The US city of Portland was not prepared for the series of heat waves that have already caused dozens of deaths. Very high temperatures expected again from Wednesday. “We are not used to this heat. What will summer be like when our son is an adult?
Two running girls screaming at the Midland Library in Portland. They open and close copier drawers, toss DVDs in the trash and drag them through rows of bookcases. A woman updating her resume behind a computer shakes her head in desperation. Anyone who came to the library today to work or read is out of luck.
Since Portland was hit by two heat waves, the library has been dedicated to a so-called “cooling center,” a place where residents can take shelter from the heat. Public buildings with buzzing air conditioning and bottled water became a livelihood. A bitter necessity: About 70 people have died here this summer.
Portland isn’t the only American city devastated by severe weather this summer. To the south, new record temperatures have been reached. In Death Valley, California, the temperature rose to 54 degrees. Wildfires ravage the western United States. The Dixie Fire in California has already reduced nearly 200,000 acres to ashes. Five thousand firefighters were deployed to contain the fire, which could last for weeks.
Heat waves will become more frequent. That is one of the conclusions reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a report published on Monday. The world faces two major challenges: on the one hand, the obligation to prevent further climate change, and on the other hand, countries and cities like Portland must already arm themselves against its consequences.
The desperation of climate change is evident in the Midland Library. “We hid here for seven days because we don’t have air conditioning in the house,” says Sarah Moonves, 39, who is unemployed, who walks outside with her husband David with a few bottles of water. Today is 34 degrees. With one arm, Monfils protect their head from the sun. “Growing up in Portland, you’re not used to such heat,” she says. “We are worried about our children. Our youngest is 4 years old. What will the summer be like here when he gets older?
Portland, Oregon, located on the west coast of the United States, has a climate similar to that of the Netherlands. Not too cold in winter, not too hot in summer. But this year, at the end of June, the temperature is 47 degrees Celsius higher than in the Nevada desert. More than 100 people died in the heat in Oregon. A second heat wave came at the end of next July, and the mercury temperature is expected to rise again next Wednesday to about 38 degrees.
A typical city can handle a few temperatures, but Portland isn’t designed to heat up. This frustrates Vivek Chandas, a climate researcher at Portland State University, significantly. For twenty years, he has watched his city get warmer and has been trying to persuade policymakers to take these climate problems seriously. When he used to say it could get as hot here as it is in Arizona, they said, No, no way!
Now that the time has come, he’s calling for drastic action: laws for green buildings, insulated homes, and infrastructure that can withstand high temperatures. But policymakers prefer sticking plasters: “If an electrical wire melts, they’d rather hang up a new wire,” he says.
Three days before the first heat wave, Portlanders were notified by a news release from Multnomah County in Portland, asking them to plan. But the heat wave came earlier than expected which led to a lot of chaos. People without transportation do not know how to get to the cooling centers. The emergency number (211) lines that residents can call for free transportation quickly became crowded.
When Shandas talks to the authorities and asks why they aren’t tackling climate problems in a more structural way, he hears there are more acute concerns: poverty, corona, a lack of affordable housing. Problems that Shandas believes cannot be addressed without thinking about climate change. “They want to build new affordable housing in Portland very quickly, but if they don’t think about good insulation, enough shade, and enough green space, the poverty problem will increase,” he says by phone.
Concrete mixers operate throughout Portland to recover hot-melted asphalt. The pets had a hard time and had to stay indoors due to the weather. Swimming pools had to be closed to ensure staff safety. On apps like TikTok, you can watch videos of people frying eggs and bacon on the sidewalk with pans, under the hissing sun.
Many wealthy Portlanders headed to the coast to relax, or booked air-conditioned hotels. Homeless people and people with less money, like Monfilsen, found salvation in cooling centers that sometimes stayed open all night because they didn’t cool enough in the evening.
Those who are left alone at home without adequate cooling are at risk of dying within a few hours. A heat attack begins with heavy sweating, muscle cramps, and headaches. The heat makes people confused, they can no longer judge the severity of the situation. If the body temperature increases even more, the organs stop working after a while.
According to Chandas and other experts, heat-related deaths aren’t necessary if there is a good emergency plan in place, but none in Portland. If there was good communication about the risks from the authorities, it did not happen. The heat was fatal to dozens of elderly people living alone. In the days following the heat wave, they were found dead in their home.
In Portland, the elderly and slum dwellers have been hardest hit by the heat wave. Most of them lived on the so-called heat islands, areas with little trees and a lot of asphalt and stone; Materials that retain heat for a longer time. When the temperature was 46.6 degrees in Portland, according to official figures, Vivek Shandas went to measure the temperature on a few Heat Islands. In one place it turns out that 51 degrees.
Hazelwood is a heat island, a neighborhood with lots of stones and small green spaces. On a long street of cheap little houses, Bever Guerrero parks his twinkling black motorcycle on the side of the road. He walks into his mother’s front yard, snatches mail from the mailbox, drops it inside and gets back on his motorcycle. Since it’s hot, Guerrero wants his 78-year-old mom to go out as little as possible, not even to pick up the mail.
“The weather was really bad and my mother didn’t have air conditioning,” Guerrero says. “I had one installed in her house a few days before the heat wave,” he says. ‘right on time. Otherwise, she would have died, too.
Now Guerrero’s mother is lucky, she has a son who can buy an air conditioner as well as a good engine, but this is not so clear. Most of the dead did not have air conditioners. The few who have one may not want to risk high energy bills.
Multnomah County continues to suffer the trauma of all the dead. “We knew the temperature could rise here, but we thought it would take another 10 or 15 years before it got too hot,” said lead spokeswoman Julie Sullivan Springhetti. It says it will bring climate expertise, promises to plant more trees, and green building codes will be introduced — measures Vivek Chandas has been advocating for years.
A few weeks ago, Chandas was allowed to speak to some members of Congress in Washington about what he believes should be done to prevent more heat deaths. Two weeks ago, the Senate approved a package of about 844 billion euros that will go to infrastructure. Part will be invested in green energy.
Very well, Shandas thought. The more money that goes into the environment, the better. But he also hopes climate money will be spent locally excessively and advocate for heat ambassadors and emergency response teams in every neighborhood who know what’s going on behind every front door: who’s old or sick, and who needs an air conditioner. According to him, “in this way more climate deaths are prevented.”
“You know what crazy is,” Shandas says. “We live in a city run by Democrats, who have never questioned climate change and yet do nothing but put out fires too late. I hope this heat wave serves as an alarm bell.
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