Deadly North West heatwave prompts air conditioning upgrades

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — As temperatures hit 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47 Celsius) in Salem, Ore., during June’s unprecedented heatwave, Bryleigh O’Neil and three housemates couldn’t afford or find air conditioners .

They spent their days seeking relief from record temperatures in grocery stores and classrooms. At night, the housemates slept downstairs on the floor next to fans blowing on bowls of ice cream.

“No matter how much water we drank or how many different attempts we made to stay cool, we were still extremely worried about our physical health and safety,” O’Neil said in written testimony to the Oregon Legislature. “While none of us had to go to the hospital due to heat exhaustion or heat stroke, many other Oregonians didn’t have to. this chance.”

The historic heat wave has killed at least 200 people in Oregon and Washington. Now, lawmakers in the Pacific Northwest are considering several emergency heat bills aimed at helping vulnerable people.

The measures would provide millions of dollars in funding for cooling systems and weather shelters during future extreme weather events.

Three consecutive days of extraordinary temperatures in the Pacific Northwest sent public health officials scrambling between June 25 and June 28. Temperatures in Portland, Oregon hit triple digits for three days, peaking at 116 F (46.7 C). In Seattle, Washington, temperatures hit a record high of 108 F (42 C).

An early scientific analysis by World Weather Attribution found that the deadly heatwave would have been virtually impossible without human-caused climate change which added a few extra degrees to record temperatures.

In the western part of the Pacific Northwest, summers are generally mild and air conditioners are not as common as in other parts of the country.

Nationally, about 91% of U.S. homes have primary air conditioning, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 U.S. Housing Survey. By comparison, that figure was 78% for Portland and just 44% for Seattle.

“Most of those who died did not have access to life-saving cooling devices such as air conditioning or heating and cooling pumps in their homes, Oriana Magnera, head of environmental justice association Verde, told reporters. Oregon lawmakers in a public hearing. legislative session last week.

The first of two heat relief bills proposed by Oregon, both of which received bipartisan support, would direct $5 million to the Oregon Health Authority to create an emergency distribution program that would provide air conditioners and air filters to low-income families. It would also allocate $10 million to create an incentive program to facilitate the purchase of energy-efficient heat pump cooling systems for vulnerable households.

Additionally, the bill directs the Oregon Public Utilities Commission to find ways to “spike” energy bills during extreme weather events.

During the heat wave, heat illness hospital emergency room visits increased more than 30 times above normal levels in Multnomah County, home to Portland.

Even so, county officials have received reports from residents opting not to operate air conditioning units due to the added cost.

“As the frequency and severity of extreme weather increases, fear of bill spikes shouldn’t stop people from relying on the energy they need to stay safe in place,” said John Wasiutynski, director from the Multnomah County Office of Sustainable Development.

Oregon’s second heat bill would remove barriers preventing tenants from installing portable air conditioners in their apartments and require cooling systems in newly built rental units.

The bill would also allocate $2 million to local and tribal governments to establish emergency centers for extreme weather conditions.

Lawmakers in two other states have also passed bills focused on expanding and opening cooling shelters in the past three years. In 2019, California lawmakers passed a bill that allows the Adjutant General to use vacant armories as temporary cooling shelters for the homeless. In 2021, Illinois lawmakers passed a measure calling for space to be set aside in communities to be used as cooling shelters in extreme heat emergencies.

In Washington, lawmakers are considering a bill that would expand the use of air conditioning in nursing homes.

During last year’s heat wave, PJ Knowles — firefighter and EMT for Puget Sound Regional Fire — fielded numerous calls from adult homes to find residents “cooking inside.”

Washington’s proposed bill would allocate $5 million to establish a grant program within the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure air conditioning is provided in adult family homes. The bill would also require license applicants for new adult family homes to provide air conditioning.

“I know a lot of homes here in the Pacific Northwest don’t have air conditioning, and most of the year we don’t need it,” said Sen. Mark Mullet, a Democrat from Issaquah. who sponsored the bill. “But our weather fluctuations are becoming more and more extreme, and these days a lack of air conditioning can be fatal.”


Cline is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.


Associated Press reporter Rachel La Corte contributed from Olympia, Washington.

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