Fifty-three-year-old Melelani Corwin has always been athletic: she was a ballet dancer for many years and was one of the fastest people on her high school track team. But spending all day outdoors with no escape from the heat has taken a toll on her body.
“People think I’m on dope … but in the heat I’m just sweating and sweating and sweating,” she said.
Corwin has been homeless in Honolulu for seven years. She currently lives under a freeway underpass where there’s enough shade for a mattress and small tent. When police officers come and tell her to move, she tries to compromise.
“I have a good rapport with the police so I go, ‘Please let me stay here. I’ll keep it clean, I’ll keep it nice,’” she said. “When that hot heat comes I just have to stay in the shade — it’s for my health.”
In the last three decades, heat has been associated with more deaths than any other weather event, including hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. A recent study on the mainland found that heat is killing a lot more people than previously thought because hyperthermia isn’t the only way heat can kill people. High heat exacerbates a number of health issues, including cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and respiratory diseases. Hot cities also trap pollution, which can lead to lung and heart disease.
Temperatures in Hawaii are forecasted to increase several degrees by mid-century, and people living in urban areas will feel the impact first while low-income and homeless residents will be the hardest hit.
To combat rising temperatures caused by climate change, the City and County of Honolulu plans to plant 100,000 trees by 2025 and increase the urban tree canopy to 35% by 2035. While the city isn’t sure if it’s on track to meet the 2035 goal, there are efforts underway to collect and analyze data to determine which areas on the island would benefit the most from some extra greenery.
Corwin’s friend John Tillman worries about her safety a lot, especially when the temperature rises. Her small camp is surrounded by concrete on three sides so while she has shelter from direct sun and rain, it doesn’t cool down much at night.
“It’s just incredibly hot here,” he said.
Tillman helps Corwin out as much as he can, regularly sharing water, food, supplies or just his time. But the route from where he lives with his grandfather in Makiki to Corwin is mostly unshaded, so the walk can be exhausting.
“I’m healthy, but oh my goodness, halfway there I’m already so, so hot,” he said.
Making it safer for more people to walk or bike is a top priority for Matthew Gonser, Honolulu’s chief resilience officer, not only because it’s important for people who don’t have a car, but also because fewer cars on the road mean less pollution and greenhouse gases.
But right now, walking or biking in many areas on the island could be dangerous during the summer months. A 2019 heat-mapping project on the island found urban areas with heat-trapping concrete and asphalt can reach triple-digit heat indexes.
A heat index takes into account air temperature and relative humidity to reflect what the temperature in a certain area feels like.
“Whether you’re an outdoor worker, a keiki or kupuna the health impacts and the heat stress and the heat shock can be very severe,” Gonser said.
While Gonser hopes to one day secure funding for other mitigation techniques like more insulation and lighter-colored concrete, the city is relying mostly on trees to cool urban areas. Trees provide shade to both pedestrians and buildings, which reduces surface temperatures. Vegetation of any kind reduces air temperature through a process called evapotranspiration and areas with lots of trees receive more rainfall than deforested areas.
The most recent analysis of the island’s urban tree canopy — the amount of land shaded by greenery — found that Honolulu lost nearly 5% of its total urban tree canopy between 2010 and 2013 and tree-planting efforts weren’t able to keep up with the number of lost trees.
Department of Parks and Recreation spokesman Nathan Serota said the department doesn’t have the ability to regularly analyze tree canopy, so they’re not sure whether they’re on track to meet the 2035 deadline of a 35% increase. But the city recently partnered with Smart Trees Pacific, to track progress and identify which areas have more trees than others.
Serota said that currently, the department decides where to plant new trees based on where trees will thrive, not where they will most help humans.
“Like on the Westside you wouldn’t really be able to put a banyan tree in an area with really high heat because it wouldn’t survive,” he said. “Heat index is becoming more of a determining factor … but really the future success of the tree is kind of the biggest factor.”
Gonser hopes that new data will let the city make tree-planting decisions based on equity. The resiliency office is currently working with NOAA and the U.S. Forest Service on an updated analysis of the island’s urban tree canopy, which Gonser hopes to release before the end of the year. He’s also waiting on data from the 2020 census to determine which areas on the island would benefit the most from more trees by analyzing things like income, age, disability and car ownership.
“We know that impacts and consequences of temperature increases are not equal all across the island,” he said. “The general goal is to increase canopy but the data empowers us to know how and where to take action strategically and equitably.”
Jaime Madrigano, an environmental health researcher at the RAND Corp., determines who will be most affected by rising temperatures by analyzing exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity.
Exposure risks are high in urban areas with more asphalt and concrete and can be mitigated by expanding the tree canopy or investing in other cooling technology. Certain people are more sensitive to heat due to their age, underlying health conditions or medications that impact the body’s ability to cool itself. And if it’s really hard for someone to escape the heat, then Madrigano said they’ll suffer due to lack of adaptive capacity.
“Low-income populations have less capacity to adapt because they may have financial constraints which may limit their ability to access air conditioning, they may have poorer housing conditions which retain more heat, and those residences may also be in parts of the city that are hotter,” she said.
In 2019, Hawaii residents had the highest average monthly electricity bill, $168, and the most expensive electricity rate at about 29 cents per kilowatt hour.
“When we think about infrastructure, it’s really important to consider the growing burden of urban heat and its inequitable consequences because there are aspects of city design, energy infrastructure, and housing conditions that are all very relevant to heat and health,” Madrigano said.
Even if a tree isn’t providing direct shade for pedestrians, it helps the city stay cool. The Community Forestry Program has resources to help businesses, homeowners, families and individuals plant trees on their property and encourages people to log their efforts on the community tree map. The Parks Department also needs volunteers to help tend to trees in the first six to 12 months after replanting, which are critical to the tree’s survival.
Utility bills are already a large expense for the Institute for Human Services, a nonprofit providing services to unsheltered people or those at risk of homelessness on Oahu.
Hawaii’s long summer season makes the heat a perpetual concern, said community relations manager Julie Tabarejo.
And the IHS’ community relations director, Jill Wright, said doctors at their clinic are used to treating severe sunburns and heat exhaustion.
“Julie and I were actually serving lunch at our men’s shelter today and there were some people that walked up and all they could think about was a cold bottle of water,” Wright said.
While heat isn’t the IHS’ top concern — it’s just one of many things that make it unsafe and unhealthy to live on the streets — Wright said news of homeless people dying during the recent Pacific Northwest heatwave was distressing.
“We always encourage people to get out of the elements, get into services and get help,” Tabarejo said. “I don’t think that there’s a lot of them who will realize that the services are right around the corner and you just have to walk through the door.”
Tabarejo and Wright said that — budget permitting — increasing the number of mobile stations that provide shade, cold water, and other resources is a possibility.
That would be especially helpful for Corwin, who is dealing with an injury that makes it painful to walk. It’s one of the reasons she’s not sleeping in a shelter: walking back and forth in the sun every day isn’t possible.
“Just any help with just basic stuff would be good,” she said.
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