From June 26 to 28, at least 67 people in Multnomah County died from the hottest temperatures Portland has ever recorded. It was among the largest death tolls ever recorded here from a natural disaster.
Yet 10 days later, Portlanders still know astonishingly little about those who died, what conditions contributed to their deaths, and who they were.
WHAT WE KNOW:
The county released what it called a “preliminary analysis” on July 3 that included the racial breakdown of the deceased, their age range, and a map that showed the hot spots where most deaths occurred.
From that analysis, we know that most of the people who died were old. The mean age was 68. The youngest was 44, and the oldest was 97.
They were predominantly white. Fifty-two of the 59 deaths reported as of last weekend were of white people.
Double the number of men died than women.
We know that prior to the heat wave, the county warned in press releases that officials were particularly worried about old buildings that didn’t have AC, especially on the top floors of multistory buildings.
We know that after the heat wave, the county reported that most of the people who died were found alone, without air conditioning or fans, and many had underlying health conditions.
We know a higher concentration of deaths occurred in East Portland, where there’s less shade and more of what researchers call “heat islands”—large paved areas, like parking lots, that collect heat during the day and release that heat at night, never allowing the surrounding neighborhood to cool down. The ZIP code with the greatest number of deaths—in outer Southeast Portland, along Interstate 205—has some of the worst heat islands in the city, according to a 2019 study by Portland State University.
We know that two of the deaths were of residents at buildings run by Home Forward—the largest affordable housing agency in the state. One was in a 13-story tower in Northwest Portland that lacked central cooling. Home Forward confirmed those two deaths to WW on Saturday. The Portland Housing Bureau says it’s aware of no deaths at its properties.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW:
We don’t know the names of those who died.
We don’t know where they lived, or what type of housing structures they lived in: low-income apartments, market-rate apartments, accessory dwelling units, single-family homes or trailers, old buildings and new buildings.
We don’t know what the built environment was around them: if they were exposed to the sun, if they were shaded by trees and greenery, if their building managers installed AC for the emergency, or if they even allowed AC units on the property.
And we don’t know their social connections: whether they had neighbors or family who checked on them periodically, whether they had access to social services, whether they were connected to housing nonprofits, and whether their landlords checked on them during the heat wave.
Those are facts we will not know without public agencies releasing names or addresses. Multnomah County has declined several requests by WW for that information. The state medical examiner has declined similar requests.
If you know someone who died during the heat wave, or have information that might lead us to a building that proved lethal, please contact Sophie Peel at firstname.lastname@example.org.