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Miami area's chief heat officer discusses her first-of-its-kind job

CHERYL CORLEY, HOST:

Already this summer, many parts of the world have experienced debilitating, extreme heat. Triple-digit temperatures have led to wildfires, failing infrastructure and even death. This heat is being propelled by climate change. The dangers can't be overstated. Extreme heat is among the deadliest type of weather events, and it also affects other things like how well a power grid can function. All this has prompted some governments to hire chief heat officers. One of them is Jane Gilbert, chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County in Florida. Her job is to help the county prepare for and adjust to the effects of extreme heat. When we spoke, I asked her why the county created her position just over a year ago.

JANE GILBERT: In Miami, we know heat. We've had it forever. But it has gotten hotter. And in fact, we have almost double the number of days with a heat index of over 90 degrees from the 1960s. And we're seeing dramatic increases with days of heat index of 100 and 105 more going forward. So we need to plan for that. And the last couple of years, two years ago, a group of community-based organizations did a series of focus groups and surveys in our lower-income communities throughout the county, asking them what their top concerns were related to climate change. And even though we're known internationally for our vulnerability to sea level rise and hurricanes, heat was their No. 1 concern related to climate change. And that's really how my position was created. Could I have foreseen the level of interest in this issue area when I took on this position, globally? No, but we now have seven chief heat officers across the globe.

CORLEY: Well, you mentioned the comments you got from folks in lower-income communities and communities of color, more likely to live in areas where there isn't as much greenspace or shade or public infrastructure to help keep cool. So how do you address heat in a way that's equitable?

GILBERT: So we've done a comprehensive health vulnerability assessment, looking at where people are ending up in emergency rooms with hospitalizations and by zip code. And to your point, it's highly correlated with areas that have a high percentage of low-income households, high percentage of outdoor workers and families with young children. And so we've targeted our interventions in those areas in terms of our education and outreach, in terms of our disaster preparedness and in terms of our investments in tree canopy and cooling infrastructure. It absolutely needs to be prioritized to reach the people who are suffering.

CORLEY: Those are a lot of big issues for communities, cities, counties to address. And even globally, you mentioned that there are seven chief heat officers around the world now. What kind of conversations are you seven and others having now, you know, since this is all around the world?

GILBERT: So it's about how do we plan? What are your priorities? And sharing resources for getting the word out to people. We created - our mayor designated May 1 through October 31 as an official heat season, charging me with raising public awareness on the level that we already do for hurricane preparedness here. So we've done bus shelters and billboards in the zip codes with the highest heat-related illnesses in addition to radio and television spots in three languages, posters in three languages in all our public facilities. All of these social media posts, all of these have been shared with the other chief heat officers across the globe.

CORLEY: Well, I want to return you back to your community. What would you say are, you know, the biggest challenges facing the area when it comes to addressing heat? Is it a question of infrastructure like roads and other infrastructure, or is it political will? I mean, you've taken this kind of first step, creating, you know, chief heat officer and taking some action. But what's the biggest challenge?

GILBERT: We want to make sure people are aware of the increasing risks and take the actions necessary to protect themselves. That's why we created this heat season. And we particularly need to make sure that - our most exposed people are outdoor workers. We have over 300,000 outdoor workers here in Miami-Dade County and over five months out of the year with the heat index over 90 degrees. That's when outdoor workers need to start being provided time to take a break in a cooler spot and have access to potable water. So it's really critical that we make sure all our employers know and provide those kind of guidelines.

CORLEY: How do you do all of this work sustainably without further contributing to climate change?

GILBERT: We need solutions that are win-wins or triple wins. Energy efficiency in homes brings down our greenhouse gas emissions. That's the kind of investment that we need. We are installing bus shelters in our highest urban heat. We need to be able to promote public transit. We need to promote efficient housing and bring down our urban heat islands. All of those will actually address the root causes of climate change while we mitigate our heat.

CORLEY: One last thing before we let you go. What can happen now to make things better? And what can people do at home to help make things better?

GILBERT: So what can happen now is all of us take precautions to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our neighbors from the heat. And if that is thinking about when you're going to be outside and exposed, making sure you're hydrated and trying to use that air conditioning in the most efficient way possible by adding fans, by using it in targeted times of the day, making sure that your house is as sealed as possible to keep the cool air in and not out into the neighborhood, to reduce our use of fossil fuels in general. So if that's using lower carbon ways to get around and to cool our and light our homes and buildings, that's - those are the choices that we all need to be making.

CORLEY: Good advice for all of us during these very, very hot, hot times. Thank you so much, Jane Gilbert, chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County. Thank you for joining us.

GILBERT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.