NEWS RELEASE: Record-breaking winter event brings record-breaking response — and many challenges

April 1, 2024

Multnomah County today released its 44-page January 2024 Severe Winter Weather Preliminary Findings and Action Steps (1.34 MB), outlining lessons learned during the record-setting emergency and detailing recommendations for improvement.

Chair Jessica Vega Pederson ordered the expedited review after extreme cold temperatures, sleet, freezing rain, accumulating snow and ice, and high winds caused downed trees and power lines, widespread extended power outages, damage to homes and buildings, public transportation disruptions, and dangerous travel conditions between Jan. 12 and Jan. 21. 

While emergency managers routinely produce after-action reports, the Chair wanted immediate feedback on what could be improved both in the short-term and long-term. Multnomah County Emergency Management will also produce a traditional postseason after-action report later this year, building from this initial, more-immediate review. 

“Our goal in every emergency is saving lives. During January’s event we broke sheltering and  outreach records, but continuous improvement will always be a priority,” said Chair Vega Pederson. “Following up, we immediately dedicated ourselves to examining our actions, and the recommendations in this report will help us stand up a stronger response, with partners and community-members, that meets Multnomah County’s needs during severe weather events.”

Challenged by the cold 

The winter conditions that swept over the Metro area beginning Jan. 12 drove an unprecedented need for help and smashed several response records, even as local governments, schools and businesses closed due to weather, transportation disruptions and loss of power.

The County sheltered the most people ever during an emergency, 1,356. It opened 12 24-hour emergency shelters for five days, a 50% increase over previous events. The County coordinated the largest number of rides to shelter at 404 and served more hot meals than in any previous emergency, 7,650.

It also opened three cold weather gear re-supply centers after the event, and reopened one shelter in East County for two nights, where conditions were worse. The County also sheltered people in 144 hotel rooms and provided emergency water assistance for the community of Corbett. Throughout, the Joint Office of Homeless Services coordinated County-wide outreach.

But the County also faced sharp criticism for closing shelters after a forecasted warming trend by the National Weather Service failed to materialize and the region became locked in ice.

Needs in the community also broke records. Community members made the most visits to emergency departments for cold-related illness on a single day, with 26 visits on Jan. 13, and the most carbon monoxide visits on a single day, when 17 people were treated on Jan. 14. They also suffered a record number of fall injuries, with 228 on Jan. 19, the highest count ever.

The Multnomah County Medical Examiner identified four suspected hypothermia deaths between Jan. 12 and Jan. 15. Additionally, three people died as a result of downed power lines and at least one died as the result of a fallen tree. Finally, one person died of currently unknown causes after being transported by ambulance from a shelter at Multnomah County East on Jan. 20.

“Every severe weather event is unique, but we try to carry the lessons from each emergency forward to be better prepared for the next one,’’ said Emergency Manager Chris Voss. “The after-action helps us see what we need to do to have the right resources, communication and planning in place.”

After-action report recommendations for the County 

  • Plan better beyond projected shelter closures. Given the uncertainty of weather forecasting, the county should plan to continue staffing and supplies beyond a projected closure, so decisions can be altered if forecasts are not realized. 
  • Promote and make available more training opportunities year-round. Although training was offered ahead of, and during, the season, additional promotion could help open up to a broader pool of candidates to staff shelters. Additionally, new training topics could increase shelter staff skills and knowledge, to better respond to population needs and enhance onsite safety.
  • Continue to engage the City of Portland and other partners, so the County is not alone in providing a response. In January 2024, the County and City of Portland were negotiating changes in the way they coordinate response activities and share resources for sheltering activities. The report recommends the County engage the city and other partners and expand their support.
  • Use fewer but larger shelters, as the sheer number of smaller shelters were more difficult to staff, supply, and maintain during power outages and waterline breaks.
  • Continue offering security at shelters, which the County provided for the first time at most locations. The launch included a successful pilot for storing weapons temporarily for shelter guests.
  • Improve facilities countywide so there are available buildings that serve multiple needs, and are built with generators, higher construction standards and with common spaces and large meeting rooms on the ground floor allowing for more flexible use during severe weather responses. Two locations the County opened lost power after the start of the event, and those issues could be significantly reduced with more resilient facilities.
  • Pursue pre-disaster agreements with TriMet and other organizations for transportation resources for larger events. The County took on the work of transporting people to and from shelter when other services were unable to do so, because of the severity of riders’ needs or because of the shutdown of bus and MAX service. A larger emergency will require more resources than the County has.

The report will be posted here.