Preparing New York for Climate and Health Impacts

Kizzy Charles-Guzman

Kizzy Charles-Guzman is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work on the front lines to protect public health in a changing climate.

New York City already faces serious climate risks, such as heat waves, flooding, and coastal storms, which pose a significant risk to the health and safety of 8.2 million New Yorkers.  For example, in 2006, a 10-day heat wave led to the deaths of 40 New Yorkers due to heat stroke and to an estimated 100 more natural-cause deaths than expected.  Since 2009, nine heat waves, five tornados and two major hurricanes impacted the city.  In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy struck New York City with a record-shattering storm surge, causing 44 deaths and numerous injuries, unprecedented, extensive damage to coastal neighborhoods, flooding major roads and buildings, disruptions in transit service throughout much of NYC, and billions of dollars in damage.  Many may think of climate change as representing only a future risk. But in reality, as health professionals and New York City agencies that respond to protect our city’s residents know, we already face public health risks related to extreme weather events.  Even before Superstorm Sandy’s enormous impact, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (hereafter, “the Health Department”) had for several years supported programs and policies to prevent illness and death from heat waves, safely remediate moisture and mold problems, and address mental health consequences of disasters.

The New York City Panel on Climate Change projects that, with climate change, these types of extreme weather events will only increase in frequency, duration, and intensity.  New York City is expected to face higher average summer temperatures and more rapidly rising sea levels, as well as more frequent and intense extreme weather events in the decades to come, potentially leading to many adverse health effects.  Compounding these threats is the fact that the City has several characteristics that can intensify climate hazards. Its dense urban development contributes to the urban heat island effect during heat waves. Its highly developed shorefront places many residents in places prone to flooding in coastal storms. Its many high-rise residences can strand residents without elevator service and running water during power outages. Its diverse neighborhoods vary greatly in level of vulnerability to extreme weather events. 

Over the last three years, the Health Department successfully implemented a Climate and Health program, which enhanced the City’s understanding of climate-related public health risks, identified vulnerable communities, characterized heat health awareness and behaviors to inform improved messaging, established collaborations with key partners, conducted outreach and developed heat wave readiness tools for service providers that serve vulnerable New Yorkers, and provided public health risk information to inform citywide sustainability and climate resilience planning efforts.  This program contributed to the Superstorm Sandy response by developing and validating new cold illness symptom surveillance methods and implementing surveillance in the aftermath.

We still have a long road ahead of us. Our goal at the Health Department is to become climate-ready by strengthening our current responses and interventions, ensuring that we have the capacity, tools, and resources to be more effective in the future, and implementing strategic interventions that protect vulnerable neighborhoods, including the City’s growing population of seniors and other high-risk groups, from hazards likely to be exacerbated by climate change.

After years of working in service of New York City residents, I am honored to have been chosen as a White House Champion of Change and to work with colleagues at the Health Department and in other agencies committed the City’s health and environment.  My team and I are motivated by the knowledge that our densely developed, transit-friendly, coastal city is not only a great place to live and work, but it affords our growing population a less carbon intensive lifestyle than the average U.S. citizen. By working with our partners to help our communities recover, rebuild, and prepare for the next climate-related threat, we are also contributing to the City’s sustainability and climate change mitigation goals.

Kizzy Charles-Guzman is the Director of the Climate and Health Program at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

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