miami area look like in 2040 in terms of what you oversee?
Broadly, climate change and urban development patterns, and even the pandemic are catalyzing us to rethink how we live, move, and play in a city. We need to think about shifts in land use and building density and mobility that adapt to all these changes. In other words, what my vision would be is more density with affordability at various levels of income around transit corridors so that people can move using more public transit or walking and biking along cool corridors. They know they can walk down a shaded street with access to drinking water. There would be policies in place to protect the workers, and homes would keep them cool the most efficient way possible because when we have inefficient AC or heating, we are heating our outdoors.
Internal combustion cars are also contributing to the urban heat island. It’s all integrated. We need a clean energy economy. We need that higher density along higher ground and transit corridors not just for sea level rise, not just for reducing carbon, but also for urban heat. We have to design it well and make it affordable so workers at all income levels can afford to live here.
Previously, Gilbert served as the City of Miami’s Chief Resilience Officer and as a consultant, she managed The Miami Foundation’s civic leadership agenda on sea level rise, coordinating the unified application to 100 Resilient Cities. She has over 30 years of experience in strategic planning, public-private partnerships, and social venture design and implementation in climate mitigation and adaptation, urban resilience, education, community development, and the arts.