Updated: Friday, Aug. 18
Two years after a deadly heat wave that killed 69 people, Multnomah County says it doesn’t have dedicated emergency shelter space or cooling centers.
The Pacific Northwest is at the tail end of a scorching heat wave, with temperatures in the Portland area reaching triple digits four days in a row—a new August record. For people without access to air conditioning, such heat can be dangerous, or even deadly.
By Friday, Aug. 18, the Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office identified four suspected deaths from the heat emergency. One person was found dead Monday in Southeast Portland when the temperature was about 106 degrees. Two more people died this week when the temperature was 102 degrees, and county officials say another death Thursday in Northeast Portland, when the temperature had dropped down to 92, is also being investigated as a heat-related fatality.
Each case is still under investigation to confirm whether heat was a prominent contributing factor.
Multnomah County and the city of Portland both announced states of emergency for the ongoing heat wave, and county officials opened three cooling centers in the Portland metro area for four consecutive days: one in Northwest Portland’s Old Town, and two within Gresham city limits in east Multnomah County. County officials also advised Portlanders to use the Lloyd Center mall for relief from the heat, as well as local libraries and parks with splash pads or misting stations.
Although temperatures remained high overnight—allowing little nighttime respite from the heat—the county’s cooling centers have only been open 1-8 p.m., and in limited locations. The ongoing Multnomah County library renovations have also reduced the number of places people can go to seek relief from the heat.
Despite the high temperatures being forecasted nearly a week in advance, county officials didn’t announce the cooling centers until Sunday afternoon. When asked why the centers weren’t confirmed until nearly 11 a.m. each day, or why additional locations weren’t opened, a county spokesperson told the Mercury there is no plan in place for guaranteed locations in the event of extreme weather or disasters.
“The system is designed to meet immediate needs and sometimes no one shows up but other geographic areas are swamped, or buildings can only be used a certain day,” Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, the county's communications director, said Monday. “We have no dedicated emergency shelter space so we seek maximum flexibility, with the simple message of go to this link for the maps and locations.”
While not quite as intense, this year’s unforgiving heat has been reminiscent of the June 2021 Pacific Northwest heat dome, when Portland temperatures spiked to a high of 116 degrees and 69 Multnomah County residents died from heat-related illness.
In the aftermath of the 2021 heat dome, Multnomah County officials came out strong, releasing studies about the health impacts of intense temperatures and, notably, moving to sue several major oil companies for contributing to the crisis. But whether the response to the latest heat wave has been robust enough to prevent a repeat of 2021 remains to be seen.
Starting August 10, the Joint Office of Homeless Services began coordinating outreach efforts to bring hot weather resources to people living without shelter countywide, who are especially susceptible to heat-related risks.
Multnomah County noted its outreach supply center distributed thousands of reusable drinking bottles, cooling towels, electrolyte packs, sunscreen packets, and misting bottles, and hundreds of thousands of bottles of water.
When the county opened three cooling centers on Sunday, August 13, it was unclear how many people would utilize the spaces. Multnomah County officials said they served 120 guests across the three cooling centers on Sunday, 224 on Monday, and 335 on Tuesday.
“We find that guests tend to come and go more often during hot weather which is different in cold weather,” Multnomah County Deputy Communications Director Denis Theriault told the Mercury via email. “Oftentimes people want to cool off, get some water and keep going with their day.”
The Old Town cooling center, staffed by Do Good Multnomah, has been the busiest location. On Tuesday afternoon, the building was at capacity, according to staff on site. Do Good Multnomah staffers canvassed the area, handing out supplies and letting people know about the air conditioned shelter. Several unhoused Old Town residents confirmed they were aware of the site and were using it.
But the cooling centers had to kick people out while the temperature was still in the 90s.
“We should’ve been open overnight,” one Do Good staffer told the Mercury, suggesting the organization had “plenty of staff” to be able to stay open past 8 p.m.
“The cooling centers provide respite during the hottest part of the day, and staff are in a position as needed to extend beyond 8 p.m., until people are comfortable. Providing respite in a cooler space, even for just a few hours, can make a big difference for folks — especially people who are unsheltered,” Theriault told the Mercury. “Temperatures outdoors overnight for people who are unsheltered may actually be cooler than temperatures indoors for some people whose homes have warmed during the day and might be slower to cool off.”
While unhoused people face significant risk from heat exposure, the majority of people who died in Multnomah County during the 2021 heat dome and other heat waves were alone inside their homes and didn’t have air conditioning or hadn’t turned it on.
“Many people don’t realize how dangerous heat is to elders, young children, and people with health conditions such as heart disease,” a Multnomah County statement says. “People are often reluctant to turn on air conditioning because of the expense.”
During past heat waves, Multnomah County has offered more than just three cooling centers, and in a larger range of locations around the Portland area. This year, county officials said they were focusing their efforts in Old Town, which is home to a large unhoused population, and in "heat islands" (places with the highest temperatures and least amount of shade) in east county.
Though the Lloyd Center mall has been open during the day as a cooling facility, serving Portlanders near the city’s Central Eastside, people living in north and lower southeast Portland haven’t had access to a nearby county cooling center. Several popular libraries in these parts of the city are closed for renovations, including the North Portland library and the Holgate branch in southeast, further limiting access to air conditioned spots.
During a 2022 heat wave, the Mt. Scott Community Center was utilized as a cooling center. That wasn't the case this year. County staffers told the Mercury the county was concerned about the “disruption it might cause community members who rely on its programming as a community center.”
Previous emergency weather conditions also triggered emergency notifications to residents via text message, but that didn't happen this time either.
The county conducted direct outreach to seniors, clients, and property managers through the Department of County Human Services’ Regional Health and Human Services Contact Center. The people they reached out to were part of a list developed by the Multnomah County Health Department and the Portland Housing Bureau, to include residents in urban heat islands and those otherwise at increased risk of heat-related illness.
Long-term emergency planning
The county’s lack of dedicated emergency shelter spaces could create problems not only in future extreme weather events, but also in the case of a major natural disaster, like the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.
As the impacts of the climate crisis continue to worsen, more extreme heat waves and other severe weather events are inevitable, making available space for refuge or safety even more critical.
“We are continuing to identify spaces that are available for emergency use…This is an ongoing effort — among the County and its jurisdictional partners — to ensure we have space available for severe weather and then also for other disaster events that would require mass care sheltering,” Theriault said. “We are working on new strategies and building new relationships that support facility availability when necessary. It is important to find a balance when using spaces for ongoing needs while also having them available during an emergency or urgent need.”
This story has been updated to reflect additional suspected heat-related deaths.