Last year, the region experienced record-shattering heat that, by the end of summer, killed 72 people in Multnomah County — with all but three of those deaths resulting from a single five-day heat wave in June.
Of those who died, 78% were 60 or older; 71% lived alone. Only 10 death investigations made reference to an air cooling unit in the home, seven of which were malfunctioning or unplugged.
These are among the findings from a final report released Sunday, June 26, as part of a memorial event at the Leach Botanical Gardens.
The event is the first in a series offered during the region’s first “Heat Week,” a time to focus on the short-term repercussions and long-term impacts of global climate change. Among those who attended were Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
Dr. Vines, who recently marked her 20th year living in Portland, recalled when a 90-degree day was a big deal. Over the course of her career, she has seen increasingly extreme climate events jeopardize the community’s health.
Those events include historic wildfires and smoke that suffocated the region in 2020, and the previously unimaginable heat — with temperatures reaching 116 degrees – that left scores of vulnerable residents dead in 2021.
“The human body is extraordinary,” she said. “It knows what to do to keep our temperatures as close to 98.6 as possible,” she said. “But our systems tire out when they don’t get a break. The way to avoid sickness and death during a heat wave is not complicated. It's simply about getting someplace cool and giving your body a break.”
But too many last summer never got that break.
“To the family and friends of those who died, I offer my deepest condolences,” Vines said. “This was a mass casualty event.”
- In a typical year, there are no heat deaths in Multnomah County. In 2021 there were 72, 69 of which were attributed to the heat dome in June.
- In a typical year, there are about 95 deaths from all causes in the last week of June. In 2021 there were 186, nearly double the average during the previous three years.
- In a typical year, there are fewer than 100 emergency department visits for heat illness. In 2021 there were 257, 158 of which took place just during the five-day heat dome event last June.
Last year was not typical, but it could become the new normal, said Brendon Haggerty, who oversees the County's work on health and climate change.
“As we’re hearing today, our future could look a lot more like what we experienced last year,” he said. “I’m going to share with you a few of the findings from that report to help us remember their magnitude, and to keep us focused on resilience.”
The people who died during that event were mostly older people who lived alone, people in multifamily buildings, people experiencing homelessness, and people who lived in warmer parts of Multnomah County — areas known as urban heat islands.
The majority of those warmer areas are in east Multnomah County. Those communities, including the lower-income Rockwood neighborhood of Gresham, suffer disproportionately from extreme heat and lack of air conditioning, Commissioner Stegmann said Sunday during the event.
“By identifying areas with the greatest needs, we can better prepare for emergencies,” she said. “The climate crisis is an immediate and direct threat to our very existence. We must make policy decisions that protect our shared future and eliminate environmental harms that all too often fall disproportionately on vulnerable communities.”
Among the most glaring findings was the health risk of social isolation, especially considering that about a third of all households in Multnomah County are people who live alone. Among those who died, 48 people, or 71% of deaths, occurred among people who lived alone.
Two-thirds of deaths occurred in males, and 82% of those who died were non-Hispanic whites. The vast majority of those deaths, 94%, occurred in the decedent’s own home, more than half of which were multifamily dwellings. And 71% of people lived alone.
Mayor Wheeler called on people to reflect on the clear and immediate cost of climate change on vulnerable people in our community.
“This is an important reminder of what is at stake,” said Mayor Wheeler. “The heat dome and heat waves last summer have changed the way we think about heat here in Portland.”
Heat Week Events
Health experts, climate advocates and elected officials invite residents to join them for these upcoming events during Heat Week:
- Monday, June 27: Virtual panel featuring experts on climate and mental health (register)
- Tuesday, June 28: Climate Resilience Pedalpalooza Ride, 5 p.m., Lents Park to Colonel Summers Park
- Wednesday, June 29: Heat first aid training, offered virtually by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. (register)
Bookmark these links
- Help for When it's Hot: Latest information on cooling centers, health and safety.
- 2-1-1 info: Call to find the cooling center nearest you, when cooling centers are open, and for transportation support.
- Public Alerts: Sign up to receive health and safety alerts in your area.
- National Weather Service: Check the forecast and plan outdoor activities for the coolest times of day.
- Heat Risk Map: The National Weather Service has an updated map that forecasts heat risk for vulnerable populations.
- Aging and Disability Resource Connection: 24-hour information and assistance to older people, people with disabilities and caregivers. Call 503-988-3646 or email email@example.com