City Prepares for Extreme Heat by Opening Cooling Shelters, Finally Getting Around to Fixing Water Fountains

by Carolyn Bick

This weekend and into early next week, the entire Pacific Northwest will see a record-breaking heatwave roll into town. For those who have air conditioning, the next few days will likely be spent inside and away from the windows. It will likely be an inconvenience, at best. But for those who don’t have air conditioning or easy access to it — specifically, those experiencing homelessness and low-income families — the heatwave, with temperatures reaching into the low 100s, could prove fatal.

The City of Seattle will be taking various measures in an effort to prevent and mitigate fatalities and medical emergencies, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a press conference on June 24. This includes opening 30 emergency cooling shelters in different places around the city, including senior centers, community centers, and libraries. Beaches, pools, spray parks, and wading pools will also be open during the hottest parts of the day and into the evening. The City will also be working with the different companies in the Pacific Place mall to provide promotional incentives for people to visit the air-conditioned malls.

While Durkan and other officials went into detail about the measures the City will be taking, neither Durkan nor any other officials addressed the fact that just 20% of the City’s water fountains are in operation. However, a detailed press release about the City’s plans for the upcoming heatwave that Durkan’s office sent out after the press conference said that Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) and crews from the Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) “have been working to quickly repair and bring online fountains that were either damaged or were shut-off to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

“Over the coming days, the City anticipates the daily restoration of dozens of drinking fountains, providing access to more drinking water during this high heat event, in neighborhoods across the city,” the press release reads. The press release gives no indication as to when these fountains will be back online, but the June 23 SPR tweet about the matter linked above estimated that “our goal is to have all working drinking fountains on by mid July.”

It was immediately unclear why the City did not deem it necessary to turn on the fountains before this extreme heat event, given that it is midsummer and the City has reached acceptable vaccination levels, but the Emerald reached out to the Office of the Mayor to ask about this.

The Office of the Mayor forwarded the Emerald‘s question to the Parks and Recreation Department and Parks and Recreation Public Information Officer Rachel Schulkin emailed the Emerald on June 25.

“Seattle Parks and Recreation has been in conversation with [King County] Public Health since March about reopening drinking fountains at the right time and in the right way that would not further spread COVID-19,” Schulkin explained in the email. “Those conversations led us to begin reopening drinking fountains starting in June, with a plan to be complete by mid-July.

“Unfortunately June is also the timing that we needed to ready aquatic assets (sprayparks, pools, wading pools),” Schulkin continued. “Typically these two bodies of work do not overlap. Because of the extreme heat SPR has authorized overtime for our plumbing staff to turn on drinking fountains more rapidly. Earlier this week 20% were turned on and as of yesterday evening 50% are now on.”

Seattle Human Services Department’s interim director Helen Howell said in the press conference that Fisher Pavilion will be open as a 24-hour cooling shelter for people experiencing homelessness. The Salvation Army will be operating the shelter, which will have the capacity to house up to 73 people. Operation Sack Lunch will provide those who stay there with meals. The shelter will close on Tuesday morning.

Howell also said that the City’s homelessness outreach team — known as the HOPE Team — in partnership with different outreach providers “will be conducting welfare checks, handing out water and basic needs supplies, and providing other supports, including transportation to cooling centers and the cooling shelter [at Fisher Pavilion].”

SPR Recreation Division Dir. Justin Cutler said that the City will be operating three cooling centers out of three different community centers: Northgate, Rainier Beach, and the Chinatown-International District (CID). Rainier Beach Community Center will be open Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. The CID Community Center will be open Sunday and Monday from 2 p.m. to8 p.m. The Northgate Community Center will be open Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The City’s libraries will also be open during the heatwave. Each Seattle Public Library (SPL) branch has different hours of operation, which can be found here or by calling 206-386-4636. For South Seattle readers who may need to utilize a library to stay cool, the Rainier Beach branch is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, and 12 p.m. – 6 p.m. Sundays. The Beacon Hill branch is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday . The South Park branch is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.  The CID branch will not reopen until Sunday, June 27, and will be open after that from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays and from 12 p.m to 6 p.m. Sundays. All branches will require people to wear masks.

During the press conference, the Emerald also asked whether the City had considered working with hotels in the downtown area to provide people experiencing homelessness and low income families with no access to air conditioning a cool place to stay overnight. Durkan said that “we have been working with hotels throughout the pandemic and coming out of the pandemic. What has really been the limiting factor there is the service providers to assist and many of the people experiencing homelessness — we can’t just open the hotel rooms, we need providers.

“The emergency shelter that we are opening is what we were able to do most quickly,” Durkan said, referring to Fisher Pavilion. “In the coming days and weeks, we’re going to be opening as much shelter as possible.”

The Emerald would like to point out to readers that Erica Barnett of PubliCola broke the news in February of this year that the City of Seattle declined the Biden administration’s offer to fully fund the cost of sheltering people experiencing homelessness in hotels (though the City did open two hotel-based shelters in March, independent of this FEMA reimbursement plan). One of the issues the City said prevented it from seeking the reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) was the one Durkan iterated today: the “limiting factor” of service providers who provide services such as mental health care.

However, Barnett’s article reads, “the issues the city raises are challenging, but not insurmountable — if they were, then other cities would not have managed to surmount them.” Given Durkan’s answer, which suggested both a time limit factor and this apparently surmountable service provider factor, it is unclear whether the City will work with hotels to house people in future extreme weather scenarios. 

The Emerald’s own Marti McKenna has also created a fundraiser to provide people experiencing homelessness with pallets of water. Readers who are interested in donating may do so on the FreeFunder page set up for this. Those who are interested in helping distribute water — and/or those in need of water — should message McKenna on Twitter.

The Emerald would like to ask readers to be extremely careful this weekend, particularly since it is Pride Weekend, when many will be out and about in the sun. Temperatures are expected to reach into the low 100s over the weekend, and the nights will likely only cool down to the high 70s and low 80s at most. The heat is expected to be so severe that Seattle may reach up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, which will break the previous 2009 record of 103 degrees

Heat stroke and heat exhaustion can be fatal. Symptoms of heat stroke — the deadlier of the two — include dizziness, vomiting; nausea; headache; red, hot, dry skin; cramping or muscle weakness; rapid heartbeat and rapid or shallow breathing; seizures; behavioral changes (staggering, confusion, disorientation); and unconsciousness. Comparatively milder symptoms can be observed in someone with heat exhaustion

If you or someone you’re with is suffering from any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Do not use ice for people who are more vulnerable to death from heat stroke, as doing so can cause shock and/or death. This includes older people or children, people with chronic illness, or people who have suffered heat stroke from exercise.

Carolyn Bick is a local journalist and photographer. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.

📸 Featured Image: Kids cooling off at the spray park in Jefferson Park. With temperatures expected to climb above 100 degrees this weekend, the City is taking steps to quickly open lifeguarded beaches, pools, and spray parks, as well as cooling centers for those without shelter. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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