As summer temperatures soar, Baltimore-area cooling centers offer needed refuge

Published on: August 10, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: August 10, 2022 2:54 PM EDT

A tent cooled by fans at the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, a community outreach center and soup kitchen between Charles Village and Waverly.

Robyn Coller, 58, lives in a house in Charles Village without air conditioning.

“It’s as hot inside as it is outside,” she said. This summer, that has meant many days over 90 degrees.

“I’ve gotten kind of used to it,” she said. “But it’s horrible. It can be pretty bad.”

On Tuesday, as temperatures soared to 96 degrees, Coller traveled to the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, a community outreach center and soup kitchen. She came for some food, she said. And once she felt the cool air of the fans, Coller said she felt better.

The Franciscan Center is one of 11 cooling centers in Baltimore designated as spots to take refuge during Code Red days, when the heat index — a measure that combines air temperature and relative humidity — is forecast to be 105 degrees or higher. Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa issued such an alert on Sunday, and extended it through Tuesday.

Dzirasa may also institute an extreme alert for other conditions such as “poor air quality or other conditions that pose a substantial threat to the life and health” of city residents and visitors.

Arinze Ifekauche, a spokesperson for the city’s health department, said some cooling centers “are historically underutilized, while others see more visitors.” Cooling centers started to open in 2006 as part of Baltimore City’s Code Red Extreme Heat program.

Many cooling centers are already located in public spaces for social services or other resources. In the city, those locations include homeless shelters, soup kitchens, senior centers and residential communities. In surrounding counties, library branches and recreation centers are used.

Dejuan Logan, acting director at the Oliver Senior Center in East Baltimore, another designated cooling center, said he usually sees around three to four people come in on Code Red days. Some may be homeless, he said, and come in for a cold bottle of water. Others may be people who don’t have air conditioning, like Coller, and come in to cool down for a little while.

But most of those who benefit from the local cooling center are regulars who come in to play cards, take part in activities or use the computer lab, Logan said. They’d come by anyway, “but if it’s Code Red, they’re happy to stay extra,” he said.

On Code Red days, the center stays open until 7 p.m., Logan said, instead of the usual 4 p.m.

For other residents, like James Carroll, 67, cooling centers become an alternative place to get some exercise on very hot days.

Carroll visited the Roger Carter Community Center in Ellicott City Tuesday morning. Typically, every morning around 8 a.m., he walks seven miles at nearby Centennial Park.

But after checking the weather forecast he knew “this kind of heat is too dangerous for anyone to work out in, but especially if you have an underlying medical or health condition.”

In 2014, Carroll had open-heart surgery. He says regular exercise is necessary for him to “keep [his] heart strong”, regardless of the weather.

“Normally, I get my cardio in outside. But today, I walked two miles on the treadmill, one on the elliptical and then they have an indoor track that I did a mile on,” Carroll said.

The centers also offer water bottles to those who visit, Logan said. One delivery of water bottles is usually more than enough for his senior center for the summer, he said.

“But this year’s been going a lot faster, so they had to make a second delivery to last through the summer. See, they just made that delivery today,” he said, as he pointed to a large stack of boxes in the center’s entryway. They were down to about seven boxes of water and didn’t want to run out.

The center also gives out electric fans, Logan said. Last summer, they gave out over 200. Once the word got out, he said, the lines for the free fans wrapped around the block. This summer, they’ve given out around 10. Most who know about the center have received a fan, he said.

Karen Eaddy, director of My Sister’s Place Women’s Center, was asked by the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services to become a cooling center. And although Catholic Charities of Baltimore would have provided enough water for the center to distribute to those in need, the city’s supply just adds to the surplus.

“In early June, we received 10 pallets of water for the center at no extra cost to us as long as [the center] agreed to give it out,” Eaddy said.

My Sister’s Place received 720 cases of 16.9-ounce bottles of water. On Monday alone, she said the center gave out about 100 bottles by the end of dinner.

Angela Hall, assistant executive director of the Franciscan Center, said in July, on any week with a Code Red or multiple Code Red days, they went through about 80 cases of water per week. In August, that number has been an average of 90 to 120 so far, she said.

The center typically uses up all the water it receives, she said. And once or twice, they’ve had to call for more.

Hall said on Code Red days like Tuesday, the reasons people come in vary.

“In a day’s work, we will find people who just come to cool off, because it’s in their route to wherever they’re going, so they know we’re here. They take a seat, cool off, get some air blown on them, get some water, and then we have people who come for that meal in a cool environment,” Hall said.

In Carroll County, senior centers and libraries have been designated as cooling centers because they are distributed throughout the county and are easy for people to access, according to a spokeswoman.

“Older adults and people who are homeless or low-income may have less access to air conditioning that is critical during heat waves. They are also at higher risk of heat-related illness,” wrote Maggie Kunz, a Carroll County health planner.We try to make sure there are spaces available throughout the county where people can go for free to cool off during the hottest part of the day.”

In Baltimore County, public library branches serve a similar purpose.

“Today’s libraries are community hubs offering a myriad of resources that stretch beyond the books on our shelves. … We encourage those who may need a respite from the heat to visit any of our 19 branches to cool off, get a drink of water and take advantage of our resources ...” Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, CEO of the Baltimore County Public Library, said.

Health officials encourage vulnerable communities to make a greater attempt to stay indoors when excessive heat and humidity drastically affects outdoor activities.

“Excessive heat is the leading weather-related killer in the United States. The effects of extreme heat are exacerbated in urban areas, especially when combined with high humidity and poor air quality,” Dzirasa wrote.

That was certainly true for Troy Bynum, 33, on Tuesday morning. He walked 20 minutes from where he was staying on 25th street to the Franciscan Center.

“It was a nice little hike,” he said. And at around 90 degrees, “I was hot.”

Bynum came in to get some food and water, he said. But “once I felt the breeze, then I said ‘Oh, I’m just going to chill here,’” he said, as he sat in a tent between two fans.

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