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Regional Interests

Oregon cooling centers open as heat wave kicks in

June Sanders and her adopted greyhound Rudy stay cool at an old Rite Aid store in North Portland on Aug. 11, 2021. Multnomah County converted the building into a cooling shelter.
June Sanders and her adopted greyhound Rudy stay cool at an old Rite Aid store in North Portland on Aug. 11, 2021. Multnomah County converted the building into a cooling shelter.

Cooling centers are opening across Oregon as temperatures reach triple digits over the next few days.

Temperatures soared to 100 degrees Fahrenheit by 4 p.m. Wednesday 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 Arbor Lodge cooling center is in an old Rite Aid store in North Portland.

Multnomah County staff have taped large boxes onto the floor, marking personal space for people to maintain social distance. There’s also cool air conditioning, chairs, beds, library books, wall sockets to charge devices and food.

On Wednesday, June Sanders sat on a cot with her greyhound, Rudy.

“It was just so hot and he was starting to get sick. So I said, ‘to heck with it. I’m going to take him where he can be well.’ He’s my best bud. He’s my service dog,” Sanders said.

The cooling center in North Portland has kennels and pet food, snacks and bathrooms.

Sanders lives down the street, but has no air conditioning. During the last heat wave, her home reached 93 degrees inside. She’s planning to go home to shower and change clothes now and then, she said, but she’ll spend the next three nights at the Arbor Lodge center until temperatures drop and it closes Sunday morning.

Center coordinator Mia Edera said they’re putting up signs across the neighborhood, telling people that the center is open. She’s not sure how many people will turn up.

“During the June heatwave there were about 35 to 40 people that were here, and there were more than 300 at the Oregon Convention Center,” Edera said. “I think I would expect something similar.”

Temperatures in the June heat wave exceeded 115 degrees in the Portland metro area, and at least 96 people died from heat related illnesses.

Edera expects the cooling centers will see people who are houseless, those without air conditioning, as well those who want to keep their pets safe.

Multnomah County is advising anyone who is worried about the heat to call 211 to find their nearest cooling shelter and schedule a ride. TriMet is offering free fare during the heat.

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 help line 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 heat-wave death toll in June 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.

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.”

* Cooling Centers (call 211)

* Preventing Heat-related Illnesses (OHA)

* Stay Cool and Hydrated (OHA)

* Extreme Heat (CDC)

* Warning Signs and Symptoms of Heat-related Illness (CDC)

Gillian Flaccus of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting