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Yesterday the Oregon State Medical Examiner confirmed that 79 people are dead as a result of a heatwave that engulfed much of the Pacific Northwest last week between Saturday, June 26, 2021 and Monday, June 28, 2021.

Of those, 52 deaths occurred in Multnomah County, where Portland is located. This number is expected to rise as investigations continue. 

Information provided by the county cites the preliminary cause of death as hyperthermia, an unnaturally high body temperature caused when heat-regulating mechanisms fail and the body cannot adjust to extreme heat. Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that, “many of those who died were found alone, without air conditioning or a fan.”

[For context, compare 79 deaths in three days to 12 recorded deaths from hyperthermia in Oregon between 2017 and 2019]

“I am just grateful we can be here together. We have an apartment, but it’s 100 degrees in there now and 90 at night. This heat … I have never seen anything like this in Portland.”

Families, couples, students, houseless individuals and people on their lunch break sought temporary relief from the oppressive, dangerous and debilitating heat at "cooling shelters" in three separate locations throughout Portland. 

Offering rest and respite the shelters provided food, water, cots, blankets and medical care. People could to stay for as little or as long as they wanted—some popped in for an hour or two while others staked out a spot until temperatures dissipated. 
Nationwide, about 91% of homes have air conditioning.
That figure is approximately 78% in Portland.

 I am among those in the state that did not have air conditioning. Much of each day was spent outside covering the heat wave for Bloomberg, Reuters and AFP; I clocked between 8 and 10 miles on foot each of the three days. The heat was brutal, but it felt good to be out on the street and to see much of the community come together to help one another. 

During the day my cat, Guillotine, joined me for work breaks at the cooling shelters. At night I slept on my couch with ice packs as several box fans circulated the still 90° degree air.  

Throughout the city people waded into public water fountains, stood in long lines at public swimming pools and flocked to the Willamette River trying to escape the heat. Businesses closed early and stores limited and then quickly sold out of ice, water and Gatorade. Fans and air conditioning units could have fetched many times their value on the black market.  
Monday, June 28, 2021the hottest day ever recorded in Portland's history. 

The sun slowly rising made the International Rose Garden glow as the first of the day’s light crept across the garden’s many rose bushes on Monday, June 28, 2021.  

The temperature peaked at 116° degrees Fahrenheit, besting Sunday’s high of 112°, a record itself that stood only one day after topping Saturday’s high of 108°.

 “Go ahead and take your pictures. I don’t care.
We are out here dying and people have no idea."

Or they don’t care. I don’t know. You tell me. That tent over there—you see it? It’s an oven in there. Can’t hardly breathe if I zip it up.”

“Yeah, I have water. Not because of the city, though. People keep coming around and giving us bottles. It’s good of them. I mean, I’m grateful, but why does it take 100° weather for people to care about us?”

Already considered a vulnerable population, those experiencing houselessness were at an increased risk during the recent heat wave in Portland, Oregon. Some people went to cooling shelters, others moved tents to shaded areas and several are among the 52 heat-related deaths in Multnomah County. 

In an attempt to provide relief volunteers joined churches and outreach groups in filling coolers with ice and water; one duo used dry ice to chill a cooler of Gatorade after stores sold out of ice.

Only late Monday night did temperatures begin to dip below 100°F. Today, overcast and with a high expected to reach "only" 85°F,  Portland, and much of the state of Oregon, has returned to normal, seasonal temperatures. 

But with 79 dead many are asking what could have been done to prevent this unprecedented death toll and and what preparations must be made for future, similar events.


Until next time, stay safe, stay healthy,
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Copyright © 2021, Maranie R. Staab, All rights reserved.
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