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From 'bearsicles' to walking clubs, South Florida finds new ways to adapt to extreme heat

A sloth bear at ZooMiami slurps on a "bearsicle," which are large icicles layered with strawberries and blueberries and Gatorade to help cool the bears down.
Courtesy of ZooMiami
A sloth bear at ZooMiami slurps on a "bearsicle," which are large icicles layered with strawberries and blueberries and Gatorade to help cool the bears down.

A recent cool front has been a welcome relief from what has been a particularly brutal year of extreme heat in all of Florida.

Across the state, the average temperature was 3.3 degrees higher this past July compared to 2021. It doesn't seem like much of a jump, but we certainly felt that difference.

READ MORE: Push to give outdoor workers extreme heat protections passes first hurdle in Miami-Dade

Meanwhile South Florida experienced its warmest July since records began, with 40 consecutive days of heat advisories and heat warnings issued by the National Weather Service. These alerts mean the heat index has soared past 108 or 113 degrees for two hours or more, respectively.

WLRN spoke to people in the community about how they dealt with the heat when hunkering down and blasting the A/C just wasn't enough.

Walking it off

Every weekday, a group of retired women log about 2.5 miles worth of steps at the Dadeland Mall.

The group, which has dubbed themselves “The Walkers,” spends about an hour looping around the halls, finding refuge in the building’s air conditioning and basking in its fluorescent-lighting glory.

The group began as a mosaic of women from different backgrounds, walking in pairs or trios.

When the global pandemic hit in 2020, they eventually came together and formed one outdoor walking group. They used to walk at The Falls, an open-air shopping mall in Kendall, but it was simply too hot.

"Especially this summer, we were very happy not to have to go outside. It's just, you know, it's uncomfortable. You don't want to be soaking wet ... and we're all in our seventies so we want to be comfortable,” said  Ginnie Vespe, 71, one of the Walkers’ early members.

Group of women pose in front of a giant statue of the number 305
Julia Cooper
A group of up to 11 retired women who call themselves "The Walkers" who take weekly walks inside Dadeland mall to avoid the heat.

She said the walking group gives them a chance not just to exercise safely, but to also connect with one another.

When Vespe lost her husband to lung cancer, the ‘Walkers’ rallied around her to offer their support during that time.

“They just all had my back and they were there,” Vespe said. “It was people you could count on, even though some of us didn’t know each other much beforehand.”

Now, the walking group is a big part of her life, and she said it's something that she looks forward to every day.

“We're a resource,” said recent-retiree Ofi Fernandez. “We share a lot. So that's always very helpful. And you know, we are happy during everyone's happy moments and we stick together when somebody is going through a tough time."

A trek through Dadeland has become a reliable way to stay active, social and out of the heat for each of the women. Each day is a new chance to share life updates, show photos of their growing grandchildren or simply vent about everyday frustrations.

Take for example, Kathy Fitzgerald, who was disgruntled to find that on the day WLRN joined the ‘Walkers’ at Dadeland, her dog had chewed through her hand-quilted table-runner that morning.

“I said to him, ‘You’re going to end up like the White House dog, banned!,’” Fitzgerald said in reference to President Biden's German shepherd Commander, who was removed from the White House after a series of biting incidents.

Fitzgerald said the walking group is like therapy for her. It’s a chance to keep in touch with her close friend from high school, women she met when their kids attended school together and new people alike.

After the ‘Walkers’ get their steps in, they end their morning by walking through the Macy’s store, which opens promptly at 10 a.m.

It’s the only path to Starbucks, where they share cortaditos and more conversation.

Originally, the ‘Walkers’ thought they’d eventually find their way outside as the summer heat subsided. But, as Vespe puts it, they’re “indoor people” now.

A creative cool down

A dingo at ZooMiami cools off in a pool of ice.
Courtesy of ZooMiami
A dingo at ZooMiami cools off in a pool of ice.

While people stay inside air conditioned buildings, how have animals been beating the heat? Some animals exhibit biological behaviors that help regulate their body temperatures, like flamingos.

Visitors entering Zoo Miami are usually greeted by a flock of flamingos chilling in a gurgling pond. The pink birds normally release and take in heat through their which are exposed — hence the iconic one-legged pose.

"They’re not feathered, so you'll see them commonly standing up and putting one leg up, and that's the way they relax," said ZooMiami spokesperson Ron Magill.

ZooMiami specializes in tropical and subtropical animals that are accustomed to hotter climates. But with temperatures as high as they’ve been this year, the staff had to develop creative ways of keeping their furry and feathered friends cool.

The staff calls them "enrichment" activities — imagine putting dingos in a kiddie pool of ice cubes or giving Sloth Bears giant, juicy popsicles to slurp on.

"Our sloth bear, we provide what we call these bearsicles, which are these large icicles that are layered with strawberries and blueberries and Gatorade," Magill said. "And as it melts, it cools them off."

For most of the animals though, they just enjoy lounging in the shade like the rest of us. Magill said that more than half the time, the critters would rather lay about than run around in the ice. But the zoo provides the extra help anyways just to make sure they're happy and cool.

Throwing shade

A woman bends down in a garden to remove weeds from some plants
Wilkine Brutus
Anuella Alexandre, garden planner and founder of the non-profit A Green Community, removes weeds from the nursery section at the Westgate Community Farm in West Palm Beach.

Growing fresh produce in extreme heat conditions comes with some sizzling challenges.

At the Westgate Community Farm in West Palm Beach, there’s a neat row of squashes, green beans and Seminole pumpkins. Farmers and volunteers water, trim and propagate leafy greens just in time for the fall harvest.

A few weeks ago, West Palm Beach reached 100-plus degrees.

Anuella Alexandre works as a garden organizer who runs horticulture workshops under her nonprofit A Green Community. She said not even plants are immune to extreme heat.

"When we have our trees trimmed, I think that’s something we keep in mind that we still need shady areas, but not just for human beings, we need shady areas for certain plants. There are plants that can’t grow in full sun," she said.

Plants that are sensitive to the heat are stored inside a greenhouse with a hoop-like structure, which keeps plants like tomatoes and peppers cool during the growing season.

Alexandre hopes such extra measures they're taking will help these plants to live another day, so people get the fresh produce they need.

Alyssa Ramos is the multimedia producer for Morning Edition for WLRN. She produces regional stories for newscasts and manages digital content on WLRN.
Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Joshua Ceballos at jceballos@wlrnnews.org
Julia Cooper reports on all things Florida Keys and South Dade for WLRN.
Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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