Darlene Johnson and Christy Salazar were at the mercy of the triple-digit hot spell that occurred two weeks ago.
"I am living in a sweat box," said Johnson, sitting on the porch of a rental home in Modesto's Robertson Road area. "We have fans, but I'm pouring down sweat all the time. We had a cooler when we moved in, but the landlord took it out for some reason."
Salazar said they stayed in the shade outside the home and soaked their faces with a water hose during the spate of searing heat. The two friends and Johnson's husband share a two-bedroom home that's unbearable on normal summer afternoons and gets even hotter when the sunlight bears down on the exposed west side of the house after 4 p.m.
Researchers recently predicted that Modesto's Robertson Road neighborhood will be among the areas of California hardest hit by climate change.
The report from the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank, looked at the social impacts of atmospheric warming in California if or when the effects of climate change start to take hold in the decades ahead. Some climatologists believe the Golden State will see more frequent heat waves, wildfires, coastal flooding and erosion with the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The report released this month concludes that communities or neighborhoods most vulnerable to climate change are those with larger concentrations of older people, low-income households, renters, residents with chronic illness or people who work outdoors.
If the predictions hold true, global warming will have harsher effects on people in the Robertson Road, downtown and airport neighborhoods of Modesto. Also within the zones considered most vulnerable are Riverbank; rural areas stretching south of Modesto; Turlock; and Patterson.
The long-term projections for climate change in the valley include worsening air pollution and a large increase in days with temperatures well into the triple digits.
"A lot of vulnerability in the San Joaquin Valley is the large number of people who work outdoors in agriculture," said Heather Cooley, lead author of the report and co-director of the institute.
She added that it's well established that older people, especially those who live alone, are more susceptible to heat stroke or death caused by extreme temperatures. People in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to live in rental housing with poor air conditioning, to suffer from chronic illness or live in crowded conditions.
Residents who live in neighborhoods without tall shade trees also are more vulnerable to extreme heat.
Amelia Smith said many homes in the Robertson Road area don't have central air conditioning, forcing renters to try to stay cool with window-mounted units or swamp coolers. Smith, a stay-at-home mom, said her family gets by with fans, and she takes cold showers during the warmer months.
Much of the neighborhood has no tree canopy and it was common this week to see mothers with umbrellas walking children home from school.
Homero Mejia, executive director of Congregations Building Community, said it's clear to him that seniors, the disabled and families in disadvantaged areas will have fewer resources than affluent residents for adapting to climate change. The church-based group tries to improve the quality of life of the poor in Stanislaus County.
"If the temperatures are changing and you are living in substandard housing, it is going to impact you more," Mejia said. "In older sections of Modesto, you have dilapidated infrastructure where nothing has been improved for 40 to 50 years."
Time to plan
Cooley said that communities in California need to start developing plans for adapting to the harsher conditions of climate change. It could involve planning techniques to create cooler urban environments, requirements for adequate cooling systems in housing or construction of community centers where people can get out of the heat.
Brent Sinclair, director of economic and community development for Modesto, said the city's current efforts with regard to climate change are about meeting state mandates for reducing greenhouse emissions, for example, by limiting sprawl or building roads with more space for pedestrians and bicycles.
But there is no planning focused on adapting to a warmer environment. Sinclair said various climate-change scenarios predict some areas of the planet will be warmer and some cooler.
"We are going to work on the things we can. Better air quality is one thing we can work on and reducing our carbon footprint is another," he said.
The report and map identifying areas of California most vulnerable to climate change can be viewed at www.pacinst.org/reports/ climate_vulnerability_ca.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.