The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pacific Northwest suffers through blistering temperatures

Babs Jacobsen, 60, cuddles her dog Vinney at the Oregon Convention Center cooling center in Portland, Ore. (Alisha Jucevic for The Washington Post)
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PORTLAND, Ore. — A few years ago, Gwen Gage moved from a homeless encampment at Portland’s Laurelhurst Park into transitional housing in the city’s downtown.

But on Saturday morning, Gage, 51, returned to see friends — and seek some shade.

Her unit in the 120-year-old building has no air conditioning. So, despite freezing water bottles in advance and installing the box fans she and her neighbors received from the nonprofit that runs the housing program, she said she just couldn’t be there Saturday.

“When I looked at the weather and saw 113 degrees, I just thought, ‘This can’t be Portland,’” she said.

People throughout the Pacific Northwest were grappling with the same question as the region entered a prolonged period of extreme heat, with temperatures in the normally fair-weathered region set to soar over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Gage said she would stay with friends near the camp for the night. “I can’t even go back later,” she said. “It’ll just be too hot in my unit.”

Gage used crutches and her electric wheelchair to navigate an area filled with at least four dozen tents. She has dealt with ongoing issues from a broken femur two years ago. In this kind of weather, the encampment offers another benefit.

“We look out for each other here,” she said.

Loose water bottles and gallon jugs of water are set around some tents. At a table nearby, people have dropped off water bottles and snacks for the taking.

Nola Smart, 31, lives in the neighborhood and dropped off dozens of water bottles she had bought, along with a few bags of snacks she got from a neighbor.

Between several runs she planned to make back to the encampment to refill water bottles and drop off more supplies, she said her own cooling plan is simple, especially because she doesn’t have any air conditioning at her apartment either.

“I’m just going to take cold showers and sit in front of the fan until it’s over,” she said.

Temperatures Saturday were as much as 35 degrees above normal across a swath of the northwest stretching from Oregon to British Columbia and from the Pacific coast to parts of Idaho. All-time records were broken in Portland and Port Angeles, Wa. And relief is still a long way off: forecasts for Sunday and Monday called for highs above 110 degrees in many places.

“If you’re keeping a written list of the records that will fall,” the National weather Service in Seattle tweeted, “you might need a few pages by early next week.”

The event was so extreme in its size, scope and duration, it seemed to need every adjective in the weather service’s dictionary: “[T]his heat will be historic, dangerous, prolonged and unprecedented,” the agency’s Spokane office wrote.

This wall of unprecedented heat bears the trademarks of human-caused climate change, experts say. Average temperatures in the Northwest have increased by nearly 1 degree Celsius since 1900, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment. The number of extremely hot days each year has increased, and the region is cooling off less at night. Statistical analyses show that warming from greenhouse gas emissions accounts for more than 80 percent of the increase in hot summers in the West.

“This is what’s projected to happen more often as climate continues to change,” said Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and an editor of the state’s most recent climate assessment.

By the middle of the century, the assessment found, the number of days with a heat index above 90 degrees is expected to triple or quadruple in most Oregon counties. The region could see a 200 to 400 percent increase in heat-related deaths if the world continues to emit at current levels.

The duration of the heat wave also carries a climate signal. Evidence suggests that heat domes like the ones wreaking havoc from Phoenix to Portland this summer are becoming more persistent and intense as the planet warms. These tall, hot air masses sit on top of a region, diverting weather systems and dissipating cloud cover, which allows more-intense summer sunlight to heat the ground further. This feedback loop can produce broiling temperatures lasting for days on end. When a heat dome happens amid the hotter, drier conditions caused by climate change, the results are record-shattering.

Although the Northwest has not warmed as much as other parts of the country — average temperatures in 10 percent of the United States have already increased more than 2 degrees Celsius, a threshold the United Nations associates with catastrophic warming — extreme heat can be more dangerous here because the region is so unused to it.

Seattle and Portland have some of the lowest rates of air conditioning access in the country, noted Alexandra Rempel, a buildings scientist in the environmental studies department at the University of Oregon. Portland also has a pronounced “urban heat island” effect — the amount of paved surfaces and exhaust-producing machinery makes temperatures in the city an average of 4.8 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in nearby rural areas. Some days, the disparity can be as high as 19 degrees.

The problem is worst in neighborhoods where most people are low-income, non-White or non-native English speakers, according to a 2018 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. People of color in Portland are less likely to live in homes with air conditioning, and the study found that most people in the city are not within walking distance of a public cooling refuge.

There is also a risk that the soaring heat could strain the region’s power grid, which isn’t accustomed to extreme temperatures. Portland’s electric utility issued an advisory noting that it had deployed extra cooling systems to prevent important equipment from overheating, and crews at the ready to deal with potential problems. Residents were advised to do laundry and dishes early in the morning or late at night when temperatures are lower. They were also told to cook with a microwave or outdoor grill rather than an indoor stove or oven.

Rick Cantu, 60, showed up at the cooling center at the Oregon Convention Center on Friday night because it was too hot to stay in his car. Cantu has been living in his 2003 Infiniti sedan for the past two years while he tries to find permanent and stable housing.

“Usually, the convention center is a shelter when it’s too cold,” he said. “This is the first time I can remember this ever being here ’cause it’s too hot.”

On Saturday morning, he and at least 60 other people were in a cavernous storage and distribution area in the back of the convention center taking refuge. Cantu watched television to pass the time.

“I’ll do this, read, do anything to keep my mind occupied,” he said. “There’s no reason to go outside, and I’m diabetic — I can’t be out in that heat.”

Multnomah County Health Officer Jennifer Vines said she also doesn’t remember a time they have ever opened up the convention center to shelter people from heat.

“And we’ve already seen more people than I expected,” she said. They don’t know how many people might show up over the next four days, but they expect new people to come each day and decide to stay put.

The convention center is one of three cooling centers the city opened up to offer shelter from Friday through Tuesday. They’re stocked with water, snacks, cots and floor mats. The convention center can accommodate up to 300 people overnight, while the other two locations can take up to 75 people each.

“I think people really underestimated how hot it continues to stay overnight,” Vines said.

Cantu said he plans to stay at the convention center for as long as it’s open. He grew up in Portland and can’t remember ever seeing heat like this so frequently and for such long stretches. He worked for Portland Parks and Recreation for 34 years and said a series of personal mistakes, evictions and poor credit have led to his issues finding stable housing.

Working for the parks department, he often saw tent encampments started by people without housing. “We saw plenty of that,” he said, “and we always worked with them if they’d work with us.” He never expected he would be without his own shelter, seeking refuge in extreme heat.

“It just goes to show you how close you can be to being in a situation like this,” he said.

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