MULTNOMAH COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — As summer begins, the turn of the season marks nearly one year since an unprecedented heat dome baked the Pacific Northwest with temperatures higher than 115 degrees. 96 people died across Oregon, including 72 in Multnomah County. The county has now changed how it will approach extreme heat events in 2022.
Instead of 3 large cooling centers, emergency management director, Chris Voss said they have identified 18 locations of various sizes around the city in order to be more accessible for people in need of relief.
How the centers are supplied will change as well, after the county acquired one warehouse to store all of its emergency response equipment, in terms of water, blankets, beds and food.
During an emergency heat declaration, TriMet fares will also be waived to take community members to cooling centers.
“We know we can support more shelters and support them faster,” Voss said.
It comes as Portland will warm up quickly to start summer, from temperatures in the 60s last week, with 90s expected over the weekend.
“Early on in the summer, there’s a lot more risk especially if you haven’t acclimated to the heat. So, the fact we have gone from such a cold spell to actually starting to see some warmth here, that can play in,” Voss said.
Voss does not expect cooling centers to open this weekend, saying the heat event is “moderate” according to the National Weather Service, the worst of the heat is forecasted to be short lived, and the night time temperatures are cooler than during the 2021 heat dome.
Oregon Health & Science University associate professor Dr. Sean Robinson says there are things people can do to get themselves ready for the heat, like being in physically fit shape.
“The best strategy is to stay hydrated, slow down, seek shade and really pay attention to your body in for those early warning signs of heat stroke and pull back with whatever you’re doing,” Robinson said.
Robinson says symptoms like nausea, dizziness, pins and needle feelings, extreme sweating are some of those signs to pull back.
Both Robinson and Voss say people should check in on their family members and neighbors who are elderly or have health issues in order to make sure they are staying cool and staying safe.
Robinson says cooling them down immediately is the best way to save their life.
“There are lots of data that if you don’t cool them down within the first 30 minutes, the risk of death increases. So, you want to cool them down before they even go to the hospital.”
State also made changes following 2021 heat dome
The tragic deaths in 2021 prompted state lawmakers to come up with solutions that will help Oregon’s most vulnerable — measures signed into law back in March. This weekend’s heat wave will be the first time we could see this law in action.
Many across Oregon will likely seek out cool spots like splash pads to escape from the heat this weekend. However, a dip in the pool or a chilly air conditioner are not always options for many of the state’s most vulnerable people.
“After that heat dome had passed, we realized more than 100 Oregonians died of the heat,” said Rep. Pam Marsh who serves southern Jackson County. “Largely people who lived in manufactured homes or on the higher stories, multistory buildings, people who were often by themselves and couldn’t get to some place cooler.”
It’s a tragedy the state doesn’t want repeated this year, prompting lawmakers to get to work on solutions that can work across the board — from giving tenants the right to install air conditioners in their units to working with landlords to provide common cooling areas for their residents.
“We have a program for landlords to get grants so they can purchase cooling devices to put in common areas in multistory buildings or in a manufactured home park,” said Marsh. “That program is being administered by Energy Trust and grants are available right now.”
Parts of the state, like Multnomah County, are also making public cooling shelters more widespread and accessible through grants funded through the passed law.
“We also have a cooling shelter program available for school district, for local governments, for tribes,” said Marsh. “We have grants that are available through the Department of Human Services again for the purchase and installation of cooling devices to make sure that community members who may not have cooling in their own homes, have a common place to go to stay safe.”
Perhaps one of the largest measures of the Senate bill: $5 million for the Oregon Health Authority to buy A/C units to distribute to residents most in need. It’s a program Marsh says is still in its earliest stages as we head into summer.
“They are, right now, initiating the first phases of that and we hope to purchase as many as 3,000 air conditioners and deploy them to our most vulnerable residents across the state,” said Marsh, adding that 700 have already arrived.
Going from the indoors to the streets, another issue the state doesn’t want to see repeated in extreme heat is buckling asphalt causing a hazard on the roads. While the Oregon Dept. of Transportation said this happened primarily in smaller jurisdictions, their crews are monitoring any changes caused by the temps.
“The materials we use on our roads are built to withstand pretty high heat. We prepare for extremes of warm temperatures on these main roads,” said Don Hamilton, a spokesperson for ODOT. “We’re going to keep watching as temperatures get hotter and hotter in the days to come. We’re not expecting any problems, but we’re going to be watching very carefully.”
Marsh said she believes these changes will prevent deaths and plans to keep pressure on state agencies to make sure these resources are available and utilized.
“Our climate is changing and conditions on the ground are changing and we can’t have a summer where people die because they can’t get out of the heat,” said Marsh.
State agencies are now working with local governments and landlords across Oregon to find those who are most vulnerable to the heat and in need of resources like air conditioners and heat pumps. Marsh said it’s an ongoing effort with outreach still in the works.