We Revisited Three of the Places Where Portlanders Were Killed by the Heat Dome Last Year

All three spots fit the trend line of last year’s deaths: low-income, elderly Portlanders living alone without air conditioning in environments that soak in the heat.

Last year, a high-pressure weather system superheated Portland to 116 degrees and, by its conclusion, killed 69 residents of Multnomah County. This past week, another heat wave arrived: less searing but longer.

It marked the first time that Portland surpassed 95 degrees for seven consecutive days, according to the National Weather Service. More dangerously, it was also the first recorded occasion when the temperature didn’t dip below 65 degrees for seven consecutive nights. That meant people never got the chance to cool off.

Multnomah County health officials identified seven suspected heat deaths as of press deadlines Aug. 2.

As the city suffered a parched case of déjà vu, WW revisited three of the places where Portlanders died last year. All three spots fit the trend line of last year’s deaths: low-income, elderly Portlanders living alone without air conditioning in environments that soak in the heat.

Peter Paulson Apartments

1530 SW 13th Ave.

10:30 am Friday, July 29

Sean Muldrew smokes a cigarette outside his apartment building in a motorized wheelchair. He has a takeout box of baby back ribs in the basket attached to the back. He’s been trying to call an agency he was referred to about getting an air conditioning unit for four days now, with no luck. He says he’s called over a dozen times and left messages.

Last year, he says, the building handed out fans.

“They had a stack of them, and they were like, ‘Here, here, here!’” Muldrew recalls. “They said they’re not doing that this year.”

Yesterday, to his relief, a maintenance man installed dark curtains over his window. That, coupled with the three fans he has running, is helping. Muldrew wheels into the building to check on his cat, Callie, in his second-floor room.

Since last summer, Home Forward, the city’s housing authority, purchased and installed 500 AC units in its buildings using general budget and grant dollars. (That means about 1 in 12 households received an AC unit.)

One resident died at this building during last year’s heat dome. Her name was Brenda and she had bright red hair. She flew around in her motorized wheelchair—sometimes too fast, according to those on her floor.

Ian Davie, a spokesman for Home Forward, says building managers were instructed to check on vulnerable residents, provide chilled communal spaces if possible, offer water bottles, and educate residents about cooling resources—protocols it developed after last year’s heat dome.

Davie says the housing authority is not aware of any deaths that occurred in Home Forward buildings.

Along the two blocks north of the Peter Paulson, residents of other low-income complexes are sitting and standing outside to escape roasting rooms. Two women gossip animatedly while smoking. One man picks up still-smoking cigarette stubs and finishes them off.

Northwest Tower

335 NW 19th Ave.

9 am Friday, July 30

Skyler Harrison, 33, lounges outside his 13-story low-income apartment complex Friday morning. It’s already 75 degrees and climbing, and the sixth day of the weeklong heat stretch.

In his second-floor room of the Home Forward building where two people died during last year’s heat dome, Harrison has built a contraption that’s a variation on a swamp cooler. He stuck seven frozen water bottles in a plastic foam cooler. He cut two holes in the top. Harrison then directed a fan into one of the holes so that the air would hit the frozen water bottles and blast chilled air out the other hole.

He also dampens his sheets before bed, he says. The fan at the foot of his bed dries them by the time he wakes up.

This year, the city partnered with local climate resilience firm CAPA Strategies to install heat sensors in three Home Forward buildings where Portlanders died last year.

53 sensors, says climate scientist and CAPA manager Joey Williams, were installed in the three buildings, including Northwest Tower.

Home Forward declined to offer any details about the pilot project and how the sensors worked during the past week.

Flavel RV and Mobile Home Park

8410 SE Flavel St.

1 pm Saturday, July 30

For the second time in two years, the RV park where Eugene Anderson died alone in his RV feels like it’s being cooked.

The air is stagnant and there are few trees. No tall buildings create shade cover. The ground consists of asphalt, packed dirt and rocks. The only greenery is some potted flowers and plants surrounding some of the RVs. The campers are covered with a reflective, tinlike material.

This is the recipe that killed Anderson last year during the 116-degree heat dome. He was found dead in his RV with a broken air conditioning unit.

At the time, Sandy Botkins remembered Anderson as quiet but pleasant. They’d usually make small talk at the mailboxes, even though their RVs were less than 100 feet apart. They’d talk about her dog, Cilantro.

Today, Botkins walks Cilantro. The dog rapidly lifts her feet up and down on the packed dirt as she pants next to the empty strip of land where Anderson’s RV used to sit.

No one else is out and about the RV park. You can hear rustling in some of the RVs, but mostly it’s dead quiet.

If you look at Cilantro, not as a 10-pound ball of yappy dog whose last two teeth fell out this morning, but rather as a heat vector, it makes sense that she picks up her paws with such rapidity. The heat burns and rises through her feet into her body—thermal mass, if you will—and gradually heats it up.

“The longer she’s exposed to higher temperatures, the hotter she gets,” explains Williams, the climate scientist who WW invited out to Flavel RV Park.

The surface temperature is 130 degrees where Cilantro stands, according to Williams’ heat-measuring device. On a tuft of rare grass along the edge of the RV park, the surface temperature is 95 degrees. On dead grass between RVs, the temperature is 110 degrees. The surface of one of the only trees in the park? Eighty-one degrees.

An apartment complex just one block away sports healthy amounts of shade provided by tall firs. The surface temperature is 92 degrees.