Climate change threatens my Salton Sea community and others. California needs to prepare

Downed power lines stretch for blocks along Club View Drive in North Shore on Aug. 31, 2021.

Amid 112-degree heat, an overnight storm knocks down 33 power poles, leaving thousands of community members in the dark.

For four days, residents face unrelenting heat without access to power, cooling centers or medical equipment. This is not a dystopian future, but the reality that residents of my community, North Shore, experienced after a storm on Aug. 30, 2021.

The fact is, cities and counties in California are often not ready to respond to these disasters.

Patricia Leal-Gutierrez

Located adjacent to the Salton Sea, North Shore is one of the most underinvested communities in the Coachella Valley. Major resources like grocery stores, hospitals, 24-hour pharmacies and other critical services are accessible primarily by car — and almost 20 miles away. Severe lack of infrastructure results in frequent power outages, placing our rural community at greater risk of heat-related death and illness.

This threat is serious, and unfortunately not unique. Extreme heat events are becoming more frequent and severe across California, driving power outages and leaving communities woefully unprepared.

As the state finalizes the fiscal 2022-2023 budget plan and decides how to use surplus dollars, California has a tremendous opportunity to take steps to address fundamental gaps in community preparedness and climate resiliency. Such investments can support communities to be better equipped for the impacts of climate change.

Workers load bags of ice into North Shore residents' vehicles during a power outage in August 2021.

We can start by investing $1 billion in upgrading and constructing new neighborhood-based community facilities, so that when a community like mine is impacted by a major storm, there is a place to shelter and receive immediate services.

These trusted community spaces — libraries, health clinics and community resilience centers — will serve as critical access points for cooling during heat waves, clean air when the air quality is bad, backup power during grid emergencies, and ongoing community services and programs during climate emergencies and year round.

Lawmakers should also expand access to cooling and efficiency in the homes of vulnerable Californians by moving forward with a roughly $1 billion state budget proposal put forth by Gov. Gavin Newsom for heat pump retrofits and other home upgrades in low-income households, including mobile homes. Investments in clean energy appliances and the infrastructure necessary to support and sustain them, paired with tenant protections, would help ensure the health and safety of residents facing extreme and dangerous heat.

Additionally, such investments will support the short- and long-term economic sustainability of communities like North Shore.

It is critical that the California Legislature heeds the warnings of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which found that soon extreme heat will cause more deaths annually than car accidents, and move forward with plans to offer greater protections for Californians from extreme heat and extreme weather change.

This budget is an opportunity for California to truly start investing in communities of color, like the community of North Shore, and is a critical opportunity to respond to the reality that climate change is impacting every single one of us. The right infrastructure must be in place to safeguard residents.

Patricia Leal-Gutierrez lives in North Shore and is a senior policy and research analyst with the nonprofit group Advancement Project California.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Climate change threatens communities, and California isn't prepared