The One Woman In Miami Rooting Against the Heat
How do you promote ‘beating the heat’ in a city that desperately wants them to win?
Miami has two heat seasons and this year, against all odds, they happen to overlap.
The No. 8-seed Miami Heat have played deep into June against the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals after having notched an improbable series win against the No. 2-seed Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals and hung on for an all-important road win in the best-of-seven championship series that started in the Mile High City last week. Though Miamians are no strangers to winning, the 2023 team’s endearing underdog narrative has ignited Heat fever across the county, and country, with many former Floridians making the pilgrimage home just to root for their team.
Quietly, though, a group of public officials in Miami-Dade County is doing everything in their power to ensure that the heat doesn’t win.
A former high school basketball player herself, Jane Gilbert is aware that rooting against the heat in Miami is practically sacrilege. But in a sense, it’s her full-time job: Gilbert is the city’s Chief Heat Officer. The first-of-its-kind position was established to strategize and mobilize against Miami’s extreme heat; for her, the heat season runs “the opposite of our basketball season,” from May 1 to October 31 each year.
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Though the position of a Chief Heat Officer has now been replicated by Phoenix, L.A., and a number of international cities including Monterrey, Mexico; Athens, Greece; and Dhaka, Bangladesh, Miami-Dade County was “the first community in the world to establish an official Heat Season” and Heat Officer post, Daniella Levine Cava, the Miami-Dade County mayor (not to be confused with the mayor of the city of Miami or the mayor of Miami Beach), told Heatmap. “This initiative is critical to help us prepare and protect people, particularly the most vulnerable, from the threat of this ‘silent killer.’”
Extreme heat is the deadliest weather phenomenon in the United States, although it’s not the highest profile, especially in a besieged state like Florida. For most Americans on the outside looking in, climate change in the Sunshine State manifests as rising sea levels, hurricanes, and Governor Ron DeSantis’ increasing denialism. That’s not necessarily how it’s experienced first-hand, though; in fact, when low-income communities in Miami-Dade were asked their top concern related to climate change, it wasn’t sea level rise or even hurricanes that they pointed to: It was the heat.
Heat is different in Florida than in the Western United States “where you get the extremes, those heat waves,” Gilbert explained to me. “Here we have chronic high heat.” While the danger for populations in places like the Northwest is a lack of preparedness for extreme heat events, “what we worry about [in Miami] is A/C-insecure and energy insecure populations where they can’t afford the utility bills anymore because of the combination of all costs.” Then there’s Gilbert’s nightmare scenario: a “widespread power outage during a hot time like we had with Hurricane Irma in 2017,” when 12 nursing home residents died from heat exposure.
Chronic extreme heat will be a fact of Miami-Dade’s future. The county already has 50 more days with a heat index over 90 than it did half a century ago — “I’ve been here 27 years, and I feel the difference,” Gilbert told me. Studies have found that Miami-Dade will “likely suffer the most extreme change” in temperature of any region in the U.S.
Gilbert, who was appointed to her office as part of Miami’s overarching Resilience Center program in 2021, sees much of her job as reaching the right people in a voice that they’ll be receptive to. That’s both literal — PSAs are distributed in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole — but also involves the more delicate art of building authority and trust. Reaching an “elderly single woman,” for example, “is different than a construction worker; that’s different than a pregnant mom with young kids.”
Adding to this trickiness, of course, is how to get the word out about the Miami heat without getting it confused with, you know, the other Miami Heat. When researching this piece, I found that even a specified Google search of “extreme heat Miami” turned up superlative results about the basketball team. “It’s both a blessing and a little bit of a challenge because certainly I don’t want [the message to be] ‘Beat the Heat,’ right?” Gilbert, who’s a fan of the team, said. Luckily, the Heat basketball team seems amused by the connection too: “They sent me my own personalized jersey when I was appointed,” Gilbert added, “which was very nice.”
It’s unclear at this point how far the Heat will make it in the finals; if they lose on Friday night, they’ll be down 1-3 in the series, putting them on the cusp of what would be a heartbreaking, if anticipated, defeat. But for Gilbert and her team, the days ahead are all about pace, discipline, and hustle. There’s a long season ahead and it’s just getting started.
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