February 15, 2022

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded Multnomah County and Portland Public Schools (PPS) a technical assistance grant to convene stakeholders over the coming year to help make Portland schools more resilient to extreme heat and wildfire smoke.

An aerial photo of an urban heat island in the Rockwood neighborhood of east Multnomah County

One important goal of the project is to see if select schools can be used as cooling and/or clean air centers, particularly in the summer when school is not in session. 

The EPA and its consultant team, which will include experts in community engagement, disaster policy and HVAC engineering, will host workshops with local partners to create an action plan to retrofit the schools. The goals of the action plan, developed with community input, will include:

  • Improving ventilation and filtration systems in public school facilities to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and other airborne illnesses.  
  • Creating healthy learning environments through improved indoor air quality in schools. 
  • Keeping schools open in the face of more frequent and severe extreme heat and wildfire smoke events, which increasingly overlap with the school year. 
  • Establishing cleaner air shelters and cooling centers in areas known to have more residents susceptible to serious health impacts from extreme heat and wildfire smoke. 

Multnomah County and PPS will also partner with the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management and community-based organizations in this effort. These partners include the Coalition of Communities of Color(CCC), Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), VerdeIRCONative American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) and Home Forward.

Multnomah County’s Climate Change and Public Health Preparation Plan and Climate Action Plans both identify heat and poor air quality as the most likely human health impacts of climate change. Recent extreme climate events have demonstrated this to be the case. In 2020, the region experienced its worst air quality on record, reaching the “hazardous” level for a full week as a result of massive wildfires, with emergency department visits for respiratory symptoms roughly doubling during this event. And in June 2021, the County recorded at least 69 heat deaths when an unprecedented “heat dome” that brought temperatures as high as 116 degree Fahrenheit settled over the region. Multnomah County’s review of heat-related fatalities after the event identified that the community needs more high-quality shelter spaces during heat and wildfire events.

Once the technical assistance phase is complete, the County has several potential pathways to implement the recommendations in the report. Among them:

  • In 2021, the Oregon Legislature passed SB762, providing funds to equip public buildings with air filtration systems to serve as cleaner air shelters during wildfire smoke events. EPA technical assistance will enable the County and PPS to be more competitive for these funds. 
  • Following a City of Portland Climate Action Plan recommendation to retrofit community buildings to serve as heat and smoke centers, the City is planning to apply for FEMA BRIC funds. PPS buildings could fit under the umbrella of the City’s plan for these dollars. 
  • The 2020 PPS School Improvement Bond provides $75 million to replace or repair the highest-priority mechanical systems (heating, cooling and ventilation) in schools throughout the district. EPA technical assistance will help identify priority facilities. 

“The heat dome event was a wake-up call to our community,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “The climate crisis is here, now. It’s imperative that we take urgent action to create the infrastructure our community needs to be resilient in the face of extreme weather events fueled by global heating. Partnerships like this one are key ways for us to help our community stay safe while we work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

PPS Board Chair Michelle DePass said, “If the fall of 2020 and the summer of 2021 have taught us anything, it's the urgency of meeting the climate crisis for our most vulnerable community members. The climate crisis is here and we need to take critical steps to ensure community resilience and the safety and well-being of our community members.” 

PPS has teamed with Multnomah County to retrofit school buildings to respond to the climate crisis head on. Board Chair DePass said. “PPS is thankful for the EPA grant that will allow us to work with Multnomah County to identify buildings in our portfolio to serve as cooling shelters, particularly for our most vulnerable community members, children, seniors, those living with a disability, and those living in poverty.”