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'It could have been me': Apartment dwellers without air conditioning reflect on dangers of record heat wave

At least 59 people in Multnomah County died in the heat, most in their homes. Officials said multi-unit buildings tend to be more dangerous in extreme heat.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Days before a deadly, record-setting heatwave moved into the Pacific Northwest, staff with Multnomah County began making thousands of phone calls. Beginning last week, a spokesperson said, staff called 3,680 high-risk and vulnerable adults, warning them the heat was coming and making sure they had a safety plan in place. Many of them lived in homes and apartments.

Fast forward to Friday, staff now say 59 people in Multnomah County died in the heat. Most, officials said, were found in their homes.

“It could have been me. It could have been a number of people,” said Debora Fitzgerald.

RELATED: Oregon heat wave death toll grows to 94

Fitzgerald lives in Holgate House, an affordable housing complex in Southeast Portland. It's several stories high with no air conditioning. Fitzgerald, who works in healthcare, bought herself two window units ahead of the heat wave, but a lot of her neighbors can't afford that. Many of them have health problems and couldn't travel to county-run cooling centers.

Fitzgerald doesn't believe anyone in her building died, but she knows people in similar situations did.

“I don’t want to see any more deaths,” she said.

County officials don’t want to see that either, but they admit, vulnerable people isolated in apartments are hard to reach. Last week, KGW followed along as outreach teams checked in on Portland's homeless, making sure they knew the heat was coming and the best ways to stay safe. Officials haven’t yet said if any of those who died in the heat were homeless. A county spokesperson told KGW that requires a lengthy death investigation, since someone dying on the streets doesn’t necessarily mean they lived on the streets.

Officials said people on the streets are often easier to help than those hidden in apartments. Plus, the buildings themselves put people at risk.

Chris Voss, director of Multnomah County Emergency Management, said multi-unit buildings tend to have more problems in the heat.

"Windows, the age, the lack of central air conditioning… They are all pretty significant factors," said Voss. 

RELATED: County officials, state leaders try to figure out what went wrong during historic heat wave

At Holgate House, Fitzgerald said Home Forward, the nonprofit that owns the building, offered a solution.

“We're going to go see the garbage area where they've got the hose where they dump the garbage,” she said, directing KGW’s crew around the back of the building.

Through a window, Fitzgerald pointed to AC units pumping cool air into the building’s garbage room. Fitzgerald says residents, overheating in their apartments, were told to go sit with the trash. She has no doubt a lot of people stayed in their homes, a decision that, officials now say, cost others their lives.

“It’s unhealthy,” she said. “I need more people to step up and talk. And I'm not afraid to. I don't care if I get kicked out of here. I don't care.”

KGW reached out to Home Forward about the garbage room set-up. The nonprofit’s public relations associate director Monica Foucher replied via email:

Home Forward planned extensively for this heat event and stayed involved with residents to provide cool spaces and resources for them. If anything went wrong, staff members improvised to make sure people had options. We are still gathering information about how our residents fared throughout our entire portfolio so that we can continue to improve these emergency processes.