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Austin's chief resiliency officer on the 'grim but hopeful' future of combatting extreme heat

A person wearing a mask and carrying a plastic bag walks on the sidewalk
Patricia Lim
Austin is set to break a record for the most triple-digit-temperature days in a row.

There are disasters that swoop in and hit a place fast and hard. Like the recent tragic wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Then there are disasters that creep in and take hold. Like a heat wave.

The City of Austin's Office of Resilience was set up to deal with both — what the city calls "shocks and stresses." And as Laura Patiño will tell you, she believes the city can address one or more of those problems without exacerbating others.

As we sweat through another summer with a record number of triple-digit days, Patiño says the city is preparing for things to get worse. She says by the middle of this century, Austin will experience a 50% increase in the number of days hotter than 100 degrees Fahrenheit each year.

Patiño said she expects the city to release a heat resilience playbook this fall. She says that document will focus on "the key initiatives that we need to continue doing, uplift, or start in order to mitigate heat for years to come."

Patiño spoke with KUT at Austin City Hall earlier this summer about how the city feels the heat and how it tries to cool things down.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On how extreme heat impacts the City of Austin

I would qualify [the impacts] in three different categories. The first one is impacts to individuals and their health; the impacts to infrastructure; and really the impacts to our community ties.

Heat is the most detrimental climate disaster that has led to more deaths than any other climate disaster. More people die of heat than they do of floods, than they do of cold weather, than they do of wildfire smoke. We do have the estimates of the number of heat-related illnesses that come into the Austin hospitals, and that number is continuously increasing.

The issue is that number is always undercounted because heat has impacts to health that may not necessarily be evident. For example, someone might go to the hospital and be experiencing a heart attack, and there is no way of directly linking it to a heat-related event. That is why we suspect that the numbers of heat-related illnesses that we see in the region are much higher than what is being reported.

We know that our infrastructure has impacts because of extreme prolonged exposure to heat, and we know that it impacts our roads; it impacts our buildings; it impacts our natural infrastructure as well — our green spaces, our trees, our waterways.

For community, what that means is that if it's hotter outside, people have a tendency to want to stay inside in their homes, and that creates a further division within our social connectivity between neighbors. So right now, we're looking at ways in which we can create spaces for communities to come together, gather and have access to cool spaces.

Many folks don't have access to air conditioning. And if they do have access to air conditioning, we're seeing the electricity bills going way up high because of the usage. When you start taking into consideration all of the cascading impacts and what climate change does in terms of the economic impact to the individual, then we also need to ensure that we are preparing individuals so that they can afford to pay for a higher electricity bill in order to stay in their homes.

On what part of Austin is hit hardest by extreme heat

In 2020, the City of Austin received a grant from NOAA and worked with the the University of Texas and Go Austin/Vamos Austin, which is a nonprofit organization that works on the East Side, to really map out the hottest areas of Austin. That included having residents of Austin going out with a temperature gauge and a thermometer and a gauge to measure humidity and place it in their car and drive around on the hottest day of the year, which is typically Aug. 5.
They did that in the morning, midday, afternoon and in the evening, and that produced several maps of temperature and humidity that allowed us to understand where are the hotspots in Austin. To no surprise, the hot spots in Austin are all primarily where there is a majority of concrete and not enough tree canopy, and that is primarily concentrated on the East side.

On how the City of Austin addresses heat impacts on individuals, infrastructure and the community

In terms of the infrastructure piece, it's really about investing in our roads, implementing cool pavement measures. We are now piloting with the Department of Public Works where we coated a road to test the impacts of coating to mitigate heat.

But then there's also more simple solutions like planting more trees. We recently, as a city, submitted a grant application with partners and nonprofits for a multimillion-dollar project for tree-planting across the entire city, primarily focusing on the East Side.

We've lost a lot of our trees over the years, especially because of the winter storms. It's important not only to think about how do we reestablish the trees that were lost but also maintain and support the trees that have been damaged by these previous weather events.

Our Homeland Security Emergency and Management Department is really — with the support of Austin Public Health — pushing out information, creating awareness of what to do: how to recognize the signs of heat stress and heat stroke; how to stay hydrated; where to stay hydrated; how to stay cool; and so forth.

One of the things that we want to do is bring back that social connectivity and that social cohesion that we have lost in many neighborhoods. And we're trying to do that by establishing and working through the resilience hubs, which are facilities that are trusted by the community and that already serve as gathering spaces — whether they're recreational centers or libraries or any other facility that the community trusts.

And in case residents don't have access to a cool area or cool space nearby, they can access that facility during hours. “Cooling centers” is what we have shared them as to the public.

One of the really interesting projects that is also moving forward is with Cap Metro. It's about bus shelters and creating shade and cool structures at bus shelters. Cap Metro is looking at different innovative ways to provide shade and provide more of that cooling impact as folks wait to be able to access transit and public transportation.

On concerns that people will leave Austin or stop moving there because of the heat

Climate migration is a big topic right now. As we look around at what's happening globally, cities across the world are experiencing these record temperatures. It's not just Austin — not just Texas — stuck in heat domes or that are experiencing these record temperatures. One thing I do like to remind myself is that even though it is hotter than we've ever experienced here in Texas and in Austin, there are locations in the global South that are even experiencing hotter temperatures.

And so what does that mean for folks really migrating across the globe? It is complex. I do foresee that we are going to continue to grow and that if we plan things right, then we will be able to provide a quality of life for individuals. Ultimately that is what it's all about — the quality of life for individuals to feel safe, to be able to prosper and be able to thrive in this city.

On staying hopeful in the face of a grim climate situation

It is grim, but there's also hope. When we start looking at what solutions we're implementing and the impact that we're having, we can see a direct result that is positive. It's not just about bouncing back. It's not just about withstanding the event. It's about really bouncing forward and improving lives.

One of the key elements of resilience is that it's centered in equity and that there's not a resilient city where they don't center equity in all conversations because we are as strong as our most vulnerable. And so if we don't focus on our most vulnerable communities and uplift them and allow all communities to thrive, then we're not getting anywhere in terms of being able to be more resilient.

Disruptions allow for communities to come together. And we need to ensure that we harness that power as we rebuild and bounce forward to be able to adapt to whatever comes our way. It is an opportunity to really rebuild in the way that it is a more equitable city that is responsive to the needs of Austinites as we continue to grow.

On how the City of Austin plans to center equity in its resiliency plans

We have developed a set of equity guiding principles that really ground our work on putting people first. We have worked with, and continue to work with, our Community Advisory Committee, which are a group of over 40 different nonprofit organizations, community leaders and organizers and businesses that represent communities all over town, but primarily on the Eastern Crescent, because we want their voices to be heard. Part of those principles include putting people at the center; honoring voices and lived experiences; and really listening and taking a step back as a city.

We're in the process of creating a comprehensive resilience plan. While we do focus on the climate hazards, we also know that we can't focus on resilience if we don't tackle and we don't address racial equity and we don't increase affordability. And so those three pillars — racial equity, climate change and affordability — are the lens of what we're looking through for every project, plan, policy or process that is moving through the city. That is expected to be released in June of 2024.

Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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