When the heat started building in the Pacific Northwest over the weekend, LeeAnn Floyd started having nightmares about people dying. Frustrated by what she said was a lack of any visible, detailed government or official suggestions for how to stay safe in a hot home, Floyd posted a thread of dozens of heat-beating tips to Twitter that soon went viral. The suggestions—ranging from what to eat to how to recognize heatstrokes to how to put “lightweight dress socks from the dollar tree” in the freezer to use as cooling aids—were crowdsourced, she said in a Twitter DM, from her own experiences and from “things that my grandparents and aunties did to keep our houses down south cool.”
Floyd, who said she’s been “desperately poor” for her whole life, put in a mutual aid callout in her thread: “If you only have 2 fans please drop your cashapp, PayPal, or venmo under this tweet and I will RT it because you’re gonna need more than 2 fans,” she wrote in one tweet. “This is not a 1 and Done event. You’ll be doing this every summer for the rest of our lives.” The tweet has dozens of responses from people asking for help to buy fans and other items.
Disaster aid agencies move slowly and funding can vary across states and cities. FEMA reimbursements and aid payouts can take months. In contrast, disasters like heat waves, fires, and floods are hitting unprepared cities with a vengeance, challenging already-broken infrastructure and creating new, immediate costs for struggling families. The government, which already struggles to help folks with their basic needs after decades of being hollowed out, is often ill-equipped to address those needs. A survey conducted last fall found that nearly two-thirds of Americans had been living paycheck-to-paycheck since covid-19 hit. During the pandemic, there was an explosion of mutual aid networks and a normalization of callouts for aid on social media. As we face mounting climate crises that test federal and local governments, mutual aid looks to be an effective way to help—and more people are starting to turn to it.
After reading Floyd’s thread, I was surprised at how comparatively little public information I could find on what to do and how to get help in a dangerous heat wave. The city of Seattle’s most visible resource on their main website is a list of cooling centers (most of which close after business hours), shelters for unhoused people, and pools and sprinklers; the list has a simple graphic up top instructing people to “find a cool or air-conditioned place to stay,” hydrate, and avoid time outside. A note at the bottom says that the city’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services is “distributing supplies to shelters.” The city’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have been sharing similar basic graphics and links to cooling centers, all a far cry from the extensive tips Floyd provided.
Crucially, I wasn’t able to find information about where to crowdsource free or reduced-rate supplies, like ice or cooling packs, or short-term loans or grants for fans or air conditioning units. That’s perhaps unsurprising in Seattle, the least-air conditioned metro area in the country. Some cities like New York have programs to help with the cost of installing an air conditioning unit. Those programs, however, can be burdensome and untenable when extreme heat hits; the New York program’s website lists a multi-step process, including submitting an application that includes a letter from a medical professional, for a benefit totaling no more than $800.
Floyd has some experience with the efficacy of turning to official programs for help. In Maine, where she’s spent most of her life, she said she doesn’t know of any programs designed to help people with heat waves, but has a pretty low opinion of the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides assistance to people to heat their homes. “It’s a slog to apply to and very rarely provides enough to make a noticeable difference,” she said.
Floyd said she has been helped by strangers giving money online before. “Community engagement and direct giving can change lives faster than anything else,” she wrote.
In an academic sense, the phenomenon of people banding together to help neighbors in a crisis is well-documented. More than 1 million people, for example, volunteered along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Volunteers are often at the forefront of the ad hoc groups of rescue organizations and nonprofits who come together after a big crisis. Volunteerism is so built into the fabric of our disaster response, in fact, that there’s a worry that mounting multiple crises is creating a “disaster fatigue” that could actually put more pressure on federal and state emergency management agencies. In this vacuum, it seems, smaller mutual aid networks are still functioning. They may even have an advantage with the simplicity of some of their asks. It’s a lot easier to send $20 to a person in need on Venmo than to get in your car and drive several hours to volunteer.
K.C., who lives in Seattle with her fiancé and two young children, is one of the people who responded to Floyd’s callout asking for help. (Since she does online sex work, she asked to be identified by initials only.) Her family moved to Seattle at the start of the pandemic, and weren’t able to get a car until a few months ago, limiting her job prospects. She’s been running an OnlyFans to make money, but she said June was her worst month. Her fiancé does several different maintenance and landscaping jobs, many outdoors. Her car has air conditioning but is sitting idle due to a broken catalytic converter that will cost $2,000 to fix.
She said in a Twitter DM that her apartment has a box fan, but she’s hoping to get some extra cash for other supplies, like sunscreen, sun hats, and frozen packs for food, since her apartment’s freezer is broken.
“Maybe even some water shoes for me and the Kids for our lake visits at night. … Enough things to keep us sane and cold,” she wrote. “That’s my main concern.”
Like Floyd, K.C. hasn’t seen any official outreach from the city offering help, but she has seen people organizing ad hoc neighborhood aid groups on Facebook to deliver supplies to residents, share tips to beat the heat, and crowdsource on stores that still have ice and other items. She shared several screenshots with me.
“Even THEY are reaching out to the neighborhood to help find / fund supplies,” she said of the aid groups.
Social media makes networking for help much easier, but mutual aid and community societies are older than the internet. Groups like Food Not Bombs, which has been organizing in cities worldwide to repurpose surplus food and give out free vegan meals since the 1980s, or the Shanti Project, which was one of the first groups to provide services to people with AIDS before many established nonprofits were willing to help, have long exemplified the tenet of community members providing help to fellow community members in need.
Charmane Neal is the executive director of Hey Y’all Detroit, a grassroots community group supporting families throughout Detroit with food access, literacy programs, and other needs. After 7 inches (17.8 centimeters) of rain fell on the Detroit metro area on Friday, flooding highways, streets, and basements across the city, Neal sprang into action. As of Monday, she was working with 80 families in different neighborhoods whose homes or cars had flooded.
When we spoke, Neal was working to get food and basic supplies to families who needed help. (The city had set up a hotline for flood victims to call; some local media reported this weekend that the line was busy and hard to get through.) She was also looking into buying pumps to drain flooded basements and researching local companies who could help out families in need. In the long run, she said she’s working on securing homeowners’ or renters’ insurance for those families; just two of the families she was working with, she said, had insurance.
Neal placed the blame for the flood squarely on the city, which, she said, has failed to address its infrastructure issues for years, adding to the severity of the climate crises its citizens are starting to face.
“We know Detroit gets a bad rap,” she told me. The people she helps, she said, “are not lazy, they are living at the poverty line or about to be at the poverty line. When things like this happen, it changes the whole trajectory of their life for a year. One bad day for them is like a couple of bad years because they’re just trying to pick back up the pieces.”