Our opinion: Where's the urgency from political leaders in reaction to heat deaths?
Oregon leaders' reaction to the state's deadliest heat wave has been disturbingly anemic. And their wimpy approach to fireworks in the midst of a dangerous drought has left us wondering if, when it comes to climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, our political leaders are all talk and no plan.
Come on, folks. Multnomah County lost nearly as many residents to heat in four days as Portland lost to homicides and auto fatalities in six months, combined: 50 homicides and 29 traffic deaths since the start of the year. And what have we heard from city and county leaders? No urgency; that's for sure.
The statewide death toll to the June 25 to 28 heat dome event stands at 116. That's also the high temperature reached in Portland on Monday, June 28, demolishing all records. But as horrible as the heat wave was, it was no surprise. Meteorologists had been predicting it for more than a week.
Still, city and county leaders held no press conferences in advance to urge caution. And in the aftermath, as hyperthermia deaths began to be reported, there still were no press conferences.
Cooling centers and libraries were opened, but that's how the government always reacts when temperatures start to approach 100. This heat wave was way, way worse than that. In Multnomah County, five more branch libraries were opened, bringing the total to nine, but the county has 19, meaning 10 remained closed.
We lack a lot of things in the metro area, but air-conditioned buildings aren't among them. Every unused school and gym should have been opened, and that's just the tip of the list of potential sites.
The follow-up has been equally lacking. No press conferences have been held in the aftermath. Few details of emergency responders' rescue work have been released. Was there an increase in 911 calls? We assume so. And it's been reported the 211 system failed because the recorded message was not updated for the heat and failed to connect callers to rides.
The majority of the state's deaths, 72, were in Multnomah County. County Chair Deborah Kafoury has ordered the Emergency Management, Health and County Human Services departments to conduct comprehensive after-action reviews of outreach teams, cooling shelter operations, staffing levels, targeted interventions as well as standard procedures. But she warns that that review will take months.
Tangentially related, we have to ask why Oregon didn't ban Fourth of July fireworks statewide given the drought conditions and the fatal, unprecedented wildfires of 2020. Instead, we were left with a disorganized hodge-podge of rules: No fireworks in Gresham; fire off as many as you like next door in Troutdale. Why?
The West Coast states ought to have issued a cross-state ban on fireworks due to the drought and fear of fires. Obviously, the federal Bureau of Land Management can do just that for national forests. It could be that the states are feeling pretty beat-up over all the political fuss surrounding COVID-19 restrictions; it could be they didn't want to risk the same political folderol over new fireworks restrictions.
Last year's wildfires and this year's heat dome incident share some things in common: They were fatal. They were unprecedented. And they require serious and speedy responses, not business-as-usual lethargy, from our regional leaders.
Unsigned editorials represent the views of the Pamplin Media Group editorial board. Members include President and Publisher Mark Garber; publishers Steve Brown and Nikki DeBuse, and editors John Schrag, Vance Tong and Dana Haynes.
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