Oregonians struggled to harness resources during heat wave

Residents of Oregon struggled to get to cooling centers during the recent heat wave that claimed hundreds of lives in the Pacific Northwest, officials said Monday, and staff shortages prevented callers from reaching operators of an information line.

State officials are reviewing their response to scorching temperatures that broke all-time records in the region late last month as the American West grapples with a historic drought and climate change makes the more common and intense extreme weather conditions. Oregon has blamed 116 heat deaths, Washington has reported at least 91, and British Columbia officials say hundreds of “sudden and unexpected deaths” are likely due to soaring temperatures.

“One of the heartbreaking things about this heat wave is that there were resources available to communities, whether they were cooling centers or transportation, and people couldn’t access them. these resources to protect themselves, “Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon office of emergency management, said at a press conference.

In the week leading up to the heat wave in late June, Oregon officials reached out to suppliers, set up cooling centers, and connected with vulnerable populations, including the thousands of homeless people. who live on the streets of Portland and in low income communities.

One of the main complaints from community members was not knowing where to go to calm down and having trouble finding this information.

Calamity Payne, left, is a little emotional after arriving at the Cooling Center at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland on June 28, 2021. Payne and Daniel Gestri met at a library in Portland, where they had searched a respite from the heat with their rabbits. , but had to go to the convention center where pets were allowed.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

For days, officials have urged people to call a helpline that can connect them with health and social service agencies to learn more about cooling centers and transportation. But as temperatures started to rise, people said they couldn’t reach an operator.

“We found out that 211 was not staffed over the weekend, so we asked what it would take to staff the center so people can get the information they need,” and Fariborz Pakseresht, director of the Oregon Department of Social Services. “They told us that they needed additional funding to staff the center. We then provided the funding and staffed the phone lines during the heat wave.”

Another major challenge, officials said, was educating residents, many of whom do not have air conditioning and are used to mild summers at first, about the danger of extreme heat.

“Historically, few places in Oregon have experienced a substantial number of days above 90 degrees,” said Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority. “Yet, due to climate change, almost the entire state will have to prepare for steady increases and extreme heat over the next few decades.”

Temperatures have reached as high as 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland.

State officials say as heatwaves become more common, they are adapting to climate change and updating their response to extreme weather conditions, including talking more with cities and counties about what they need to help residents.

Meanwhile, Multnomah County leaders plan to release a preliminary report on the excessive heat deaths from the recent heat wave on Tuesday.

Democratic Governor Kate Brown last week asked agencies to study how Oregon can improve its response to heat-related emergencies and adopted emergency rules to protect workers from extreme heat after the death of a farm worker.

The review of state actions will look at the number and location of cooling centers, the speed and frequency with which health data is provided for emergency management, and how agencies communicate and think through risks, said Phelps, the emergency management agency chief. .

Phelps said officials would also look at the specifics of cooling centers – their size, location, number per capita and proximity to vulnerable populations.

“The extreme heat conditions we experienced in Oregon last month felt like another world. Oregon has seen triple-digit numbers before, but the idea that cities like Portland and Salem could exceed 110 degrees, let alone exceed 115 degrees and only do so in late June, seems unthinkable, ”he said. said Allen, the director of the health authority. “But the reality is that such excessive and deadly conditions can be here to stay.”


Cline is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative Corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.

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