State, county agencies struggled with lethal Oregon heat
Although Multnomah County officials have been planning for extreme heat events for years, they did not anticipate the three days of triple digit temperatures in late June suspected of killing 115 people statewide.
Most of the confirmed and suspected deaths, 71, were in the county, even though it only includes around 20% of the state's population.
"Over the last several years, Multnomah County developed an extreme heat response plan with a range of interventions meant to help the community prepare for events of differing severity. But no one predicted a heat event of this magnitude at this time. We used every intervention in our plan and several that we improvised in short order," according to the "Preliminary Report on Excessive Heat Deaths in Multnomah County June 2021."
The report was released at a press conference attended by Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury on Tuesday, July 13. She is the first top elected official in the state to answer questions from reporters following the heat wave.
Kafoury began her remarks by extending her deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who died. She promised the county would work with state and local official to improve all of their responses to such events.
"In this report, and in the even deeper reviews you will see in coming months, we will find the lessons," Kafoury said.
Appearing with Kafoury were Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines, Chief Medicolegal Death Investigator Kimberly DiLeo and Emergency Management Director Chris Voss, who said his office hopes to release a more complete analysis with recommendations for short-term responses within 30 days.
"There is still a lot of summer left," Voss said.
According to the report, 54 of the victims are confirmed to have died of hyperthermia, or having an abnormally high body temperatures. Most were white, male, older and 78% lived alone in their homes. Few had working air conditioning or fans.
More than half lived in multifamily dwellings, the report said. Of the people who died, 45% lived on the third or higher floor of their building. At least four people died in apartment buildings charged with caring for vulnerable people. Three people died in apartment buildings owned and managed by Home Forward. And one person died in a building owned and operated by Central City Concern. Two individuals died in an independent senior living community.
Two people who died were homeless. Both were found in their vehicles.
Perhaps surprisingly, the ZIP code with the highest number of deaths — six — includes the affluent Pearl District in Northwest Portland.
Responses hampered by heat, staffing shortages
The report admits the deaths occurred despite an intensive effort to prevent them. Among other things, the county opened three large, 24-hour cooling centers and nine cooling spaces, directly contacted tens of thousands of vulnerable elders, people with disabilities and pregnant women, distributed hundreds of fans, and sent more than 60 outreach teams into the field to reach people experiencing homelessness.
"While the county responded with the full set of public health interventions — intensive communication, outreach and public cooling spaces — we are humbled by the death toll and are committed to learning all we can about who succumbed and why," the report reads.
The response was hampered because the 211 referral center was not staffed on evenings or the weekend, and its recorded message was not updated to include references to the cooling centers until two days into the heat wave. Even then, the MAX light rail system shut down because of the heat, making it harder for people to reach them. And as first reported by The Oregonian, Portland Parks & Recreation did not open any of the community centers that had been closed by the pandemic. An inquiry from the Joint Office of Homeless Services did not amount to a formal request, and parks staffing is currently low because of previous pandemic-related layoffs.
The report blames climate change for increasing the frequency and severity of extreme heat events more than anticipated just a few years ago.
"What is clear even now is that climate disruption is making extreme heat events more frequent, more intense and longer in duration," the report reads.
"In a little more than 50 years, within the lifetimes of our children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects Multnomah County will experience 38 days over 90 degrees each year, far surpassing the current record of 29 days set in 2015."
"We need to work together as humans to save our planet right now," Kafoury said.
Many deaths were preventable
The press conference and release followed a briefing by top Oregon officials on the heat wave on Monday, July 12. Office of Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps said many of the deaths were preventable. The victims either did not know help was available or could not reach it in time.
"One of the heartbreaking things about this heat wave is that there were resources that were available to communities, whether it was cooling centers or transportation, and folks couldn't access those resources to protect themselves," Phelps said.
The officials also said the heat wave was part of a series of extreme weather events aggravated by climate change that governments and the public must better prepare for.
The thermometer readings were "otherworldly," Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said. "The reality is that such excessive and deadly conditions are here to stay."
According to Phelps, the heat wave followed 18 months of weather-related catastrophes. Since early 2020, the state has had historic floods in Eastern Oregon, wildfires that burned over 1 million acres, smoke smothering the entire state, power outages from ice storms and a protracted drought that has reservoirs in some areas at a fraction of their designed capacity. Firefighters currently are battling dozens of grass and forest blazes, with the largest in Southern Oregon.
Phelps said the state has launched a review of the response to the heat wave. It's an effort to alter expectations of both the public and officials as to what is "normal" when it comes to weather.
One question on the table: Why didn't Gov. Kate Brown make an emergency declaration as the heat wave approached?
Phelps said he believed most people knew well ahead of time that the heat wave was coming and to take precautions. The emergency declaration would not have changed public agency responses, he said.
"If you overuse a tool like an emergency declaration just to sound an alarm, it becomes white noise in the background," Phelps said.
The report can be found here.
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