“At what temperature are cooling centers required to be opened?” A homeless woman from the District asks one of my colleagues early Tuesday morning, with temperatures forecast to be near the century mark. A quick Google search and I was at the D.C. government’s website: It says in extreme heat, avoid encountering heat stroke, dehydration, and other medical problems associated with extreme temperatures. Cooling centers will be open at four government buildings… If temperatures hit or exceed 95F, cooling centers and select (8) homeless shelters will be available from noon until 6pm. Got it, easy enough!
Question answered? Not in the District. The answer turns out to be more complicated. Let’s check the hotline listed on DC.gov “311 – The District’s Service Request Center”. It says, cooling centers aren’t open today. However, when I call the D.C. Emergency Management number, also provided on the DC.gov website, I’m told that cooling centers no longer exist, as of last month. Another colleague calls Tommy Wells’ office, at the D.C. City Council, to find out what’s what. No specific answer, but a commitment to contact the Committee on Human Services. They’re the ones who said that cooling centers do in fact exist, listing four government buildings as de facto centers.
With too much conflicting information, I call back the D.C. Emergency Management number and speak to an assistant to the Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He says cooling centers no longer exist, but that people can go into public buildings and use the water fountains. The director called a little later with a “clarifying” follow up call. She explained that the Office on Aging, D.C. public libraries, and the Department on Parks and Recreation have teamed up to provide relief from the heat. But unfortunately, cooling centers no longer exist and water stations, in public building marked as cooling centers, were closed. Too many government employees were taking all the bottled water. Seriously? Seriously!
During the past few hours, The District removed incorrect information about the four government buildings that were not cooling centers – good start. But, the website still provides incorrect information: the description of heat relief services is wrong, select homeless shelters, listed as emergency centers, are closed or do not provide heat relief. This remains a totally unacceptable level of response. This summer has not even begun and we’re already facing dangerous heat conditions. Let’s not let the warning, provided by this recent experience, go unheeded and hope that this is not a sign of things to come.
To see the D.C. Government page on extreme heat, visit www.dcema.dc.gov, and click on “Extreme Heat” on the left-hand sidebar.
Laura Epstein, Staff