TOM URBANIAK: Cape Breton Regional Municipality not ready for searing heat

From July 22 to 25, it was extremely hot in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. With the Humidex it was like close to 40 degrees.

The nights remained hot and humid. There was not much wind. The scorching sun made the paved parking lots and our many treeless streets unbearable.

Severe and prolonged heat waves were previously rare here. But our changing climate is changing our lives. We can expect dangerously hot days – or weeks – almost every year.

We are not ready.

And we are vulnerable. Demographically, we have an older population. A high proportion of our residents live in poverty, including many very young children, who are also at increased risk. Most of our residents live in urban neighborhoods that were never designed with coolness or shade in mind. We have relatively few public amenities. Most homes are not air conditioned.

BEST ANSWER NEEDED

On July 22, the CBRM posted a note on its Facebook page, reprinting Environment Canada’s heat warning. A citizen responded to the message by asking, “Will there be cooling centers for those who may not be able to afford air conditioning or the homeless?

The municipality responded to this question as follows: “The Sydney homeless shelter on Townsend St. is air-conditioned and, if needed, can expand into its extreme weather center to accommodate more people who need help. The Ally Center is located in a new, fully air-conditioned location and offers support for its clients, including cool space and travel assistance. Their opening hours are as follows: weekdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Weekends from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

We need to do more in the future.

Even some of our public buildings, including some of our libraries, are not air-conditioned. And they are closed on Sundays (Sunday was the worst day of the last heat wave).

Meanwhile, cooling systems at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital faltered last month for days in a row, creating extreme discomfort for people who were already in a weak state.

The conditions for anyone living in a multi-unit building, especially above ground level, can be particularly dangerous. These people wouldn’t immediately think of going to the homeless shelter or the Ally Center. Additionally, the CBRM did not suggest any options outside of Sydney.

HARD LESSON

British Columbia learned the hard way. I’m not just talking about the interior of the province. Regions along the coast that were unaccustomed to dangerous heat suddenly found themselves in a major emergency.

On June 7 of this year, British Columbia’s Extreme Heat Death Review Committee reported to that province’s Chief Coroner. The panel identified 619 heat-related deaths during the worst time of last year – June 25 to July 1, 2021.

The majority of those who died lived alone. Almost all deaths occurred in indoor spaces (not outdoors). Unsurprisingly, the panel wrote: “Most [of the deceased persons] did not have access to cooler buildings or air-conditioned spaces. Many were older adults who had chronic health conditions.

Interestingly, the panel found that many people who ended up dying had actually communicated to someone that they were not feeling well. But there was not enough support and infrastructure.

SUGGESTIONS TO CONSIDER

For the next heat wave in the CBRM, we need organized cooling centers. Private businesses and air-conditioned nonprofit spaces can help by setting up small “oasis” rest areas indoors – with chairs and water handy (this could be a good service, not just for extreme heat).

Let’s check the elderly who live alone. As a region, let us develop a system to ensure that no one escapes us and that we know how to detect the warning signs of heat-related illnesses.

In the future, we must improve urban design. We need more shade and more trees. Large-area areas and commercial and industrial areas should be designed with heat deflecting roofs.

Leisure options should follow climate change. Most young people in urban CBRM neighborhoods are not within walking distance of a public swimming pool, beach, or wading pool.

And let’s press the province to ensure that all group homes and long-term care homes are air-conditioned. This was raised in the legislature on July 26, but without a specific timetable.

No one should die in Cape Breton from the oppressive heat. Our laid-back approach to problem solving could prove fatal.

Mr. Tom Urbaniak is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Tompkins Institute at Cape Breton University. His column appears twice a month in the Cape Breton Post.