What went wrong? Few answers as 'terrifying' heat slays 116
New state figures show at least 116 people succumbed to the harsh heat and sun that bore down on the Pacific Northwest from June 25 to June 28.
At its peak, temperatures reached a record-shattering 116 degrees in the Portland metro area.
The new tally provided by the Oregon State Police on July 7 provides no identifying details beyond the age, gender and county of residence of those who died — a stark listing of demographics that offers few hints of the human tragedy that unfolded.
A majority of the deaths — 72 — occurred in Multnomah County, 12 were reported in Clackamas County and nine in Washington County.
Marion County, which hosts the state's capitol as well as numerous agricultural areas, reported 13 deaths. Two deaths each were reported in Deschutes and Columbia counties, plus three in Linn County.
One death each was reported in Umatilla, and Polk counties.
Most of the people who died from the heat were over the age of 60, and the vast majority were men. In the latest count, 82 of the deceased were identified as men, compared with 34 identified as women.
At least three of those who died were in their 90s, 12 were in their 80s, 28 were in their 70s, 43 were in their 60s, 20 were in their 50s, eight were in their 40s, and two were in their 30s.
Multnomah County: Review of deaths will take 'months'
Officials in the state's most populous county, which also bore the brunt of the loss of life, have settled in for a lengthy review of the mass casualty event.
While reporters are seeking details on the deaths — including a breakdown of racial demographics and of homelessness status — officials say they simply do not have those answers yet.
"Death investigations require the detailed gathering and recording of facts: from scene observations, medical records, fingerprints and examinations to interviews with witnesses and next of kin," according to a news release. "Toxicology reports shed light on deaths and can take several months to be considered final."
Multnomah 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 inverventions as well as standard procedures.
"Our community is being pushed to extremes in new and frankly, terrifying ways," Kafoury said. "Our top priority has been and will continue to be protecting lives and ensuring that those with the least ability to protect themselves have what they need to survive."
Multnomah County Sustainability Director John Wasiutynski will petition state and federal authorities to bolster renewable energy and building resilience standards, and adovcate for low-income housing to be designed to withstand unprecedented weather events, among other climate proposals to be included in President Joe Biden's much-discussed but as of yet unrealized infrastructure plan.
"We should all be looking, at all levels of government, to pursue climate adaptation work that can be done right now, to save lives later," Wasiutynski said.
Local weatherization efforts and the West Gresham tree planting plan will continue, the county added.
Experts warn of worse to come
Experts say the extreme weather events experienced this year aren't merely random spikes in the data.
"For years now, scientists have warned that climate change will be accompanied by more extreme weather events. Two examples of this are the record setting Oregon snow and ice storms of February of 2021 and the Great Pacific Northwest Heat Wave of June 2021. These types of extreme weather events are likely to continue into the future," said KOIN 6 Meteorologist Steve Pierce, who is also president of the Portland Area Chapter of the American Meteorological Society
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