Closing the water gap

Community Cares Kitchen employee Pam Keighley pulls a bottle of water out of the ice bucket Wednesday afternoon on River Street West near downtown Prince Albert. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Since June 29, Natalie Guimond and her team with the Prince Albert Grand Council Urban Service’s Community Cares Kitchen have worked hard to close the water gap.

On Wednesday, as temperatures soaring to a sweltering 33 C, that meant parking the kitchen’s mobile cube van on River Street West and handing out cold bottles of water and fruit to vulnerable Prince Albert residents.

So far they’ve provided an average of 450 bottles of water a day, and left roughly 150 bottles on the riverbank for those who missed out.

“Around noon we’re coming out with water and other juices, and that’s usually two to three bottles per person,” Guimond said during a short break Wednesday afternoon.

“With our vulnerable population, we’ve been meeting with as many as we can to keep reminding them the point of service is at the riverbank.”

Normally, the Community Cares Kitchen focuses on providing warm meals twice a day at Access Place. However, they’ve started providing those meals down at the riverbank too, along with cold water and other services. Guimond said many residents can’t make the trip to Access Place, even when temperatures aren’t climbing to near record levels.

Guimond and her team have sought feedback from vulnerable Prince Albert residents to help improve their services. The community kitchen wants to know what’s working, and want isn’t, and Guimond said the best way to find out is asking the people they serve.

“With the heat wave, we’re dealing with such a different dynamic because a lot of our services, even pre-pandemic, are at reduced numbers,” she explained. “You’re not seeing the same services open, so those cooling locations weren’t really available in the first place. Right now, with COVID measures, we have adapted very quickly to provide service.”

Some communities, like Saskatoon, have a formal emergency heat strategy where several community partners provide cool down locations and distribute water. The City of Saskatoon activated their strategy on June 28 when temperatures peaked at 29.9 C.

Service providers in Prince Albert say plans here are a lot less formal, and the presence of COVID-19 has made it a difficult challenge to respond to.

“We do recognize the need to do something,” River Bank Development Corp. manager Brian Howell said in an interview on Thursday.

“I don’t know why we didn’t get started sooner, but we didn’t, and we’ll see if we can find something (that works.) I don’t even think we can make it for this heat wave because it’s over by Saturday, but there’s a long summer here and I think it’s really time to get working on a plan.”

The vulnerable people’s working group, which includes city officials, police and community service groups, met earlier in the week to discuss emergency heat wave strategies. They considered opening the Union Centre as a cool-off location, but Howell said the lack of air conditioning makes is a significant drawback.

The group plans to continue their search for a potential cool-off location on Friday. Howell said Prince Albert already does a good job of providing warm-up locations and programs during the winter, so they already have a foundation to build on for the summer.

“We’re not looking for anything fancy here like meals or programing or training or anything like that. We’re just looking for a cooling station, something to be available kind of on a daily basis which we’d run when it’s hot, and wouldn’t run when it isn’t hot,” Howell explained.

“We did really well last winter. We opened a shelter, a larger shelter, and then we came up with an emergency shelter when things got really bad. We had day programming and all of that, so I think we’ve got to actually start paying some of the same sort of attention to the summer.”

Howell added that other community and church groups like the Indian Métis Friendship Centre and outreach ministry The Gate have handed out water or allowed vulnerable residents to cool off inside in small groups, but it’s difficult to mount large-scale efforts while keeping everyone safe from COVID.

“We’re still kind of under COVID guidelines, so it’s a few (plans) here and a few there,” Howell said. “That will be over by July 11, so then we’ll be doing better.”

Prince Albert just barely avoided setting a new heat record on Wednesday, when temperatures peaked at 32.7 C at around 5 p.m. That’s just off the 33.3 C mark recorded in 1944, and residents can expect more of that in the next day or two.

Environment Canada is calling for highs of 38 C on Friday, and 34 C with a 30 per cent chance of showers on Saturday.

Lyle Karasiuk with Parkland Ambulance Care Ltd. said they received few calls related to the high temperatures earlier in the week, but that’s changed the longer the heat wave continues.

“It usually takes a few days before (the effects) trickle down,” Karasiuk said during an interview on Tuesday. “We’re already starting to see an increase in people having heat related issues.”

Karasiuk advised residents to get creative when it comes to staying cool. He suggested families take advantage of outdoor spray parks, and drop in at public buildings with air conditioning if their homes get too hot.

“Anywhere you can go that’s cooler than simply staying where you’re at,” he said. “Find some water, stay in the shade as best you can, use sunscreen, (and wear) a hat.

“I know these are messages that we keep repeating over and over, but it’s really about trying to get cool and do your best to do so as safely as possible.”