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'We are humbled by the death toll': Multnomah County releases report on heat wave deaths

According to a report released Tuesday, most of the 54 people who died in Multnomah County were older, lived alone and had no air conditioning.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon's record-setting heat wave was responsible for at least 54 confirmed deaths due to hyperthermia in Multnomah County, according to a report released Tuesday morning. According to the report, most of the Multnomah County residents who died were older, lived alone and had no air conditioning. They were primarily white and most were men.

Prior to June's heat wave, the county had recorded just two deaths due to hyperthermia since 2010, one in 2016 and the other in 2018. "More people died from the June 2021 heat wave in Multnomah County than died from heat in the entire state of Oregon in the past 20 years," the report states.

The report released Tuesday states that the county has identified 71 deaths in which the suspected cause of death is hyperthermia. Of those, 54 were formally ruled as deaths due to hyperthermia.

The historic heat wave is responsible for at least 115 confirmed and suspected deaths across the state.

RELATED: Oregon emergency officials discuss state's response to deadly heat wave

On Tuesday morning, Multnomah County chair Deborah Kafoury, health officer Jennifer Vines, director of emergency management Chris Voss and chief medicolegal death investigator Kimberly DiLeo spoke to the media about the report and answered questions.

The report states that the county "responded with the full set of public health interventions" during the heat wave, including an "intensive" communication plan, outreach and public cooling spaces. But the county said the magnitude of the heat wave "was not just unprecedented for the temperate Pacific Northwest, but it also was exceedingly rare for most of the United States."

During the heat wave, Portland set a new temperature record with 108 degrees on Saturday, June 26, broke that record the following day with 112 degrees and again on Monday, June 28, when the temperature registered 116 degrees. Temperatures stayed high at night, meaning homes and apartments without air conditioning were unable to cool down during the night. The National Weather Service referred to that as a "force multiplier" to the record-setting temperatures during the day.

RELATED: Portland hits 116 degrees, setting new all-time high record

"We are humbled by the death toll and are committed to learning all we can about who succumbed and why," the report states. County leaders in the report said they expect the numbers to change and their understanding of the event to evolve as they study it further.

In the report, county leaders also say it's clear that "climate disruption is making extreme heat events more frequent, more intense and longer in duration."

According to the report, in a little more than 50 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects that Multnomah County will experience 38 days of 90 degrees each year, a large increase over the current record of 29 days that was set in 2015.

County leaders said the community "must come together around both shorter- and longer-term strategies, from investing in cooler indoor spaces to reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Multnomah County Emergency Management plans to convene city, transportation and communication partners to identify short-term solutions in preparation for further heat events this year and produce an in-depth action report.

Here are some of the findings from Tuesday's report about the 54 people who died:

Reported date of death

The reported date for the 54 confirmed deaths were as follows:

  • June 28: 3
  • June 29: 22
  • June 30: 12
  • July 1: 8
  • July 2: 3
  • July 3: 1
  • July 4: 1
  • July 5: 2
  • July 6: 1
  • July 7: 1

Age

The age of those who died:

  • 45-59: 10 (18.5%)
  • 60-69: 18 (33%)
  • 70-79: 16 (30%)
  • 80+: 10 (18.5%)

Race

The race of those who died:

  • White: 50 (92%)
  • African American/Black: 2 (4%)
  • American Indian/Alaskan Native: 1 (2%)
  • Asian: 1 (2%)

Sex

The sex of those who died:

  • Male: 34 (63%)
  • Female: 20 (37%)

Location (housing type)

The report states that most of the people died in their own home. Of the people who died in multifamily dwellings, 45% lived on the third floor or higher of the building. Of the people who died in their homes, 78% lived alone.

Three people died in apartment buildings owned and managed by Home Forward and one person died in a building owned and operated by Central City Concern. Both organizations are charged with caring for vulnerable people.

According to the report, two people who died were homeless and died in their vehicles.

  • Multifamily: 29 (55%)
  • Single family: 15 (28%)
  • Mobile home, RV park, automobile: 10 (18%)

Cooling

The lack of air conditioning was a key factor in the deaths, the report states. About 80% of people in the Portland area have some level of air conditioning in their homes, including about 50% with central air, the county said. But none of the people who died had central air and only eight people had a portable air conditioning unit in their home. Seven of those were unplugged or not working properly.

More than half of those who died had only a fan, which at the level of temperatures seen during the heat wave, can actually make the body warmer and dryer.

  • Fan only: 28 (52%)
  • None: 13 (24%)
  • Portable AC with or without fan: 8 (15%)
  • Unknown: 5 (9%)

Location

People who died lived in nearly every part of Multnomah County. The report states that at least one person died in 25 of the county's ZIP codes and no ZIP code had more than six deaths.

Families talk about loved ones who died

The report included comments from two families who lost loved ones during the heat wave. Read about heat death victims Lyle Crawford and Jollene Brown in the report below on pages 14 through 17.

Read full report:

More KGW reporter stories: