‘It makes me sick:’ Extreme heat hits Central Florida’s lower income communities

Heat Island Effect contributes to higher summer temperatures

ORLANDO, Fla. – As Central Florida sets records for extreme heat, the rising temperatures are threatening some residents’ health.

“In the morning time, I’ll sit out here and drink a cup of coffee or a cup of tea,” said Wynine Lewis. “It’s always quiet, but sometimes it gets noisy.”

Lewis said she seeks the shelter of her covered patio and a wet washcloth around the back of her neck.

Orlando set a record of 100 degrees on Saturday, with “feels like” temperatures well above 110 degrees, and as a resident of Orlando’s Paramore neighborhood, she said she feels the heat.

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Meteorologists call it the Heat Island effect.

That’s when buildings in a city’s downtown reflect the heat of the day, sending much of it into the communities right outside the city center.

Heat islands are often seen as a rise in temperature in a city's urban area, such as a downtown. (Courtesy: Climate Central / Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

News 6 measured a six-degree difference between the temperature in downtown Orlando and the News 6 studios, which were six miles away.

The communities that surround a downtown center are traditionally lower income, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the people who live there are also more prone to have pre-existing health conditions that can flare up in the heat.

Lewis, who lives in Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood right outside of downtown, said she takes medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol.

“I’m not supposed to be out there in the heat,” she said. “When I take my meds. I’m not supposed to be out there in the heat, so I stay inside.”

News 6 asked her what happens when she goes outside when it’s hot.

“It makes me sick,” she said. “I feel like I am going to fall out.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76% of Lewis’ neighbors take medication for high blood pressure, 17% take medication for heart disease and 13% take it for asthma.

The CDC indicates all of these conditions make people more prone to dehydration and heat stroke.

More than half of Parramore’s residents live below the poverty line, which makes air conditioning a luxury in some cases.

“I mostly run my air conditioner in my bedroom,” Lewis said. “I got my light bill this month, and it was just so high. It was $211.”

Lewis lives in a two-bedroom, cinderblock home with two window units.

Communities like Paramore can be found in any Central Florida community with a downtown core.

Working to get results

“Unfortunately, those who die from heat-related illnesses, stroke and different things are the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community — the disadvantaged community,” said community activist Lawanna Gelzer.

Gelzer said she secured grant money to start what she called “The Beat the Heat Task Force.”

Recently, she invited community leaders from all over to pick up emergency packets of small fans, electrolytes, thermometers, and cooling packs to give out to their neighbors. She’s also encouraging them to take an Extreme Heat Survey.

“Senior citizens — they’re out in their yard, they walk in, they’re doing this and it’s just so hot,” said Georgia Gordon with the Tangelo Park Civic Association.

Gelzer said she was working to get more cooling centers open, so when it gets hot, people have a place to go.

She is also working on measuring the heat throughout the area to get a better understanding of how hot it gets.

She said she hopes to use that data to apply for other grants in the future.

“Global warming and all the things that we’ve been talking about for years is here. Let’s get prepared,” she said.

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About the Author:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.