Summer In Perris

The Human Toll of Extreme Heat

By Andrew Dubbins, Jaydelle Herbert, Erkka Mikkonen and Hannah Joy Shareef

TAKE A LOOK - Perris Is Burning

Navy Veteran Ronald Mack Jr. says the heat gets so bad in the Perris Valley, it causes the metal bullet fragments in his legs and back to ache. He doesn’t have a hood on his motorized wheelchair, so he rolls down the sidewalk looking for shade under trees or bus stop awnings. Bus drivers often slow down for him, figuring he needs a ride, but he waves them off.

Retiree Elizabeth Derrones spends her summer days at a Perris “cooling center,” set up by Riverside County authorities to provide a refuge from the heat. Derrones says people pack into the facility on triple-digit days, jockeying for seats near the fans and filling up Styrofoam cups with cold water.

Susana Arevalo, a 32-year-old staffer with Perris’ Boys and Girls Club, tries to organize activities for children in the morning or late evening, when it’s cooler. But children still experience headaches sometimes, prompting Arevalo to rush them inside, make them sit on the floor, and drink water.

Such is summer in Perris, a small town 65 miles south of Los Angeles in the heart of the Inland Empire. With a population of 78,000, the old railroad town is known for skydiving charter companies, fishing in its artificial Lake Perris, and sunny dry climate. Perris’ industry used to be agriculture before enormous warehouses, consisting of acres of concrete and asphalt that absorb the sun’s heat and contribute to the area’s rising temperatures, replaced the farmland.

This July, Perris averaged a high of 98 degrees. That’s by no means remarkable for the area. Nearby Palm Desert, for instance, posted a much higher July average of 114 degrees. But Perris is still a fascinating case study, not because it is atypical, but because it is typical. Across the Inland Empire, climate change is causing more frequent and intense heat, forcing residents to adapt and local governments to scramble to find solutions. Perris offers insight into how extreme heat disproportionately affects low-income people, and how local municipalities, despite earnest efforts, are unprepared for the skyrocketing temperatures.

“We have extremely high certainty that we're going to see more extreme heat events going forward.”

— Francesca Hopkins

During our reporting, the world experienced an intense, widespread heat wave. Pipes burst in Texas from the heat; a runway melted at London’s Luton Airport; as did the roof of a museum in Chongquing, China. Francesca Hopkins, a climate scientist at UC Riverside, says the link between climate change and extreme heat is “the most straightforward thing we understand about climate change.” The whole globe is warming, she explains, particularly in dry places like inland Southern California. “We have extremely high certainty that we're going to see more extreme heat events going forward,” she says.

Personal Story of Extreme Heat

Resident Susan Friese and her granddaughter Jaydelle in her garden while temperature in Perris rise.

Standing outside Perris’ beige Spanish-style firehouse in a navy blue T-shirt and cargo pants, Engineer Paramedic Bryce Medicus says he’s “not sure” about climate change. His captain, Jeff Crile, hovering nearby, offers an alternative theory for the extreme heat. “Weather works in cycles,” he says.

Engineer Paramedic Bryce Medicus

Captain Jeff Crile

Medicus acknowledges the dangers of extreme heat, drawing from his rigorous training and experience to describe the groups most impacted. Out-of-towners are particularly vulnerable, he says, because their bodies aren’t accustomed to the heat. A recent call involved a visitor from a coastal city who came to Perris to work with horses. The laborer was out all day in the heat, when he began sweating profusely, became dizzy, confused, nauseous, then started vomiting. Medicus’ crew got the man into the shade, stripped his clothes, then put ice packs on his body.

Medicus says older adults and people with chronic medical conditions are also at increased risk of heat-related health concerns. Older people’s bodies tend to struggle to adjust to spikes in temperature, says Medicus. Furthermore certain medications—such as those for diabetes and hypertension—can reduce sweating, thereby inhibiting the body’s ability to regulate temperature.

Mack Jr., the Navy Veteran, says he wouldn’t mind the heat if he weren’t disabled. “Some people can handle it, but when you’re sitting on black leather, it’s pretty brutal,” says Mack Jr., slumped forward on his electric wheelchair in the shade, gripping a sweating water bottle. He prefers the cooler climate of Boston, where he grew up. But after war injuries left him “100% disabled,” he needs to live close to his hospital near Lake Perris. Ever since moving to the Inland Empire in 1983, he has noticed the temperatures climbing higher each summer. “It’s just every year, it seems like it’s going more up,” says Mack Jr. pointing into the cloudless blue dome of the sky with his index finger.

Derrones, the retiree, says when she moved to Perris 20 years ago, a hot day used to be in the 80s or 90s, but now summer temperatures routinely spike over a hundred. Wearing sandals and a short-sleeve denim shirt, she says she spends three to four hours a day inside the air-conditioned Mead Valley Community Center. Festooned with Fourth of July decorations, the facility is one of Riverside County’s designated “cooling centers,” located in libraries, community centers, senior centers, and other locations across the county to offer temporary relief from the awful summer heat. “We have a lot of [health] problems, especially at this age, and we have a lot of dangers,” says Derrones. “I say thank you so much to the Center. Because it’s cool. It’s good, because outside, it’s so hot.”

At another cooling center—the Perris Senior Center across the street from City Hall—a dozen elderly adults watch the live-action Jungle Book on a big screen TV, while a group of six men shoot pool in an adjacent room dubbed “The Man Cave.” The facility’s supervisor, Cynthia Lemus, says many visitors are regulars, who don’t have air conditioning units or just avoid running them to save money. Lemus says the Senior Center gets “activated” as a cooling center when temperatures reach above 100 degrees for two consecutive days, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a heat advisory for Riverside County. During activations, the center’s staff lower the AC and hand out filtered cold water. On truly sweltering days, they also extend the hours of operation (typically Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and welcome non-senior visitors such as families and the homeless.

Pictures of a Cooling Center

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Senior citizens are taking a break from the heat to cool off at a Cooling Center.
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Perris Senior Center turns into a Cooling Center on 97-degree temperature days.
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An elderly man soaks up the air-conditioned cooling center over a game of Pool.

“Have there been any activations this summer?” we ask.

“We’ve activated every day,” says Lemus.

Medicus, the paramedic, says when it comes to extreme heat, young children are especially vulnerable. With larger heads and less hair, they retain heat faster than adults and experience more rapid rises in body temperature. “They can go into a febrile seizure due to extreme rise in temperature,” he says.

Susana Arevalo of the Perris Boys & Girls Club supervises up to 35 children a day. She says she avoids the blacktop on hot days, instead walking single file to nearby Mercado Park, which has tall leafy trees for shade and a fountain called a “splash pad” where children can cool off. She wants to keep the children active, but admits the blistering heat sometimes doesn’t allow it. When the temperature reaches above 95 degrees, which is often, Arevalo keeps the children indoors.

Across the street from Mercado Park, 28-year-old mom Stephanie Arredondo sits on her porch. She’s having a yard sale, hawking old Vans shoes and kids’ toys stacked on a plastic table in her gravel front yard. A decade-long resident of Perris, Arredondo senses the summer heat getting worse each year, and starting earlier. “February it starts getting hot,” she says. “Way before summer, it gets already into the hundreds.” When the heat feels dangerous, Arredondo keeps her children inside, takes them to the city’s waterpark, or flees Perris altogether, driving them to beach cities like Newport or Oceanside, or to the mountains. We ask—nodding toward her yard sale—if she’s leaving Perris, or would ever consider it. “No,” she says. “It's too expensive everywhere else.”

Perris resident Stephanie Arredondo sits on a shady porch behind her yard sale.

Fighting For Shade

Hopkins, the climate scientist, says there’s an important aspect of extreme heat that people don’t talk enough about: environmental justice. As the temperatures steadily rise, low-income and disenfranchised people are disproportionately affected. Wealthier people can just turn on the air conditioner, whereas the poor either don’t own a unit, or opt not to run it to reduce their electricity bill. What’s more, says Hopkins, white collar workers spend their days in chilled office buildings while lower-wage laborers and landscapers ply their living outdoors, exposed to the heat.

Wearing a visor and short-sleeve baby-blue shirt, postal worker Linda Avila enters Perris’ Sun Liquor store carrying a stack of mail, and comes out carrying a cold bottle of Fiji water. She grew up in Perris, and remembers the days when you could sleep through the night with just a ceiling fan and the windows open. “Now you gotta have AC,” she says, wiping sweat from her brow as the sun arrives at its fierce zenith. Now on her third summer working for the post office, Avila says oftentimes, the heat is “so bad it feels like you can’t breathe.” She comes home sopping wet from sweat, and exhausted after her mail route. She tries to adapt, hydrating with water and using wet towels. But she’s seen some colleagues quit because of the heat, “especially if they’re new.”

Audio Stories

Across the street from Sun Liquor, construction worker Mohammed Awad digs a hole through the tan tile bricks on the sidewalk alongside a crew of four other workers. Wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, Awad says today isn’t all that bad—just 98 degrees. One time in Perris, he says he was out working in 115-degree heat. On days like that, when sweat trickles down your chest and the dry burn of the sun stings the back of your neck, his crew takes a lot of breaks, drinks a lot of water. Some of the older workers experience headaches and fatigue and have to take longer breaks, up to two and half hours. But rarely do workers take the day off, says Awad. They all need the work.

Among the worst affected by extreme heat are people experiencing homelessness. Located in a strip mall a short drive from Lake Perris, “The Hole in the Wall” provides rehabilitation services and recovery support to people who are homeless, as well as a place to escape the heat. Staff member David Nielsen says he’s witnessed homeless people fighting for shade under trees.

“The heat is extreme out here, so a lot of times during the summer, people go underground. We have a tunnel system and an underground culture under the freeways, and trouble brews in there. You get heat, you get anger, you get some drugs and alcohol…and it is volatile,” says Nielson.

Extreme heat can even turn deadly, Nielson says, pointing to the many homeless individuals who live in their cars. If they pass out in the heat, says Nielson, they sometimes don’t wake up.

Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service. Dr. Rajesh Gulati of UC Riverside says intense prolonged heat can trigger a spiral of dangerous health effects. As the body loses water from sweating, dehydration and dry mouth can set in, along with headaches and muscle cramps. In severe cases, people might experience confusion, heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, muscle spasms, seizures, or loss of consciousness.

“If you lose consciousness and there is no way to revive you,” says Dr. Gulati. “That’s it. You're done.”

Heat Islands

Nearly a half century after scientists issued their first warnings about climate change in the 1980s, California state officials say they’re taking urgent action on extreme heat. In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his “Extreme Heat Action Plan,” detailing a strategy for adapting to the state’s dangerously high temperatures. The governor’s budget also proposes $1 billion to modify buildings across the state with eco-friendly improvements, targeted to low-income Californians.

In the state assembly, lawmakers are considering early warning systems for heat waves. Another bill proposes to appoint a “chief heat officer” to coordinate California’s response to soaring temperatures, and monitor deaths and hospitalizations from extreme heat.

Riverside County, in addition to its cooling center program, offers the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), which helps low-income county residents pay for air conditioning.

The City of Perris and its small staff of 130 have taken several ad hoc measures to protect citizens from extreme heat. The city’s news channel broadcasts a daily weather forecast, warning citizens if and when the temperatures soar to triple digits. The city also activates its two splash pads in the summertime—at Mercado Park and Enchanted Hills Park—and is discussing adding more.

Kids having fun in the sun at a splash pad in Mercado Park.

City staffers also launched a social media campaign, #SizzlinginPerris, directing locals to water activities, swimming pools, and indoor programming during the summer. Stephen Hale, the city’s public information officer, also points to a tree planting event last April, which added about 50 trees to downtown Perris, as both a beautification project and cooling effort.

Asked whether the need for cooling centers in Perris is linked to climate change, Hale says: “I don't know that it is in direct correlation to climate change,” adding that city leadership is currently working on a climate study. Hale says the city government has yet to discuss extreme heat and the need for long-term adaptation measures, instead deferring to Riverside County’s public health guidelines.

“It's going to take money; it's going to take organization. And unfortunately, we don't see enough urgency in that regard.”

— Malissa McKeith

Environmental activist Malissa McKeith says not enough is being done to address extreme heat, at the state, county, or city level. “It's going to take money; it's going to take organization. And unfortunately, we don't see enough urgency in that regard,” says McKeith. McKeith’s Riverside-based non-profit, Citizens United for Resources and the Environment (CURE), works to address climate change through local projects such as tree planting in low-income areas. “It's been shown that trees will reduce temperature by as much as 10 degrees, which could really make a difference,” she says.

Despite Perris’ modest planting efforts, McKeith points to the city and its history as a case study not in cooling, but in warming. Established in 1885, Perris’ main industry used to be farming: primarily grain crops in the 1800s, then white rose potatoes in the 1900s. Then came urban sprawl. Drive around Perris today and you’ll see giant warehouses on its outskirts, with many more being built. Amazon operates a massive fulfillment center in Perris, from which packages are delivered across Southern California. “[The developers] build warehouses next to people's homes,” explains McKeith. “They cut down all the trees….The land use is really driven by who can pay what. The increase in warehousing brings all sorts of diesel trucks through the area, and takes away most of the prime farmland."

McKeith refers to the enormous concrete warehouses around Perris as “heat islands,” which exacerbate extreme heat in the region. She argues the city should require developers to plant trees, and retrofit warehouse rooftops with layers of vegetation called “green roofs.” If the development is allowed to continue, McKeith worries temperatures will keep rising. “There's no real appreciation for the cumulative long-term effect of what we're doing in Southern California,” she says.

Despite the heat, Perris is growing rapidly, attracting people who can’t afford to live in larger coastal cities like Los Angeles. McKeith envisions a rift developing in American society between people in cooler climates and those in sweltering inland areas. If a blackout knocks out people’s AC units, McKeith predicts “there’s going to be civil disobedience.” The utilities we rely on to defend us from extreme heat—electricity for ACs, and water for hydration—have typically been available in America, but McKeith says that may no longer be true in a couple decades. Or sooner. On a visit to the Lake Perris aqueduct, which supplies water for neighboring cities such as Perris, Jose Munez, a California State Park aide, told us he’s never seen the aqueduct’s waters so low. “It’s concerning,” he says.

Meanwhile, business is booming for Manuel Rodriguez, who repairs air conditioners in Perris. Dressed in a blue work shirt and a tattered well-worn straw hat, Rodriguez says his busy season used to be in the summertime, but now people run their air conditioning units practically year-round. Rodriguez looks down the asphalt highway, crowded with cars and shimmering in the heat haze. “More people coming to this town,” he says. “So I have more customers yet.”

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