PORTLAND, Ore. — Most people who perished in last month’s record-smashing heat wave in Oregon’s most populous county were white, male, older and socially isolated, according to a preliminary report released Tuesday in Portland.
Initial tallies show that heat was likely the cause of death for 71 residents of Multnomah County, home to Oregon’s largest city. The heat has been officially confirmed as the cause of death in 54 of those people. Some residents’ bodies were not found for up to a week after the worst of the heat had passed, a fact that authorities said supports the role of social isolation in the deaths. The average age was 70.
“Many of them were our elders, those who need our care the most, and many were all alone,” County Chair Deborah Kafoury said.
Three consecutive days of extraordinary temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, which usually experiences mild summers, shattered all-time records and sent public health officials scrambling between June 25 and June 28. Temperatures in Portland reached triple digits for three days, peaking at 116 degrees Fahrenheit (47 Celsius) as records fell across Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, Canada.
Oregon blamed 116 deaths on the heat, Washington state reported at least 91 and officials in British Columbia say hundreds of “sudden and unexpected deaths” are likely due to the soaring temperatures. More people died from the heat in the greater Portland area this June than in the entire state over the past 20 years, authorities said Tuesday.
An initial scientific analysis by World Weather Attribution found that the deadly heat wave would have been virtually impossible without human-caused climate change that added a few extra degrees to the record-smashing temperatures.
“The heat that settled over our county, over our family and friends, was life-threatening, and it arrived decades ahead of our best predictions for when this kind of climate disruption should first appear,” said Kafoury, who grew up in Portland without air conditioning.
“The climate disruption we all feared would happen someday is happening right now and we all need to work together, as a county, as a resilient community, as neighbors, to be prepared.”
State emergency management officials acknowledged Monday that 750 people who called an information line over the blistering hot weekend were unable to get through because of a shortage of operators. They struggled to get rides to cooling centers and others endured such long wait times to request a ride that they instead called 911.
Tuesday’s report focused specifically on the Portland metropolitan area, where the death toll was highest.
More than three-quarters of those who died lived alone, 55% lived in apartments or other multi-unit housing and, of those, nearly half lived on the third floor or above. Almost a quarter had no source of cooling — not even a fan — while seven victims had air conditioning but it was broken or had not been turned on.
Over 90% were white and 63% were male. Two people were found dead in their vehicles and one person who perished had an air conditioning unit that could not keep up with the scorching temperatures.
Most of the deaths were reported to authorities on or after June 29, when the worst of the heat had passed, authorities said.
“I think we’ve learned a really hard lesson and I’m sorry that we’re going to using this event in the future to help convey the risk that heat poses,” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, a county health officer.
In advance of the heat, authorities opened three cooling centers and nine libraries for those without air conditioning. County employees also called and sent text messages to thousands of vulnerable residents enrolled in various assistance programs and instructed property managers and developers of low-income housing to check on their residents twice a day during the peak heat.
Dozens of teams also roamed the city handing out water, wet towels, misting devices and electrolytes and checking on the homeless population.
A total of three people died in two different apartment complexes dedicated to housing vulnerable people, many of them transitioning from homelessness or recovering from drug addiction. Two more died in an assisted living facility; those deaths are being referred to the state for further investigation.
“County employees worked through the night, every night,” Kafoury said. “And that’s why when death reports started to come in we were devastated and we still are devastated.”
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