Seniros may get cooling shelters : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Published Tuesday, April 17, 2001, in the Contra Costa Newspapers

Seniors may get cooling shelters


The county is looking at ways to help elderly residents beat the heat during power blackouts


California's energy crisis is stoking interest in lining up cool shelters where seniors can go to survive the summer heat when blackouts silence their air conditioners.

Worried about the elderly with heat exhaustion and stroke, Contra Costa County officials said Monday they will form a task force to search for air-conditioned buildings in zones exempt from the systematic power outages. Seniors in the areas east of the Oakland-Richmond area-- where the mercury soars past 100 degrees several days a year -- could go there to beat the heat.

They will seek advice from governments in the Midwest and East with experience in sheltering the aged and frail from heat. "The concern is that when the heat hits us and we have rolling blackouts, we need to have places to take people who are most at risk," said Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier of Concord. "The energy crisis is very real and it's going to have real impacts on people. We need to be prepared."

PG&E has been forced to institute four days of blackouts so far this year. The utility predicts more frequent outages this summer as air conditioning use drives up electricity consumption.

At a meeting in Sacramento last week, social service administrators from other counties suggested they also may look into shelters, said Bob Sessler, director of the county's aging and adult services agency. "This is brand new issue to us because we haven't had power problems like this. Our first step is to find out how it's done in other areas of the country and then adapt what they've learned," Sessler said.

Officials say they need to know who has cool buildings to spare, and how people can be transported there once they get a timely warning. Getting advance warnings of outages also could be another problem, officials say.

PG&E officials say they expect blackouts will not last longer than two hours in any one area, but offer no guarantees.

Seniors are especially vulnerable to death and ailments related to heat because natural aging processes decrease the body's ability to sweat and thirst, therefore cool off. Seniors accounted for more than half of the 6,000 heat-related deaths across the nation between 1974 and 1995, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"There is a health risk to seniors and others, particularly dehydration and heat exhaustion," said Wendel Brunner, Contra Costa's public health director. He said he also is concerned that some seniors on a tight budget may put their health at risk by turning their air conditioners off during sweltering weather to save money.

"With the increasing rates, I think we will see a lot of people forgoing their air conditioners," Brunner said. He recommends that on very hot days, seniors are especially careful to restrict physical activities, stay cool and drink lots of liquids.

County Supervisor Donna Gerber of Walnut Creek agreed the county should draw up a plan for temporary cool places. "I have many questions about how to do it, but we definitely should look into it."

PG&E spokesman Staci Homrig said she could not advise the county on proposing cool shelters, but added that it's important for customers to have back-up plans to care for people at risk if the power goes out. "Even if we were not dealing with outages, you can always have a car that knocks down a line, and it could be hours before power is restored," Homrig said.

Denis Cuff covers county government and industrial safety. Reach him at 925-228-6172 or

-- Swissrose (, April 18, 2001

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