The People is our section for all opinions concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, members of a diverse mix of nonprofit organizations urge city leadership to consider community groups as essential partners in the redesigning and promotion of the city’s heat emergency plan.

To: City of Chicago Leadership

Re: Chicago’s Updated Heat Emergency Plan and Communication Strategy

July 23, 2020 

The first seven months of 2020 have left communities reeling. While few could have predicted the very specific shock and horror of COVID-19, there are some cyclical events that can be expected; extreme summer heat is one of them. 

Through the spring, a number of us grew concerned that we hadn’t heard any updates about the city’s emergency heat plan. We were worried about the return of summer’s grueling heat because we all know the 1995 heat disaster was not a one-off. It was a harbinger that tragically revealed what happens when an acute shock, like a climate event or a public health crisis, collides head-on with extreme structural racism. As a group of concerned residents, community leaders, and allies, we are extremely familiar with the decades of maps that show the disparities in our city and could only imagine the amplified impact another heat wave would have on our city. 

We grew worried about its deadly impact across communities that are overburdened by compounding socio-economic and environmental issues. 

We grew more worried about the continued prioritization of hazardous economic development projects, such as dredging the Calumet River, allowing General Iron to move to the Southeast Side, and continuing the demolition of the former Crawford coal plant. Each of these projects threatens air and water quality, continues to expose certain communities to environmental toxins, and further weakens a community’s resilience to a shock like an unexpected spike in temperature. 

We grew extremely worried about our communities that need relief from dangerously hot homes and apartments, and those who wouldn’t feel safe leaving their home to go to nearby cooling centers, libraries, and houses of worship during this time of physical distancing. 

It wasn’t until the beginning of July that news slowly began to reach our groups because someone happened to see an article in Block Club Chicago or the Sun-Times. We are grateful for the coordination between the Mayor’s Office, Office of Emergency Management and Communication, and the Department of Family and Support Services. However, we recognize a glaring gap that could be the very thing that saves residents: integrated leadership from community voices.

It is because of this gap, that we remain extremely worried about this summer’s extreme heat. And we’re here to help. 

As the architects of a wide range of community-based emergency response strategies, which currently include providing gloves and masks and basic necessities like food and water, we can, if appropriately resourced, scale the strategies known to work in our communities, which are at greater risk of impact. We can do that, no matter the weather or public health crisis, while we address the long-term impacts of structural racism and health inequity. 

We suggest:

* A clear multilingual and decisive update on how the City has modified the Extreme Heat Preparedness Plan to reflect the necessary modifications under COVID-19 safety protocol. The existing flyers can be found on the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities page — which is difficult to find from the OEMC pages —  and are only available in three languages.

* A public commitment and implementation strategy to restore water in all homes in the city to protect communities from the compounding public health impacts of COVID-19 and extreme heat.

* A neighborhood-based communication strategy co-designed and executed with community based partners to ensure that residents — especially those in areas most impacted by COVID-19, furthest from cooling centers, and suffering from lack of running water — are reached quickly, proactively, and by trusted voices with critical information about upcoming extreme weather, the location of nearest cooling centers, and other existing support services.

* Maximize and empower neighborhood cohesion by supporting local programs and anchor institutions that often serve as front-line responders for residents during a crisis, such as a pandemic or heatwave, in lieu of law-enforcement and emergency management, unless required.

* An update on the CARES Act monies that the city received and how that may be used to reduce the impact of extreme heat.

* Clear coordination with the new team of contact tracers hired to help address COVID-19 to also support residents around extreme heat and the lack of water in homes.

* Participation in creating a heat emergency plan in collaboration with the city to avoid the perils of the 1995 heat wave.

This year continues to prove the importance of community cohesion. Reports like Resilient Chicago and the Recovery Task Force Report affirm this and we urge you to incorporate community cohesion into the City’s heat preparedness and extreme heat response strategies. Ultimately, we request a seat at the table where decisions regarding this heat emergency plan will be made so that we may optimize our expertise and work to build lasting resilience from the ground up. 

Thank you for your consideration.


Blacks in Green

Elevate Energy

People for Community Recovery

Sierra Club Illinois Chapter

Sinai Urban Health Institute

West Side United

Windsor Park Evangelical Lutheran Church 

COOKED: Survival By Zip Code

BIO: This letter was written by members of a diverse mix of non-profit organizations, including:

Naomi Davis, Blacks in Green

Anne Evens, Elevate Energy

Cheryl Johnson, People for Community Recovery

Kyra Woods, Sierra Club Illinois Chapter

Maureen Benjamins, Sinai Urban Health Institute

Ayesha Jaco, West Side United

Al Walker, Windsor Park Evangelical Lutheran Church 

Judith Helfand, Fenell Doremus and Kathy Leichter, COOKED: Survival By Zip Code