Oregon medical examiner releases names of June heat wave victims
The Oregon Medical Examiner’s Office has released records detailing the names, addresses and other information for 96 people who died from hyperthermia in the extraordinary late-June heat wave.
OPB and other news organizations received the records late Friday.
The Oregon Attorney General ordered the names, addresses, ethnicities and dates of deaths for confirmed deaths from the heat wave be made public, siding with four news organizations — Willamette Week, the Oregonian/Oregonlive, KGW and the Portland Tribune — that had requested them.
The Medical Examiner had sought not to release the information, citing the confidentiality of death investigations. But the attorney general found that the public interest in the cases and the need to understand policy failures that contributed to the deaths justified releasing the records.
The 96 people so far confirmed to have died were residents of 28 different cities across the state. 60 were Portland residents. Multiple residents of Salem, Albany, Hillsboro, and Gresham died as well.
“It’s it’s such a tragedy. It’s really one of the most preventable things that we know how to solve,” said Vivek Shandas, a professor at Portland State University who studies climate change adaptation and urban heat. “This is the list that I have been working for the last 15 years and trying to not see.”
From June 24 to June 29, the Pacific Northwest endured record breaking high temperatures caused by a heat dome that trapped hot air over the region for about two weeks. Several high temperature records were shattered across the state, with Portland reaching 116 degrees, breaking its own record for three days in a row. The heatwave led to more than 500 deaths in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Canada, with the majority of Oregon deaths occurring in the Portland area.
Shandas said it’s rare - and valuable - for researchers like himself to have such granular data on mortality during a heatwave. He’s particularly interested in whether people may have died in buildings and on blocks that hold on to heat and are slow to cool down and night - and what steps the city can take to cool down the urban environment in those areas.
“If I have a place I can do a lot with it. I can look at the history of that place. I can see when it was annexed into the city. I can see what are the materials on that place. I can see shading, I can see trees, I can see kind of thermal capacity,” he said.
Shandas says he hopes the deaths serve as a wake-up call and will galvanize Portlanders to create better places for people to cool down.
Portland relied heavily on libraries to serve as cooling centers in most neighborhoods. Shandas questions whether libraries are appropriate. Most heat wave deaths occur at night, and libraries were only open during the day. People need a place where they will feel comfortable eating, sleeping, and bringing their pets, he said.
“Having spent 15 years in this work, if I can’t say what the options are for a person to pursue during a heat wave, then I couldn’t imagine what any of these people on this list would think of as their options for keeping their body cool, keeping their environment cool and being able to get through three days of just unrelenting and extreme heat,” Shandas said.
He says climate change and the built environment are only some aspects of what likely contributed to people’s deaths. Social isolation - perhaps exacerbated by the pandemic - is another common factor.
“A lot of people who die from heat waves frankly are folks who are the marginalized communities, marginalized members of society,” Shandas said.
Last month, Multnomah County released a preliminary analysis of factors that contributed to people’s deaths during the event.
It found that most of those who died were older, lived alone and had no working air conditioning. The type of housing people lived in was also a clear factor in the danger posed by the heat: more than half of the people who died lived in apartments or multifamily units. Eight of the fatalities were people living in mobile home parks, and two were homeless, living in cars.
The heat wave was particularly deadly because it hit the region early in the summer before people’s bodies had time to adapt to higher temperatures. In addition, because overnight temperatures were also uncharacteristically warm, it deprived people who lacked air conditioning of the chance to cool off after the sun went down.
Climate scientists who studied the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest concluded it would have been virtually impossible without climate change. In our current climate, they calculated the likelihood of such extreme heat occurring as 1 in 1,000.
“As warming continues, it will become a lot less rare,” they wrote.
If the burning of fossil fuels continues as business as usual, according to the study, the probability of this extreme heat wave happening again in the region would occur every five to 10 years.
In Clackamas County, at least 14 heat-related deaths were reported, the second county with the highest death count during the heat wave.
Clackamas County community relations specialist Ellen Rogalin is encouraging residents to sign up for public safety alerts as triple digit weather is forecasted in the region late next week. She said the alerts will also inform residents of nearby cooling centers.
“We will again have cooling centers open throughout the county when the temperature is above 90, and are encouraging people to check on neighbors and friends to make sure they are ok,” Rogalin said.
The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration is currently investigating at least four potential heat-related deaths during this time period. One of those deaths occurred on June 26 when a farmworker was found dead after moving irrigation lines on a farm north of Salem. This death prompted several advocacy groups to call for Oregon OSHA to implement new safety rules to protect workers laboring during excessive heat— something advocates had been calling on earlier this year.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown directed the agency to implement temporary rules in early July that will stay in place for 180 days as Oregon OSHA finalizes permanent rules to protect workers laboring in excessive heat and wildfire smoke. Two more rules were adopted on August 2, as the state continues to experience excessive heat and wildfire smoke from several fires burning both in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
OSHA more recently reported three additional heat-related deaths that could be traced back to the late June heat wave. A Hillsboro construction worker collapsed on the job on June 28 and later died from heat stress on July 9. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures in Hillsboro reached 114 degrees at the peak of the heat wave.
Oregon OSHA is investigating two more potential heat-related deaths listed as “unknown.” Those are a Walmart warehouse employee who died after stumbling and having difficulty speaking after their shift on June 24 and another death that occurred on June 29 at a dairy farm in Klamath Falls.
The Oregon Medical Examiner did not include those deaths in the report released Friday.
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