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Multnomah County to review heat wave response

At least 72 people died due to the heat in Multnomah County.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Multnomah County leaders are reviewing the response to the historic heat wave at the end of June. At least 72 people died due to the heat in Multnomah County and a total of 116 people died statewide since June 25.

“The unprecedented heat dome that settled over the region for nearly five days between June 25 and June 30 was a mass casualty event,” the county said in a news release.

Portland set new heat records on three consecutive days, peaking at 116 degrees on June 28. On that day alone, the county medical examiner’s office responded to four times the typical number of deaths.

Most of the people who died in Multnomah County had underlying health conditions. The majority died in their homes with no fans or air conditioning, officials said.

The Multnomah County medical examiner has determined at least 40 county residents died of hyperthermia, which is an abnormally high body temperature caused by a failure to deal with heat. Hyperthermia is the suspected cause of death for the 27 others who died, but an official cause of death has not yet been determined.

Multnomah County released data for the initial 59 deaths the county reported, including age, location, race and gender. The people who died ranged in age from 44 to 97, with an average age of 68. Of those 59 deaths, 20 were women and 39 were men, and most were white. Almost all ZIP codes in Multnomah County had at least one death, but none had more than five. The ZIP code 97266, which covers the Lents neighborhood of Southeast Portland, had the most deaths but had no open cooling centers during the heat wave.

Credit: KGW

It could take months to determine how many people died from the heat, officials said.

RELATED: Oregon heat wave death toll grows to 107

“Whether it’s a global pandemic or climate crisis our community is being pushed to extremes in new and, frankly, terrifying ways,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “Our top priority has been and will continue to be protecting lives and ensuring that those with the least ability to protect themselves have what they need to survive.”

In order to prevent future mass-casualty heat waves, officials plans to fully review all heat-related death investigations from the end of June to change the county's heat response. The county will also review its efforts and staffing, and the environmental vulnerabilities people faced, such as high-rise apartment buildings. 

“The number of people and infrastructure harmed by this event is consistent with worst-case climate models for the Pacific Northwest and predict there is worse to come in the absence of aggressive global action to stop the use of fossil fuels,” said Multnomah County Sustainability Director John Wasiutynski. “We also understand that directly preparing residents to survive the next heat wave shouldn't wait until a forecast tells us another one is imminent. We should all be looking, at all levels of government, to pursue climate adaptation work that can be done right now, to save lives later.”

The county is asking the state and federal governments to take action to reduce carbon emissions.

RELATED: Do you know someone who died from the heat? Help us investigate what happened

Gov. Brown: Oregon will review response to heat wave

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has directed state agencies to complete their own reviews to figure out how Oregon can improve its response to future heat events.

On Tuesday, Brown announced she directed Oregon Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) to enact emergency rules to ensure workers are protected during extreme heat. The rules will require employers to provide shade, rest time and cold water for workers.

“All Oregonians should be able to go to work knowing that conditions will be safe and that they will return home to their families at the end of the day,” Brown said.

During an appearance Sunday appeared on CBS News’ “Face the Nation”, Brown said the state worked hard with community partners and county emergency departments to get the word out about the heat wave and set up cooling centers.

“Unfortunately, we still lost too many lives,” said Brown. “Following events like this, we always do reviews and see what we can do better next time.”

Brown said the state will continue its work to make sure Oregonians are prepared for more extreme heat waves in the future.