Hundreds of air-conditioned facilities designated as emergency cooling centers during dangerously hot weather were closed for two days during last month’s heat wave, according to a new report from New York City Comptroller Brad Lander.

During the extended heat wave from July 19th through July 25th, the city directed residents to its map of cooling centers, which mostly consist of public libraries, community and senior centers, and NYCHA facilities.

But suggesting a lack of planning and possibly staffing, the comptroller’s office found that half of the facilities were listed as closed on Saturday, while more than 80% were closed on Sundays. The closures occurred even though the heat emergency spanned the weekend.

“Our current strategy is praying it's only hot on the weekdays,” Lander told Gothamist. “But that is a very bad approach.”

The 25-page report, which is set to be released Thursday, examined 542 cooling centers across the city during last month’s heat wave. It comes as the city expects another scorching few days and as scientists warn about climate change giving way to more frequent occurrences of extreme heat. The cooling centers are meant to serve those who have no other recourse, as hot temperatures in New York City have further exposed inequities between rich and poor. The city’s health department found that heat-related death rates for Black New York City residents are twice as high as those of their white counterparts.

It is something that can be done quickly and is not that expensive, and will save lives.
City Comptroller Brad Lander

Amid another upcoming onslaught of oppressive weather, Lander said the city should immediately expand cooling center hours on weekends: “It is something that can be done quickly and is not that expensive, and will save lives.”

Extreme heat is responsible for more deaths than any other weather-related event, according to the National Weather Service.

At least four New York City residents died as a result of the late July heat wave. Around 370 people citywide die from heat-related causes each year, according to the city’s health department.

The comptroller’s office found that, overall, two-thirds of the cooling centers did not have extended hours, meaning that fewer than 60 centers stayed open beyond their normal operating times. Moreover, 30% of the centers closed before 4 p.m. even though the hottest time of the day typically falls between 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The report also points out that senior centers, which make up nearly half of the cooling centers, are only open to those over age 60 — a restriction that leaves out other vulnerable New Yorkers.

And nearly a quarter — or 54 of the centers — were not accessible to those in wheelchairs.

The comptroller’s report also analyzed the location of the city’s cooling centers, along with their hours of access. It came up with a ranking of the 10 heat-vulnerable neighborhoods that were most underserved by cooling centers.

The Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush topped the list with only 1.2 cooling centers per 100,000 people. It was followed by Elmhurst and Corona in Queens, which had 2.2 cooling centers per 100,000 people.

By comparison, the report noted that the Lower East Side and Chinatown had similar population sizes to East Flatbush, but 11 cooling centers per 100,000 people.

Brownsville, another Brooklyn neighborhood, was found to have the highest cooling centers per capita, with 17.3 cooling stations per 100,000 people.

The report offered a list of remedies for the city, beginning with expanding the number of cooling centers and their hours of operation. Additionally, it said the city should consider building so-called “cooling stations” equipped with outdoor fans, overhead water sprays, and seating. It pointed to a temporary version installed near a South Bronx library in 2020.