13 Investigates: Couple 'miserable' as heat index reaches 109 inside their home

Friday, August 25, 2023
Couple 'miserable' as heat index reaches 109 inside their home
13 Investigates recorded the "feels like" temperature across Houston. Tree-lined communities feel cooler than in less affluent parts of town.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Scraps of carpet and wood lay across the floor of Feast and Sheila Bennemie's Fifth Ward home.

It's the couple's attempt to close off cracks on the floor and keep the summer heat out of the poorly insulated 720-square-foot house they have been renting for four years.

So far this summer, Houston has had 33 days where the temperature has reached 100 degrees or higher. That's 13 away from the all-time record when Houston has 46 triple-digit heat days in 2011.

"It's so hot you just got to stay in one spot to try to be cool because if you move in the kitchen, you're going to sweat. You go in the bathroom, you're going to sweat," said 80-year-old Feast Bennemie. "It's kind of miserable. Sometimes I just wanted to walk out of here and then forget it."

There's no air conditioning in the couple's kitchen or bathroom. They just have an oscillating fan and two air conditioning units, one each attached to windows in the living room and bedroom.

The fans can only do so much to fight against the heat seeping into the home through every opening it can find.

Feast said sometimes the inside of their home feels hotter than outside.

He's not exaggerating.

Last Friday, 13 Investigates measured the heat index in the couple's bathroom, which has a small hole in the ceiling. The reading, which takes into account both temperature and relative humidity, showed a "feels like" temperature of 109 degrees.

Using an infrared thermometer, we also measured the temperature of the bathroom's walls. It registered at over 100 degrees.

"When you come in, it's just like outside," Sheila said.

Kevin Lanza, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center's School of Public Health, said low-income communities often suffer more than affluent communities during the summer months.

"If you have an older house, you may have more cracks (causing) different ways that air can infiltrate from outside," he said. "If your air inside isn't being actively conditioned or cooled through an air conditioning unit, then you truly may be turning your house into an oven."

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Lanza said in August 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, funded an urban heat island campaign across the City of Houston. Researchers installed devices in their cars that measured the air temperature and relative humidity in more than 80 Houston neighborhoods.

The study found temperatures across Houston varied by 17 degrees. Areas with more trees and shade produced cooler temperatures than concrete jungles filled with buildings and little tree canopy.

Cities can reduce temperatures and help alleviate the burden of living in a heat island by planting more trees that provide shade and thus lower the temperature for people in those communities, Lanza said.

INTERACTIVE: Search the map below to see the results of the urban heat island campaign. On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.

13 Investigates wanted to know just how much of a difference economic status and available shade makes when it comes to the temperatures communities experience.

Last Friday morning, our investigative team went a few blocks north of Rice University and then to the Gulfton area. In the afternoon, we looked at the heat index in the Heights and the Fifth Ward.

Our investigation found, while it felt like 105 degrees underneath a tree-lined sidewalk in the Rice area, it felt like 111 degrees in Gulfton.

That afternoon, it felt like 102 degrees in the well-shaded Heights and 121 degrees in the Fifth Ward, where the Bennemies live.

"It's miserable. It's just - it just really is," Feast said. "It's a miserable feeling."

13 Investigates reached out to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's office to ask about plans to address heat islands, but a spokesperson turned down our interview request.

We also reached out to Houston councilmember Tarsha Jackson, who represents the Fifth Ward, but her office said she was not available.

Harris County Public Health has also studied extreme heat vulnerability, including "factors such as socioeconomic status (and) pre-existing chronic diseases that put people at risk for poor health outcomes during extreme heat."

The county admits redlining, a government policy dating back to the 1930s that denied Black residents home loans, has contributed to some urban communities lacking "investment in greenspaces, and other infrastructure that would mitigate extreme heat.

"Extreme heat days, hotter nights, longer summers and higher energy demands are projected for the Greater Houston Area in the future," the county said in an email. "It is critical to understand that exposure to high temperatures and high humidity can cause numerous heat-related illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and death."

Statewide, at least 97 people have died due to heat-related illnesses, including 15 people in Harris County, according to data from the state health department and local medical examiner's office.


Every week, 80-year-old Feast rides his bike about two miles down the road to his bank in the Houston heat to make a payment toward their electricity bill.

With two fans struggling to keep the home cool, the couple told 13 Investigates that sometimes they have to borrow money to keep their electricity going.

"It's just so miserable, I say 'Baby I don't want to be here no more,'" Feast said. "If I had the money, I would move to another place where it's more comfortable for my wife and I."

The retired couple said they earn about $1,100 a month, with $750 of it going toward their rent. At 80 years old, Feast said he would work if he could, but once employers learn he's had two back surgeries, the jobs just don't work out.

Instead, Feast said he likes to volunteer in the community and visit charity organizations, hoping to stay active and make connections with people who can help the couple avoid having their electricity and AC cut off.

Even though the couple is struggling, 67-year-old Sheila said she knows some of her Fifth Ward neighbors have it worse.

"Because they don't have no air conditioning at all in this heat," she said. "They're miserable and hot. People can't get along because they're hot. It's just so much happening because of this heat."

An estimated 22,900 households in the Houston-metro area have zero air conditioning in their home, according to the latest U.S. Census data survey from 2021. An estimated 19,700 households in the metro area have air conditioning in just one room and 35,300 more have AC in just two rooms.

Lanza said even when residents have air conditioning, some families still suffer from the financial burden of running the AC throughout the day.

"Lower income communities oftentimes spend a larger portion of their gross household income on their cooling and because of this, it may be limiting and they have to make that horrific choice of deciding to cool their house or deciding to get other necessities such as food and water," he said.

'I just want to be happy'

Sheila loves to cook. But with no air conditioning in the couple's tiny kitchen, she has to open the back door anytime she's making a meal to keep somewhat cool, even if it is in the 90s or 100s outside.

It never takes long before Sheila, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor, starts sweating inside her home and she needs to sit down.

"When she says 'Baby, I'm getting dizzy,' I come in here and finish the cooking because I like to cook myself," Feast said. "I'm from Louisiana. I make that gumbo good."

But, it doesn't take long for Feast to start sweating, either.

The Houston Health Department told 13 Investigates that every June, it distributes about 400 air conditioning units to elderly and disabled residents who don't have AC in their homes.

The City of Houston has designated cooling centers, where residents can visit multi-service centers during normal hours - and sometimes extended hours on the weekend - to seek relief from the heat.

But, Sheila questions if that's enough.

"What about people that can't get around that well? How are they going to go if they don't have no transportation? How are we going to get to the cooling center," she said.

Residents who don't have transportation can call 311 for a free ride. The city told 13 Investigates that since June, 52 residents have requested and received rides to cooling centers.

But, lack of transportation isn't the only reason residents told us they don't utilize them.

"We're not big on leaving the house," Sheila said. "We're in a neighborhood where you don't leave your house. You try to stay and protect whatever you have. What little you have."

As record heat continues this summer, the couple said they will keep relying on their two small AC units and scraps of carpet covering cracks in the floor to keep them alive.

But, if conditions don't get better, they said they're just not sure how much more they can take.

"I came here in 1973 ... and I fell in love with Houston," Feast said. "I don't want to leave Houston just like that, empty handed. I came here with nothing. I don't want to leave with nothing. I don't want to do that. I just wanted to be happy and live comfortable."

For updates on this story, follow Kevin Ozebek on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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