Salem, Oregon. “Even on Tuesday evening, people were taking their cigarette breaks in the shade. As of 6 p.m. outside the Recovery Outreach Community Center in Salem, Oregon, temperatures were still hovering around 100 degrees on the second day of what was expected to be an unusually long heat wave in the Pacific Northwest.
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Typically, this recovery center is a hub for community members struggling with substance use disorders and housing insecurity in Salem, a city of approximately 170,000 people. But on Tuesday, the center doubled as a cooling center — one of about 20 open to the public in Marion County — as part of a sweeping effort across the Pacific Northwest to protect the residents of intense and sometimes deadly heat waves.
A year after the worst heat wave on record in the Pacific Northwest claimed hundreds of lives, the region finds itself better prepared, even as it continues to face the challenges that come with periods of extreme weather.
This week’s heat episode has already broken daily records in Oregon and Washington state on Tuesday: in Salem, the temperature reached a zenith of 103 degrees, equaling a previous record set in 1939. Another record of 102 was established in Portland. Seattle reached a record 94.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown (D) declared a state of emergency in 25 counties on Tuesday through Sunday, and ordered the state Emergency Management Service to coordinate a response. Almost the entire region, including parts of northern California, Nevada and Idaho, were subject to heat advisories or excessive heat warnings from the National Weather Service. Parts of eastern Washington and interior Oregon could see temperatures eclipse 110 degrees this week.
The heat is not expected to subside until the weekend. Portland and Seattle, both under excessive warnings through Thursday, are expected to experience historically long temperature streaks above 95 and 90 degrees, respectively.
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In Salem, this is the second year in a row that Recovery has offered its space as a cooling center. The first time was during last year’s heat wave in which at least 54 people died in Portland alone, officials say, with the victims disproportionately older and living alone. Advocates say low-income tenants, who may be unable to install or pay for air-cooling units themselves, are particularly at risk for heat-related illnesses during heat waves.
This disaster has spurred a reassessment for the historically temperate region as climate change fuels intensifying heat waves. Since then, local governments and nonprofits have stepped up their emergency heat relief efforts, tapping into grants and forming partnerships to do so.
“The past year has definitely been a wake-up call for Oregon,” said Candace Avalos, executive director of Verde, an environmental justice nonprofit in Portland.
In Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes Portland, there were four overnight cooling centers on Tuesday, as well as a day center, misting stations and “splash pads” throughout the city . Transit buses offered free rides to cool places.
Similar efforts are underway in Washington State. In King County, which includes Seattle, a slew of cooling centers have opened. The city remains the least air-conditioned major metropolitan area in the country: only 44% of homes have some form of air conditioning, according to data from the US Census Bureau. But that figure doesn’t reflect the surge in air conditioning purchases following the scorching weather last year. In September, the Washington State Department of Commerce began accepting applications for subsidized air conditioners through the Low-Income Household Energy Assistance Program for the first time.
As memories of last year’s record-breaking heat dome linger, the general public’s reaction to the current temperatures has appeared less frantic. Temperatures are expected to peak in the 90s — and while those temperatures aren’t unheard of in Seattle, the predicted duration of the five-day heat wave is unusual. Heat will build up in residences by the end of the week, which can make it difficult to sleep and increase the risk of heat-related illnesses.
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The city launched its standard heat wave response plan, which includes cooling centers at libraries, senior centers and community centers. For those who work outdoors, the state announced emergency heat regulations that went into effect in mid-June. When the temperature reaches 89 degrees, employers must provide workers with at least one liter of cool water per hour and at least one 10-minute paid recovery break every two hours. While heat regulations for outdoor workers have been in place for more than a dozen years, the state Department of Labor and Industries has issued emergency regulations over the past three summers. while permanent changes to the rules are being negotiated.
King County also announced the development of its first-ever Extreme Heat Mitigation Strategy last month, a direct response to last year’s heat wave that killed more than 30 county residents. The county government applied for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noting that the agency does not historically provide hazard mitigation grants for extreme heat.
“Last year we experienced the deadliest weather event in our history, and these events are expected to be longer and more intense in the future,” said Seattle and County Health Officer Jeff Duchin. of King, in a press release. “We must prepare both for the inevitable heat spells that will continue to challenge us, and also do what we can to minimize the risk of these becoming even more catastrophic in the future.”
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State and local governments in the Pacific Northwest are also working on long-term efforts to adapt to the extreme heat.
In March, Oregon lawmakers passed a bill committing millions of dollars to air conditioners and cooling systems for residents who can’t afford them, while also funding emergency thermal shelters like those that are operating statewide this week. The law also protects tenants who install certain air cooling devices from retaliation by landlords.
In Portland, officials aim to install between 12,000 and 15,000 portable cooling units and heat pumps in low-income households over the next five years. Verde, the Portland nonprofit, helps coordinate a separate program providing air conditioners to low-income residents. Avalos said there was “overwhelming” demand for the program.
Parrish, deputy director of Recovery Outreach, said he noticed more cohesion and organization in the region’s response to this heat wave.
At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the temperature dropped below 95 degrees, the point where the Salem Cooling Center closes to the public. Parrish replaced a large jug of water drained by thirsty visitors as support staff warned customers of the constant heat. He expects the cooling center to operate all week.
Scruggs reported from Seattle. Jason Samenow at DC contributed to this report.
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