“A crisis within multiple crises’’ — Multnomah County releases interim report on lessons from June heat event

August 18, 2021

Multnomah County today released its 25-page June 2021 Heat Event Preliminary Findings and Action Steps, outlining the lessons learned and the dramatic changes implemented since an historic heat wave claimed at least 62 lives.

Chair Deborah Kafoury ordered the expedited report to inform what changes the County could make to save lives this summer. Since the June 25 heat wave, the County has endured two more extended and dangerous hot spells. A late July event claimed no further lives. But the Multnomah County Medical Examiner is investigating two suspected heat deaths from the third heat wave that began Aug. 11.

“This June event was a wake-up call,’’ Chair Kafoury told reporters at a media availability earlier today. “The heat wave that climate scientists predicted would happen once every 1,000 years not only happened, but it will happen again.’'

Chair Kafoury said that is why it was so important for the County to quickly look at what worked, what didn’t work and what the County needed to change going forward. 

“We’ve done that,’’ the Chair said.

Alice Busch, Division chief of operations for Multnomah County Emergency Management, said the County “immediately’’ began to incorporate lessons from June into our response efforts.

“From the Wireless Emergency Alert you heard on your phone last week, to opening our first cooling center in a Portland Public School, to behavioral health support at our cooling centers, we are, and will continue, to work together to leverage our individual organizations, our communities and our partners,’’ Busch said.

Between June 25 and June 30, 2021, the County recorded temperatures during three consecutive days of 108, 112, and 116 degrees Fahrenheit, shattering the previous record high. The report highlights how the unprecedented heat was “a crisis within multiple crises”, coming 15 months into a pandemic, and other events that had disrupted social and economic networks and isolated people.

The County mounted an unprecedented response to the heat dome with more than 100 partner agencies, but as temperatures reached highs that were more extreme than originally forecast,  community need overwhelmed the County’s planned response. The deaths of at least 62 people led to almost immediate changes in subsequent heat responses. Among them:

  • Improving processes with 211 and TriMet to ensure that calls for help and free rides to cooling spaces were available during extreme heat. 
  • Coordinating the County response with the city of Portland.
  • Declaring a state of emergency: the Chair and mayor of Portland each declared a state of emergency to maximize flexibility in spending and staffing.
  • Increasing the pool of potential cooling centers and spaces including for the first time, opening a new Portland Public School building and six geographically dispersed misting stations in Portland parks.
  • Increasing efforts to adequately staff cooling interventions including training additional city, county staff and volunteers.
  • Developing strategies to help people stay safe in place.
  • Enhancing communication by issuing three public alerts on heat since June, including two alerts to landlines in July 28 and Aug. 11 and on Aug. 13, the the first city-county Wireless Emergency Alert sent to every cell phone in the county. 
  • Increasing the capacity for wellness checks and focused door-to-door outreach with libraries, Portland Fire and other partners reaching out to people at risk including the homebound, residents in mobile home courts and people with disabilities or elders.

Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines paused to acknowledge those who died and the human cost of  experiencing “a crisis within multiple crisis: the many many losses of the last 18 months.” Vines said she also wanted to acknowledge the County employees and partners who did respond in June with a sense of urgency.

“Finally, I have worked at Multnomah County for more than a decade, it is a learning organization and there is always a sense of striving and service to the public and  that we can do better.” The report she said, is an effort to do just that.

“There really is only one lesson from this report and it is unequivocal,’’ Chair Kafoury said. “The County can’t go it alone. No one.. can go it alone. 

If we want to truly address climate change, and build a resilient and equitable community, it will take all of us, working together.  And I am committed to doing my part.”