Surviving a heat wave with no A/C: Hotels, frozen sheets and cold showers

A shoreline is packed with swimmers and people on the sand beneath umbrellas.
The Labor Day crowd at Huntington Beach.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Sept. 7. I’m Brittny Mejia, a Times Metro reporter, coming to you from an apartment with no central A/C.

As California experiences its most severe heat wave this year, expected to last through Friday, those without air conditioning are struggling to stay cool.

Karen Tapia, 22, doesn’t have A/C in the four-bedroom rental home in South L.A. that she shares with her parents, brothers and 7-month-old daughter. The owner, she said, doesn’t want to have it installed.


Although state law and building codes require residential units to have heating to maintain temperatures of 70 degrees indoors during cold weather, there is no requirement for air conditioning or other cooling mechanisms to keep residents safe from extreme heat.

Instead, Tapia’s family relies on fans, bottles of water and cold showers. Tapia takes her daughter to the grocery store to take advantage of the A/C there and keeps a fan on her when they’re in the house.

This year, she said, feels hotter than it did when she was growing up. Back then, it seemed there was no need to spend days outside trying to escape the heat.

“We all hang out outside now,” she said of her family. “We try not to talk to each other too much, because it’s like any little thing gets us so irritated.”

On Sunday night, around 11, it was 83 degrees, but the family sat outside because it felt cooler than in the house. With the baby in mind, they lighted a candle made for warding off mosquitoes.

“We just try to survive,” Tapia said, “because it’s really hot — especially right now.”


The percentage of households without air conditioning ranges across the state. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Housing Survey showed that 53% of households in the San Francisco metro area didn’t have A/C. In the L.A. metro area, it was about 20% of households. But to the far north, in Samoa, Calif., residents likely don’t worry about A/C, as a weather phenomenon keeps temperatures down.

Meanwhile, in sunny Southern California, there’s data showing which households don’t have A/C. In a USC study, researchers analyzed 2015-16 electricity use by more than 180,000 households to see where people didn’t have air conditioning and how those neighborhoods may be affected as climate change fuels more extreme heat waves.

They found that, across most of Southern California, people living in areas with higher poverty levels are less likely to have air conditioning.

“Generally, poorer neighborhoods had much less A/C penetration than richer neighborhoods,” said Kelly Sanders, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC and co-author of the study. “A lot of the poorer neighborhoods in Southern California tend to be pretty densely populated, and they tend not to have a lot of green space, and that exacerbates what we refer to as the urban heat island.”

Cameron Pfister, his girlfriend and their 3-year-old pug, Benny, have lived in a studio apartment in Hollywood for a little more than a year and never thought they needed A/C until last week.

“It’s never been as hot as it is right now,” Pfister said.

When temperatures started to rise, the couple purchased an A/C unit from Home Depot. They returned it the next day because it drew too much power, and their electricity went out. The three spent more time in the car with the A/C on to keep the dog from panting in thestuffy apartment.

But as Labor Day neared, and with temps expected to soar, they decided to use a gift card and stay in an El Segundo hotel for a night.

“I know some people definitely don’t have the resources to be able to just go do that kind of thing on a whim,” Pfister said. “We’re pretty grateful.”

The three are in the process of moving back home to Phoenix, he said, “where pretty much every single apartment or house has air conditioning.”

When Hazciel Vidrio’s A/C broke over the weekend, he set a metal bowl filled with ice in front of a fan for some relief. The cubes quickly melted in the 102-degree heat. His family members each had an ice pack and put a towel over one for their two cats to lie on.

“I was very skeptical of all these tricks I found online,” Vidrio said, “but it helped.”

But on Saturday afternoon, as it grew progressively hotter in their Simi Valley home, Vidrio’s sister took her kids — including a 3-year-old — to the cooling center at the Simi Valley Public Library. Vidrio stayed behind and began searching for a hotel room, before someone agreed to come that night to fix the A/C. (“He saved our lives,” Vidrio said.)

Even after the A/C was fixed, they tried to cut back on its use — out of fear that it could break again. Vidrio put his queen-size sheets in the freezer and slept on them later that night. It kept him cooler.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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The FBI is investigating a cyber attack that disabled computer systems across the Los Angeles Unified School District school over the weekend. Besides taking the district’s website offline, the attack resulted in staff and students losing access to email. Systems that teachers use to post lessons and take attendance also went down. Los Angeles Times

Officials announce a 15-day watering ban for large areas of Los Angeles County. A temporary outdoor watering ban began this week and will affect more than 4 million people, as crews make repairs to a leaking major pipeline. The 36-mile Upper Feeder pipeline, which carries water from the Colorado River to Southern California, began leaking earlier this year. Los Angeles Times

A sprinkler waters a lawn in Los Angeles in May
A 15-day outdoor watering ban is in effect for 4 million Los Angeles County residents.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

For gang outreach workers, wrestling with psychological scars is now part of the battle. A 2021 University of Illinois-Chicago report found that many violence prevention workers grapple with post-traumatic stress disorder “as a result of witnessing shootings and their aftermaths, as well as engaging with victims of violence and family members related to victims.” Some felt judged over their lack of a formal education. Others described the sense of unease about coming in contact with police and probation officials — a source of trauma in the past. Los Angeles Times

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President Biden turns tables on Gov. Gavin Newsom by backing California farmworker bill. Sunday, the eve of Labor Day, Biden weighed in on a boiling fight between the United Farm Workers and Newsom over a bill the governor has signaled he will veto. “In the state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union,” Biden said. Los Angeles Times

A woman gestures as she speaks outdoors at a lectern on a sunny day.
First Lady Jill Biden addresses UFW leaders and supporters March 31, 2021, in Delano, Calif.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

California lawmakers approve a first-in-the-nation bill to protect kids’ privacy online. If the governor signs the bill, kids younger than 18 will get many more privacy rights online, according to CalMatters. The bill would be enforced by the state attorney general and could result in penalties of up to $7,500 per child for intentional violations. CalMatters


People are dying of fentanyl in county jails, begging the question: How is it getting in? Nine people died in Riverside County’s jails last year while being held as inmates. Five of them were killed by drug overdoses, according to the Desert Sun. So far this year, 11 have died in county jail custody, although the causes of death have not been reported. Desert Sun

A Contra Costa sheriff’s deputy, once named officer of the year, allegedly falsified a report to steal firearms from a court property room. The deputy was arrested last month on suspicion of grand theft of firearms, receiving stolen property, unlawful transfer of a firearm, falsifying a police report, destroying or concealing evidence, and possessing methamphetamine allegedly found during a search of his home. The county district attorney recused herself from a filing decision because the deputy served as her bailiff when she was a judge. The Mercury News

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Amid HIV/AIDS connection, fear of racial disparities for MPX grows. Public health experts and the general public have likened MPX — which is what the California Department of Public Health calls monkeypox — to the HIV and AIDS epidemic because of the disproportionate number of men who have sex with men contracting the virus. The connection has also raised alarm over history potentially repeating itself with the stigma, shame and subtle and blatant acts of racism men of color may face as MPX continues. Los Angeles Times

One of California’s best tools for fighting climate change? The beaver. They can divert rivers and streams with dams of sticks and mud and, in doing so, keep the land they occupy moist, which helps fight the ongoing drought. This year, the state has pumped more than $1 million into beaver restoration. San Francisco Chronicle

Closeup of a beaver in a body of water.
A beaver in Martinez, Calif.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

California vows to ban gas-fueled cars. But its record on big climate promises is mixed. It was the sort of bold, climate-focused initiative for which California has developed a reputation: an effective ban on the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035. But the historic vote by the California Air Resources Board follows a number of sweeping state environmental actions that have met with varying degrees of success. Now, as officials seek to fundamentally change California’s automotive culture — thereby reducing its largest source of planet-warming carbon emissions and air pollution — experts say those past initiatives may shed light on whether California’s nation-leading auto plan can work. Los Angeles Times


L.A. County’s first street psychiatrist treats patients where they live. Dr. Shayan Rab, a psychiatrist with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, leads a small but growing initiative in street-based treatment that is beginning to make inroads into the population of homeless people with untreated mental illness. The team practices an emerging specialty of psychiatry that has been gaining momentum over the past decade but remains rare in street medicine programs around the country. Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles: sunny, 98. San Diego: sunny, 87. San Francisco: sunny, 77. San Jose: sunny, 97. Fresno: scorching, 111. Sacramento: sunny, 108.


Today’s California memory is from Michael Montoya:

Falling asleep to the chirp of crickets and waking to the braying of the neighbor’s donkey, milkshakes at the Rexall drugstore with my grandfather, slipping through rusty barbed-wire fencing and playing in the 80 acres of open land behind my friend’s farm, swimming in mucky ponds and riding horses — these are not images one may normally associate with California, but they inhabit some of my fondest memories of my hometown, Loomis, about 20 miles north of Sacramento. I may live in New York now, but as a seventh-generation Californian, my heart will always belong to the Golden State.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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