Missoulians cool off in the Bitterroot River as temperatures crested 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Missoula, Montana, on June 30, 2021. The Pacific Northwest is bracing for another major, multiday heat wave in mid-August 2021 just a month after temperatures soared as high as 116 F in a record-shattering heat event that killed scores of the most vulnerable across the region. (Tommy Martino, Associated Press)
PORTLAND, Ore. — People streamed into cooling centers and misting stations Wednesday as the Pacific Northwest began sweltering under another major, multiday heat wave just over a month after record-shattering hot weather killed hundreds of the region’s most vulnerable people.
Temperatures soared above 90 degrees Fahrenheit by early afternoon in Portland, Oregon. In a “worst-case scenario,” the temperature could reach as high as 111 F in some parts of western Oregon by Friday before a weekend cooldown, the National Weather Service warned this week. It’s more likely temperatures will rise above 100 F for three consecutive days, peaking around 105 F on Thursday.
The high temperatures in a usually temperate region would break all-time records this week if the late June heat wave had not done so already, meteorologist Tyler Kranz said. Seattle will be cooler than Portland, with temperatures in the mid-90s, but it still has a chance to break records, and many people there, like in Oregon, don’t have air conditioning.
“We’ll often hear people say, ‘Who cares if it’s 106 or 108? It gets this hot in Arizona all the time.’ Well, people in Arizona have air conditioning, and here in the Pacific Northwest, a lot of people don’t,” Kranz said. “You can’t really compare us to the desert Southwest.”
People began coming into a 24-hour cooling center in North Portland before it even opened Wednesday. Volunteers and county employees set up cots and stacked hundreds of bottles of water in the air-conditioned center in a vacant building.
The first few people in were experiencing homelessness, a population vulnerable to extreme heat. Among them was December Snedecor, who slept two nights in the same center in June when temperatures reached 116 F in the city.
She said she planned to sleep there again this week because the heat in her tent was unbearable.
“I poured water over myself a lot. It was up in the teens, hundred-and-something heat. It made me dizzy. It was not good,” Snedecor said. “I’ve just got to stay cool. I don’t want to die.”
Gov. Kate Brown has declared a state of emergency and activated an emergency operations center, citing the potential for disruptions to the power grid and transportation. Besides opening cooling centers, city and county governments are extending public library hours and waiving bus fare for those headed to cooling centers. A statewide helpline will direct callers to the nearest cooling shelter and offer tips on how to stay safe.
Emergency officials have sent alerts to phones, said Dan Douthit, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management.
“We don’t know exactly how hot it will get, but we’re planning for a worst-case scenario,” he said.
The back-to-back heat waves, coupled with a summer that’s been exceptionally warm and dry overall, are pummeling a region where summer highs usually drift into the 70s or 80s. Intense heat waves and a historic drought in the American West reflect climate change that is making weather more extreme.
The June heat in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia killed hundreds of people and served as a wake-up call of what’s ahead in a warming world. It was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change, a detailed scientific analysis found.
In Oregon, officials say at least 83 people died of heat-related illness, and the hot weather was being investigated as a possible cause in 33 more deaths. Washington state reported more than 100 heat deaths, and officials in British Columbia say hundreds of “sudden and unexpected deaths” were likely due to the soaring temperatures.
The toll exposed huge blind spots in emergency planning in a region unaccustomed to dealing with such high temperatures, said Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University.
We’ll often hear people say, ‘Who cares if it’s 106 or 108? It gets this hot in Arizona all the time.’ Well, people in Arizona have air conditioning, and here in the Pacific Northwest, a lot of people don’t.
–Meteorologist Tyler Kranz
Most of those who died in Oregon were older, homebound and socially isolated, and many were unable, or unwilling, to get to cooling centers.
The call center designed to provide information about cooling centers was unstaffed during part of the peak heat, and hundreds of callers got stuck in a voicemail menu that didn’t include a prompt for heat-related help. Portland’s famed light-rail train also shut down to reduce strain on the power grid, eliminating a transportation option for low-income residents seeking relief.
“We knew a week in advance. What would happen if we knew an earthquake was going to hit us a week in advance?” Shandas said. “That’s the kind of thinking we need to be aligned with.”
Yet even younger residents struggled with the heat in June and dreaded this week’s sweltering temperatures.
Katherine Morgan, 27, has no air conditioning in her third-floor apartment and can’t afford a window unit on the money she makes working at a bookstore and as a hostess at a brewery.
She estimated that it hit 112 F in her apartment in June.
This week, she’ll have to walk to work Thursday, the day when temperatures could again soar just as high.
“All my friends and I knew that climate change was real, but it’s getting really scary because it was gradually getting hot — and it suddenly got really hot, really fast,” Morgan said.