“The windows are painted shut,” Scott said. “We come outside at night to sleep because it’s too hot inside.”
“It’s just so hot” Scott said as she wiped sweat from her brow.
While the racist practice was banned in the late 1960s, its effect is still apparent.
Extreme heat threatens the health and well-being of underserved communities today, while predominantly White neighborhoods reap the cooler benefits of decades of investment.
“I went to get groceries the other day and I thought I was going to pass out.” Scott told CNN. She said she suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes, which are underlying health conditions made worse by excessive heat.
Keeping the lights on is hard enough financially for Scott, and so many other disadvantaged community members, let alone having access to reliable air conditioning.
Confronting environmental racism
“As we think about global challenges like climate change, this is one of the issues that disproportionately impacts black and other communities of color,” Jelks said. “So, it’s very important that we are at the table.”
Jelks and Guanyu Huang, an assistant professor of environmental and health sciences at Spelman College and the local leader of Atlanta’s heat mapping campaign, are both very passionate about this work. They are hopeful that the data will result in changes in the city in which they both reside.
“So, this data will actually help people in Atlanta, especially in the downtown area or intercity area, the people who are actually suffering from heat and also don’t have access to an AC system,” Huang said.
Other cities that have been part of the NOAA heat-mapping campaign have taken the results and made changes, such as planting more trees or adding more parks to areas that are suffering from the worst heat.
The inequities in green space is striking as you traverse Atlanta. Driving through Scott’s neighborhood there are fewer and smaller parks than nearby neighborhoods that are predominantly White, and natural shade from trees is also lacking.
This study is personal
Brionna Findley, a former Atlanta resident and a volunteer for the urban heat island campaign, has experience with the inequity. She has witnessed firsthand her community’s lack of access to air conditioning and shaded green space.
Findley says she and her family endured countless heat waves in Atlanta when they were there. And it seems to only be getting hotter.
“When I was taking a temperature reading for that specific day, we had higher temperatures when it came to low-tree-cover areas, with more infrastructure and more asphalt on the road,” Findley said. “It was extremely hot, you can feel it. It wasn’t something that was hidden. Like, you felt the temperatures.”
This campaign is personal for Findley after her own grandmother experienced signs of heat stroke.
“It was like one of the hottest days in Georgia. And we went out and we were out walking around the shopping mall center, and we had to go home because you could see, like one side of her face was going down,” Findley explained. “She was having slurred speech. That was very, it was very hard to see that. I was very scared.”
“She’s OK. But we definitely don’t let her go outside that much, especially when it’s hot out there,” Findley said. “Like, Grandma, you need to stay inside today and do some inside activities.”
It could get worse
In Atlanta, the city now averages 11 more 90-degree, or hotter, days in the summer, compared to the old 30-year average. Salt Lake City averages 10 more days at 90 degrees or above, and Houston gained nine days.
“If we combine all the data from all the cities together, it will be helpful for all levels of government from state level, federal level to create some climate resilience plan for the entire country. So, that’s what we can do through here.” Huang said. “We can use it to do research, to teach your climate change classes, to tell the people that climate change is actually right there, it’s just next to our neighborhood.”
Potential solutions for a better future
“I used to live in New York, and they had cooling centers where people that was homeless could come in in the daytime to keep from being out in the heat, drink water, maybe get a sandwich and a snack. And I ain’t never seen that down here [in Atlanta],” Scott said. “I think they [city planners] should plant trees in hot areas, especially around bus stops. I think they need to open up some kind of center, you know, to help keep people cool.”
Covid-19 has also made unofficial cooling centers, like libraries or malls, harder to access, while they may have been more available to the general public before the pandemic. In some cases, Scott has found these locations are simply closed.
Jelks said that these communities need investments and solutions in a way that doesn’t end up displacing them.
“We can add new trees, but we’ve got to make sure that there are also policy supports to keep the people who are currently suffering from the lack of access to these amenities,” Jelks said. “We want to keep them in place and make sure that they are not displaced by gentrification and moved out of their communities.”
CNN Health’s Jen Christensen contributed to this article.