Lots of are believed to have died in the course of the Pacific Northwest warmth wave: NPR
Salem Fire Department medic Justin Jones is trying to stay cool after responding to a heat alarm during a heat wave on Saturday. Nathan Howard / AP hide caption
Nathan Howard / AP
Nathan Howard / AP
SALEM, Ore. – Many of the dead were found alone in homes without air conditioning or fans. Some were older – one even 97 years old. The body of an immigrant farm worker was found in an Oregon tree nursery.
When forecasters warned of a record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada last weekend, officials set up cooling centers, distributed water to the homeless, and took other steps. Nevertheless, hundreds of people are said to have died from Friday to Tuesday.
An excessive heat warning remained in effect for parts of inner northwest and western Canada on Thursday.
The death toll in Oregon alone reached 79, the state medical examiner said Thursday, with most occurring in Multnomah County, which includes Portland.
In Canada, British Columbia chief medical examiner Lisa Lapointe said her office had received at least 486 “sudden and unexpected deaths” between Friday and Wednesday afternoons. Typically, around 165 people would die in the province within five days.
She said it was too early to be sure how many deaths were heat-related, but the heat was probably behind most of them.
Washington state authorities have linked more than 20 deaths to the heat, but authorities said the number is likely to rise.
In Oregon’s Multnomah County, the average victim age was 67 and the oldest was 97, according to county health officer Jennifer Vines.
In a phone interview Thursday, Vines said she was concerned about deaths over the weather forecast. The authorities tried to prepare as best they could and turned nine air-conditioned district libraries into cooling centers.
Between Friday and Monday, 7,600 people cooled down between the stacks of books. Others went to three other cooling centers. Almost 60 teams visited the homeless and offered water and electrolytes.
“We scoured the county with an education effort and asked property managers of low-income homes to screen their residents,” Vines said.
But efforts weren’t enough, she said, “It was really sobering to get those first (death) numbers out.”
Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Emergency Management Bureau, agreed. “It is heartbreaking to hear about the tragic loss of life as a result of the recent heat wave. As an emergency manager – and Oregonian – it’s devastating that people were unable to get the help they needed during an emergency, ”he said.
Among the dead was a farm worker who collapsed Saturday and was found by colleagues at a nursery in rural St. Paul, Oregon. The workers had laid irrigation lines, said Aaron Corvin, spokesman for Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, or Oregon OSHA.
Oregon OSHA, whose database listed death as heat-related, is investigating contractor Andres Pablo Lucas and Ernst Nursery and Farms, who did not respond to a request for comment. Pablo Lucas did not want to comment on Thursday.
Farm worker Pedro Lucas said the man who died was his uncle Sebastian Francisco Perez from Ixcan, Guatemala. He was 38 years old the day before his death.
Lucas, a cousin of the contractor, was summoned. But when he arrived his uncle was passed out and dying. An ambulance crew tried to revive him but failed. Lucas said Perez was used to working in the heat and the family was waiting for an autopsy report.
Reyna Lopez, executive director of a northwest farm workers union known by her Spanish-speaking initials PCUN, called the death “shameful” and accused both Oregon OSHA of failing to pass emergency rules before the heat wave and gardening.
Corvin said Oregon OSHA is exploring “the introduction of emergency requirements and we are continuing to hold discussions with employee and employer stakeholders.”
He added that employers are required to provide adequate water, shade, extra breaks and training on heat hazards.
An executive order issued in March 2020 by Oregon Governor Kate Brown would formalize workers’ protection from heat, but it comes too late for the dead farm worker. Brown’s order focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and calls on the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon OSHA to jointly propose standards to protect workers from excessive heat and forest fire smoke.
They had until June 30 to submit proposals, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the two agencies requested to postpone the deadline to September.
In Bend, Oregon, a picturesque town next to the snow-capped Cascade Range, the bodies of two men were found on Sunday on a street where dozens of homeless people are housed in trailers and tents.
Volunteer Luke Richter said he stepped into the trailer where one of the men, Alonzo “Lonnie” Boardman, was found.
“It was obviously too late. It was basically a microwave in there,” Richter told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Cooling stations with water, sports drinks and ice were set up on the campsite on Saturday.
Weather experts say the number of heat waves is likely to increase only in the Pacific Northwest, a region usually known for cool, rainy weather mixed with a few hot, sunny days and where many people don’t have air conditioning.
“I think the community needs to be realistic that we are going to have this as a more common event rather than a one-off event, and that we need to prepare as a community,” said Dr. Steven Mitchell of Harborview Medical’s Seattle Center, which has treated an unprecedented number of severe heat-related cases. “We really need to step up our disaster relief.”
This week’s heat wave was caused by what meteorologists described as the high pressure dome over the northwest, and exacerbated by man-made climate change that makes such extreme weather events more likely and more intense.
Seattle, Portland, and many other cities have all broken heat records, with temperatures in some locations exceeding 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius).