One year ago, unprecedentedly high temperatures killed 69 people in Multnomah County and nearly 100 statewide. Portland broke heat records three consecutive days in a row, culminating in a record-high 116 degrees on June 28, 2021.
Officials called the heatwave a “hard lesson,” one that underscored the lack of hot weather infrastructure the region has and how quickly Oregonians will have to adapt in order to respond to the changing climate and extreme weather that comes with it. The deadly event was also a call to action for city, county, and state lawmakers.
Here’s what’s been accomplished to address future heat emergencies in the year since the fatal heatwave:
While investigating the heatwave deaths, Multnomah County officials found that the majority of people who died lived alone in rental housing without air conditioning. In Oregon, many landlords previously banned renters from using window-mounted air conditioning units, leaving residents to use portable air conditioners—which are significantly more expensive than in-window units—or basic fans, which can actually increase someone’s body temperature by blowing hot air around the room.
Following the heatwave, the Community Alliance of Tenants and environmental nonprofit Verde helped pass legislation during the 2022 state legislative session that limited a landlord's ability to prohibit renters’ use of cooling units. Under the new law, landlords cannot prohibit renters from using free standing and window-mounted AC units from May through September. The bill has some exceptions, like the device cannot do damage to the building or use more power than the building can support, and renters are responsible for any harm caused by a window unit falling from its mount. The law also requires that any new construction in the state after April 2024 must include at least one room that has a cooling system.
Free Air Conditioners
Ensuring that renters have the option to use a cooling unit solved one problem, but mitigating the financial burden of purchasing a unit was another issue. In response to the heatwave, the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF)—the city’s green energy fund that distributes grants for climate-related projects—developed the Heat Response Program. The approximately $11 million program plans to distribute 15,000 free cooling units over the next five years to vulnerable Portlanders, including seniors, low-income people, and Black, Indigenous, and other Portlanders of color who are disproportionately affected by climate change.
The program started distributing the first round of cooling units—about 3,000—earlier this month in collaboration with seven community-based organizations. One challenge state emergency planning officials identified following last year’s heatwave was determining who needs assistance during the heat because, unlike other natural disasters, there is no visual indicator of which homes or apartments need help. By working with community organizations and housing providers, PCEF leaders are hoping to capitalize on those organizations' existing knowledge of the communities they serve to identify who is most in need of cooling assistance.
At least four of the 96 people who died across Oregon during the heatwave were employees who were required to work during the record-setting temperatures. Following their deaths, Governor Kate Brown directed the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create emergency rules to protect workers from extreme heat, which were then transformed into permanent rules adopted by the agency earlier this month. The rules, which apply to both indoor and outdoor work environments, require employers to provide workers with shade, drinking water, and additional breaks when temperatures exceed 90 degrees. The rules also add conditions for when the air quality index reaches moderate danger levels, in anticipation of smoke from wildfires.
According to OSHA, the new rules are some of the most protective for workers in the nation. However, a group of businesses sued OSHA earlier this month in an effort to remove the protections, claiming the new rules are unconstitutional and too vague to be enforced.
“We’re frustrated to see corporate lobbyists and lawyers attempt to delay the recently adopted heat and smoke standards from going into effect, right as summer heats up,” said Reyna Lopez, director of farm worker advocacy group PCUN, about the lawsuit. “These rules are life-saving.”
Climate Change Mitigation
While the city of Portland declared a climate emergency in 2020, actual action to mitigate the impacts of climate change has been seemingly slow as regional officials have responded to the much more visible threats of the COVID-19 pandemic and housing crisis. The 2021 heatwave, however, was widely considered a wake-up call for the state—a climate change-related mass death event that could happen again if we don’t start making changes now.
“Climate change makes it more likely that we will experience more summers like 2021, one that was unlike any experienced in memory,” states Multnomah County’s report on the impacts of the heatwave.
City officials have heeded that warning. Mayor Ted Wheeler included $2.4 million in climate investments in the city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year—the largest dedicated climate investment in city history. The money will go towards switching the city to a green energy supply and reducing carbon emissions from the city’s transportation sector. Additionally, according to Commissioner Carmen Rubio who oversees the PCEF program, PCEF will dedicate $30 to $50 million towards tree planting in the city over the next 10 years while continuing its current green energy grant program. Trees can cool down heavily paved areas of the city called “heat islands” which contributed to heat wave deaths, according to the county report.
“The loss of lives one year ago was a horrible tragedy and a hard warning about how much we need to do to prepare for our climate future,” Rubio said in a press statement. “I’m proud of what we have done over the last year, and proud of the work we are planning to do in the coming years.”