PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — When the temperatures hit triple digits in Oregon last month, the roads buckled, public transit was paused and people who were without shelter faced a dire situation that proved deadly for some.

Now, Oregon counties are acknowledging for the first time that at least some confirmed heatwave-related deaths were of homeless or inadequately sheltered people.

From June 26-June 28, Portland experienced an intense heatwave that saw triple digits each day. The forecast prompted the county and surrounding areas to open day-use and overnight cooling shelters for anyone in need. In addition, Multnomah County also said prior to when the heatwave hit it would be ramping up its outreach to homeless people, with teams providing extra water bottles, cooling towels, misting bottles and electrolyte packets to those on the street.

Each day of that three day stretch broke the all-time high temperature record in Portland, which was previously 107. June 26 saw the mercury hit 108, then it hit 112 on June 27, then a staggering 116 on June 28. 

Tiffany and Andrew Prather said they felt a tremor when the road buckled outside their home in Dayton on June 27, 2021. Photo courtesy Tiffany and Andrew Prather

The latest figures in Oregon are 115 deaths that were either fully confirmed or are under investigation for being caused by the heatwave, according to a July 9 release by Oregon State Police.

It breaks down to 83 fully confirmed cases of heatwave deaths — determined by the State Medical Examiner to be hyperthermia — and 32 deaths that are pending further investigation and final cause of death not yet determined. To put that in perspective, there were only 12 deaths from hyperthermia in all of Oregon from 2017 to 2019.

In the July 9 release, OSP said four deaths previously included in preliminary counts have been excluded and have been determined to not be caused by the heatwave. 

KOIN 6 News inquired to OSP if there were any updates since that July 9 release, including if there is any information on how many of the deaths were of people experiencing homelessness. Captain Timothy R. Fox, with OSP’s Government and Media Relations, told KOIN 6 News via email that there were no new updates since that July 9 release, but added that the State Medical Examiner’s Office is collaborating with County Medical Examiners to investigate and certify the deaths. Fox said various county public health agencies are also undertaking efforts to analyze confirmed death data in the interest of identifying trends that may help prevent deaths in future heatwaves. 

In Oregon, it’s not required by any county to track homeless deaths, though Multnomah County opts into tracking those deaths thanks to a program they’ve had in place since 2011, called Domicile Unknown, in collaboration with homeless advocacy and newspaper nonprofit, Street Roots. 

A Multnomah County spokesperson said earlier this month that they are still engaging in intensive death investigation follow ups and are not able to release the exact number of heatwave deaths that were of homeless people. The latest version of Domicile Unknown was released in December 2020 and analyzed homeless deaths from 2019. According to OSP, Multnomah County currently has the most confirmed heatwave-related deaths of any county in Oregon, at 54.

Homeless campers enjoyed a pop-up pool under the overpass at Hwy 99E and Division during the late June 2021 heat wave (Courtesy: Sergio Olmos)

Statewide, it’s unclear whether the public will ever get comprehensive information on the matter, since a law requiring counties to track homeless deaths that was passed by the Oregon Legislature this year won’t go into effect until next year.

However, KOIN 6 News has inquired to individual Oregon and surrounding counties whether they have information about homeless deaths from the heatwave that they could share voluntarily, even though it is not required. Asking individual counties for such figures was the recommended course of action when we inquired to Oregon State Police on the matter. 

We asked every Oregon county that had heatwave-related deaths confirmed or under investigation in preliminary reports from OSP — and Clark County, Washington — whether they had information about homeless deaths from the heatwave. While most did not have the information available, some did apparently track what data they did have and share it with KOIN 6 News. 

This was the response from Wendy Gordon, Department Communications Coordinator for Washington County Health and Human Services on Tuesday:

“We have seven deaths that have been confirmed and two that are pending further investigation. Of the nine, five were either homeless or inadequately housed.”

In Marion County, the Medical Examiner’s Office said they are investigating 13 deaths that they believe may be related to the June 26-28 heatwave. But they said further testing is needed to fully confirm the cause of death. However, of those 13 deaths under investigation, three were listed as being unsheltered, three outside and five living in an RV. Four died in their homes and six had no AC or fan. In addition, eight of the deaths were in Salem, two in Keizer and three in Woodburn.

A chart showing the statuses of heatwave-related deaths currently under investigation, but not fully confirmed, in Marion County. July 17, 2021 (courtesy Marion County).

A spokesperson for Clark County, Washington, told KOIN 6 News via email that they have so far confirmed three heat-related deaths. Marissa Armstrong, Senior Communications Specialist with Clark County Public Health, said in an email that the Medical Examiner’s Officer’s does not currently track housing statuses as part of their death investigations so they don’t have information about how many of the individuals may have been experiencing homelessness. 

Washington state reported at least 91 heatwave-related deaths in total, according to the Associated Press.

A recent scientific analysis by World Weather Attribution found that the deadly Pacific Northwest heatwave would have been next to impossible if it weren’t for human-caused climate change that added a few extra degrees to the record breaking temperatures.