The last day of summer is a few weeks away, and with it, the promise of relief from hot temperatures.
While El Paso avoided much of the scorching heat that broke records across Texas, the city still had its share of triple-digit days, which pose health threats to children, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. People with inconsistent access to air conditioning and people who are homeless are also in danger during those extreme hot days.
Providing cooling centers, or public spaces to escape the heat and cool down, is one protection for vulnerable residents during heat waves recommended by health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The city of El Paso’s standard for extending cooling center hours requires temperatures to be hotter for longer periods of time than other Texas and Southwest U.S. cities, according to a review of cooling center policies for Houston and San Antonio, as well as Las Cruces and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
El Paso’s situation is unique, El Paso Fire Department spokesperson Enrique Aguilar said when asked why the city’s cooling center policies differ from others.
“We adapt over here to what we’re seeing here,” Aguilar said. “Of course we can compare notes with some other places that are similar to us, but there’s always going to be differences when we’re talking about different populations, different services.”
A higher standard for heat
El Paso designates about 30 city-run facilities as cooling centers, which include recreation centers, senior centers, libraries and City Hall.
Under normal operating hours, none of these facilities are open past 9 p.m. on weekdays, and all have limited Saturday hours. No public buildings are open Sundays.
City officials initially said in a phone interview and email exchange that the Office of Emergency Management “activates” or extends hours for El Paso’s cooling centers when temperatures are forecast above 105 degrees for seven to 10 consecutive days. That threshold was also stated in social media posts and in a press release issued by the city-county Office of Emergency Management.
Other cities enact action at much lower thresholds.
Las Cruces opens cooling centers at forecasts of 100 degrees or higher for three days.
Houston and San Antonio have higher humidity than El Paso, which is more dangerous at lower temperatures because it defeats the body’s cooling system of sweating. Those cities often use a heat index, which is a measure of how the heat and humidity feel to the body, to trigger emergency action.
Houston acts when temperatures are forecast at 103 degrees for two consecutive days, or when the heat index reaches 108 for two days. San Antonio opens overnight shelters and extends cooling center hours when temperatures hit 105 degrees, or for a heat index of 113.
Albuquerque partners with nonprofit organizations and churches to open dedicated cooling centers during the summer months, in addition to public facilities. Current shelter hours are not tied to or extended based on temperatures, but that may change in the future, said city spokesperson Katie Simon.
Unlike Houston, Albuquerque and San Antonio, El Paso does not offer free public transportation to its cooling centers. There are no plans to do so at this time, city officials said.
‘Rule of thumb’
Jorge Rodriguez, coordinator for the Office of Emergency Management, said in a statement following a phone interview that the city “activates” its cooling centers when temperatures of 103 degrees or higher are forecasted for 72 hours — not the minimum seven days officials stated earlier. Rodriguez did not provide any written policies regarding cooling center activation, and instead described the 72-hour window as “a general rule of thumb directive to staff.” It’s unclear who gave that directive.
City officials also declined to provide the days since May 1 in which cooling center hours were extended beyond the sites’ normal hours of operation.
A review of city and Office of Emergency Management social media posts indicates that the city last activated its cooling centers during a string of triple-digit days starting on June 8.
The centers’ hours were not extended from July 18-21, when daily highs ranged from 104 to 108 degrees — part of a nine-day streak of triple-digit temperatures, according to National Weather Service data.
The El Paso National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for July 19-21 asking people to stay indoors or cool down after being outside. These advisories are based on temperature readings in the hottest part of the day, and the coolest portion of the night.
“Our criteria is loosely based on an afternoon high temperature of 105 or higher, and an overnight low temperature that stays 75 or higher,” said Warning Coordination Meteorologist Jason Laney. “The concept there is that you don’t get enough relief overnight before the heat comes back the next day.”
That heat advisory threshold is meant to be a guideline for public officials to use when considering opening cooling centers, Laney said.
“I don’t make those decisions for them. We give them the information to make their own decisions,” Laney said. “If the temperature is going to be 104 versus 105, (the National Weather Service) is not going to have any advisory, but anybody that is exposed to that kind of heat is probably still going to have the same kind of health issues.”
Rodriguez said cooling center hours were not extended during this period since it fell during the workweek when city facilities were open to the public, and because the temperature dropped to 101 degrees on July 22.
“Had this heat wave occurred over the weekend where city facilities were not open, we would have activated the cooling centers,” Rodriguez said.
Earlier than usual or unexpected heatwaves pose bigger risks to people’s health, said Evan Mallen, a researcher on environmental impacts to health at the CDC. It takes 10 days for our bodies to become acclimated or “used to” temperatures around us, he said.
Internal temperatures at 103 degrees or above are the threshold for danger from heat stroke.
City officials said the Department of Public Health conducts annual educational campaigns on heat preparedness, with a particular focus on “target vulnerable populations including elderly, children, outdoor workers, pregnant women and homeless.”
Even though heat deaths and injuries are preventable, heat kills an average of 702 people annually across the United States, according to the CDC — more people than any other extreme weather event, including hurricanes and tornadoes. This number is considered an underestimate because deaths are chronically underreported, Mallen said.
Since 2014, the county’s Office of the Medical Examiner recorded 27 heat-related deaths, including one death this year as of July 18, according to documents obtained via an open records request.
The Office of Emergency Management has recorded 140 calls to 911 regarding heat emergencies so far this year. Six of those were noted for fainting, and one was a bicycle accident after a cyclist overheated. The vast majority were for dehydration and only required an IV, but a few required hospital transport, fire department spokesperson Aguilar said.
This was an increase from 2021, when first responders received 122 heat-related emergency calls, but below 2020 — which had the hottest July in 130 years — when they had 160 calls.
Beyond 911 calls, heat stress or heat stroke hospitalizations are not tracked by the El Paso Department of Public Health, according to city spokesperson Laura Cruz Acosta.
Looking ahead on heat plans
El Paso is one of the fastest warming cities in the United States, as its average annual temperature warmed 5 degrees over the last 50 years, according to nonprofit Climate Central, which analyzed the city’s national climate data.
The Office of Emergency Management revises regional responses to key hazards every five years, and meets annually to review them. Meetings reviewing those plans are not open to the public, Aguilar said, since they contain law enforcement tactics.
City officials did not provide a copy of the Hazard Mitigation Plan, and El Paso Matters has submitted an open records request for it.
Fernando Berjano, the city’s sustainability coordinator, said the city aims to incorporate future efforts to cool down the city, such as increasing the shade canopy and weatherizing houses through federal funds, as part of an unreleased climate framework, which is separate from the Hazard Mitigation Plan. That framework is being developed by the Climate Crisis Advisory Committee, a coalition of environmental groups, nonprofits, local officials and utilities that are working to develop plans and policies to address climate change, which includes the increased intensity and frequency of extreme heat.
It’s unknown if the committee’s plan will address cooling centers, Berjano said.
The city anticipates seeing the framework sometime next year.
Mallen, with the CDC, said cities have to work on reducing heat risk through promoting protective behaviors through educational campaigns, offering spaces to cool off in, or even cultural shifts, such as moving construction work or sports practice out of the heat of the day.
Those shorter-term efforts must be combined with addressing housing and building infrastructure and increasing shade cover to make cities cooler on a wider scale, among other initiatives.
“There is a major issue with risk perception,” Mallen said. “There tends to be an underappreciation of how dangerous heat can be.”