Environmental conditions

New York, NY
United States

The New School Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health Barnard College
Social media handle(s)
@weact4ej (Twitter), @weact4ej (Instagram)

Tracked heat waves and power outages to better understand health impacts on low-income communities and communities of color.

Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by extreme heat because of inadequate access to green space as well as land-use and zoning decisions shaped by structural racism. These communities are also more likely to be in areas experiencing energy insecurity, meaning they are less likely to have air conditioning and more likely to experience power outages. Although the impacts of extreme heat alone have been well documented, the impacts of power outages coupled with extreme heat events have not. WE ACT for Environmental Justice (WE ACT) examined the correlation between power outages and extreme heat in communities of color and low-income communities in New York City as part of WE ACT’s Heat Health and Equity Initiative.

WE ACT has been working in these communities for 34 years; with 800 active members, it is committed to using community-based participatory research to understand and address racial inequities. WE ACT collaborated with researchers at The New School, Columbia University, and Barnard College to analyze the geographic distribution of power outages during heat emergencies in 2021 and 2022 and gather heat data to track those emergencies. As part of this analysis, Barnard students helped create maps overlaying heat vulnerability, power recovery delays, and demographics. WE ACT found that average power outage durations were longer in low-income communities and communities of color that were already facing disproportionate environmental harms and risk due to heat waves.

To supplement these data, staff conducted focus groups with residents in two neighborhoods where the quantitative research showed more power outages. The focus groups allowed staff to better understand individual and community experiences during extreme heat emergencies. These conversations highlighted that power outages are common for many families in these neighborhoods and that they cause several material, physical, and psychological hardships.

This project not only developed a much-needed database on power outages, extreme heat, and health impacts, but also supported advocacy for subsidized utilities for these communities and a more resilient, more renewable energy grid. WE ACT is working with city and state partners to increase access to life-saving cooling resources, increase power outage data transparency, and secure protections for vulnerable communities from utility providers. It also aims to increase awareness about extreme heat through its final report and support measures to mitigate the risks these communities face.