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Miami has a chief heat officer. Here’s how she helps people cope with this hot summer.

The Tampa Bay Times spoke with Miami-Dade’s chief heat officer to learn more about the role and the dangers of heat.
 
Jane Gilbert, pictured, is the first chief heat officer in the world and focuses on reducing the stress of extreme heat on vulnerable communities in Miami-Dade County. The position was created in 2021, after Miami-Dade received a grant offer from the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.
Jane Gilbert, pictured, is the first chief heat officer in the world and focuses on reducing the stress of extreme heat on vulnerable communities in Miami-Dade County. The position was created in 2021, after Miami-Dade received a grant offer from the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. [ Miami-Dade County's Office of Resilience ]
Published Aug. 16, 2023|Updated Aug. 20, 2023

Jane Gilbert has felt the summer days grow hotter and longer in Miami over the years. Fewer children play outside, and outdoor gatherings are more rare than they used to be, she said.

While Gilbert does her best to plan activities around the hottest parts of the day, there is no avoiding the topic of heat in her everyday life.

It is her job, after all.

As the chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County, Gilbert is tasked with helping residents living in extreme heat. When she was appointed to the position in 2021, Gilbert was the first chief heat officer in the world, according to Miami-Dade County, and only a handful of people on the planet currently hold a similar position.

“Inform, prepare and protect people — that’s the work I’m doing right now, because we’re in the middle of heat season and an unprecedented, hot heat season,” Gilbert said.

In 2021, Miami-Dade County received a grant offer from the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, a nonprofit focused on climate resilience, to start an extreme heat initiative, which led to the formation of the chief heat officer position. The position lies within the office of resilience, which reports to Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

While positions dedicated to sustainability and climate resilience exist in the Tampa Bay area, no county official currently focuses only on the effects of heat.

In the thick of heat season

Miami-Dade County has a name for the blistering months from May to September: heat season.

“We established May 1 to September 31 as an official heat season, with a goal of raising awareness on the level that we do for hurricane awareness every year,” Gilbert said. “Because we have, similar to Tampa, chronic high heat.”

Much of the targeted messaging, like tips for staying cool or how to detect signs of heat-related illness, is directed to those who are most vulnerable to extreme heat, Gilbert said.

Miami’s proximity to water means the area’s temperature is not likely to get above 100 degrees, similar to Tampa Bay. Instead, Miami experiences days of high heat indices.

Across Florida, dangerously high heat indices have seized the state this summer. Locally, Tampa had its hottest July on record, dethroning a record set just last year. Miami spent 46 days with a heat index over 100 degrees, smashing a record set in 2020, the Miami Herald reported.

“Heat index is critical to understand, because our body regulates heat by sweating, and then that sweat evaporates off our body, but if you have high humidity, your body is not able to sweat as easily. That’s why the ‘feels like’ temperature goes up,” Gilbert said.

The Miami-Dade area is expected to have the highest increase of dangerously high heat of any county in the United States by 2053, according to the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that analyzes the country’s climate risk. Of the 20 counties in the United States that will see the largest increase in days with dangerously high heat, 18 are in Florida — including Hillsborough, Polk and Manatee counties.

An action plan for heat

Miami-Dade County released an Extreme Heat Action Plan in 2022 that outlines three goals: Inform, prepare, and protect people; cool homes and emergency facilities; and cool neighborhoods.

These are the guiding goals of Gilbert’s work.

Each day looks different for Gilbert. In the past she has worked on a series of heat trainings, one for health care providers, another last week for employers. During the heat season, she’s focusing on messaging for TV, radio, bus shelters and billboards. In the winter, Gilbert said, the county installed 1,700 air conditioning units to public housing residents.

The county commissioned a heat vulnerability analysis that looked at heat-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations by ZIP code in Miami-Dade. Certain ZIP codes had four times the number of heat-related hospitalizations as others in the county. Gilbert said the strongest correlating factors with hospitalizations were high poverty rates, elevated temperatures and a large percentage of outdoor workers.

“So that has sort of helped inform how we message, where we target messaging, where we target our interventions,” Gilbert said.

The county also launched a pilot program with the National Weather Service earlier this year that lowers the thresholds for heat advisories and extreme heat warnings to be issued.

The program began after the county looked at heat-related deaths and found that a majority were happening below previous heat advisory and warning thresholds, Gilbert said.

Previously, the heat index had to reach 108 for at least two hours to trigger a heat advisory. Now it’s 105. For an excessive heat warning, the heat index had to reach 113 for at least two hours. Now it’s 110.

“We very rarely hit a heat index of 108. It was like a 0.25 chance per year,” Gilbert said. “And that was the heat advisory, and we’ve never had a heat warning. So we decided to lower it to a level that we’d be comfortable with.”

Miami has had days of advisories and several excessive heat warnings since the change, Gilbert said.

In Tampa Bay, the area does not have the lowered thresholds. As in Miami, excessive heat warnings are rare — so much so that the first may have occurred on Wednesday when an airport east of Tampa registered a 116-degree heat index, according to the weather service. The airport tends to run a degree or two hotter than other locations, the weather service added.

Gilbert said when the weather service updated its thresholds, the county also extended hours for cooling areas like parks and libraries.

After days of heat advisories and a likelihood of more extreme heat over this past weekend, the city of Tampa opened cooling centers. Some cities and counties around Tampa Bay offered cooling kits and tips on how to stay cool, but did not open centers.

“I feel like it’s been an issue that’s been grossly underappreciated, but that also means the opportunity is with attention, with focus, we can actually make a difference,” Gilbert said.