Bronx residents more vulnerable to heat effects than other boroughs, city says

The Bronx is the most vulnerable borough during the hottest days of the year, a Department of Health analysis says. 

Residents in Belmont, Highbridge, University Heights, Concourse, Morrisania and Mott Haven are among those at highest risk for heat stroke, dehydration and other heat-related deaths, according to the heat vulnerability index calculated by the Health Department.

Roughly 30 percent of residents in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, including the Bronx neighborhoods mentioned, lack air conditioning or cannot regularly use it due to high electricity costs, Cari Olson, the agency’s assistant commissioner for environmental surveillance and policy, said.

Olson added that residents often have to choose between spending money on ACs or on other costs, and will sometimes choose to take the risk of going without air conditioning.

Older infrastructure is part of the problem, said Kim Knowlton, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s science center.

“There is a lot of older building stock and landlords choose not to retrofit and provide air conditioners,” she said.

Ida Rivera, 30, a medical assistant who lives with her family in Fordham Heights, said her apartment’s AC can only go so far, as it takes a long time to bring temperatures to a comfortable level when she comes home from work.

“They need to get better insulation in the buildings,” she said.

On average, the city annually sees 13 heatstroke deaths and another 115 deaths due to extreme heat, according to the Health Department.

Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights and central Harlem also rank high on the vulnerability index, which is calculated using data from the U.S. Census and city agencies. Olson predicted more areas could make the list in the future.

Climate trends have shown that the city’s high temperatures have been rising steadily over the years.

“One thing that is important to remember is that having a low vulnerability index doesn’t mean there is no risk at all,” she said. “Everyone is susceptible to heat-related illnesses under certain conditions.”

The city and state are taking steps to mitigate the problem in the vulnerable neighborhoods, through several initiatives. The state offers up to $800 in assistance through its HEAP program for AC purchase and installation for New Yorkers with health problems, and the city offers free-to-low cost white roof paintings for buildings.

The city has also been planting trees in vulnerable neighborhoods and opening cooling centers during heat waves. The efforts have been noticed by some Bronx residents, who said that more trees have popped up along the Grand Concourse in the past 10 years.

“It used to be so barren and no one would walk there without feeling hot,” Ramona Torres, 36, of Highbridge, said.

The Department of Health will soon release applications for its “Be a Buddy” program in the Bronx, which aims to connect vulnerable residents with community groups and others who can guide them to their best options for avoiding heat-related problems.

“They will go to at-risk individuals. We want neighbors and community members who can get them out of their hot areas,” she said.

“Be a Buddy” will go into effect next year and will expand to other heat vulnerable neighborhoods.

Knowlton said future federal funding to fight climate change is in jeopardy due to cuts proposed by the Trump administration, so New York and other cities need to act quickly with their own proposals.

While “Be a Buddy” may seem simple on the surface, similar efforts have been successful in preventing heat-related sickness in countries like India, where air conditioning and cooling centers are less prevalent, she said.

“Simple things like relationships … are incredibly powerful,” Knowlton said. “People are looking for trusted messengers.”

Betty Williams, 59, who lives near Fordham Heights, agreed, saying she thinks better communication would help with the heat problems.

“Most people know they should stay inside, but there are some who can’t. It would be nice to get more of the word out,” she said.