Most Multnomah County heat deaths involved older people, with no air conditioning, in multi-family housing – OregonLive

Most people who died in Multnomah County during the unprecedented heat wave were older, lacked air conditioning and lived in multifamily housing, mobile homes, RVs or their automobiles.

That’s according to preliminary data released by county officials Tuesday, providing the clearest picture to date of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Multnomah County residents in extreme temperatures suspected of killing at least 115 people statewide.

Of the 54 Multnomah County residents confirmed to have died from the heat:

  • 29 lived in multifamily housing
  • 10 lived in mobile homes, RVs or automobiles
  • 15 lived in single-family homes.

People living in multi-family housing were disproportionately impacted. While Census figures show that just more than a third of Multnomah County residents live in multi-family homes, like apartments, duplexes, hotels or single-room occupancy units, more than half the deaths occurred in those buildings. The deaths were nearly split among lower floors and upper floors, according to the county, with 45% of those who died residing on the third floor or higher.

Two people who died were experiencing homelessness and were found in their vehicles, county officials said, a number that could increase as investigations continue. Three died in apartments managed by Home Forward, Multnomah County’s public housing authority, and one died in a building operated by Central City Concern, which provides housing to recently homeless people.

None of the people who died had central air conditioning. Eight people had a portable air conditioner, but almost all of the units were unplugged or not properly working, according to the county. The majority of people who died only had a fan. And 13 people had neither an air conditioner nor a fan, the county said.

The report included profiles of two people who died:

  • Lyle Crawford, 62, a Gresham High graduate and former Oregon National Guardsman who lived alone and did not use a computer or own a smartphone. Crawford couldn’t afford an air conditioner, the report said, relying only on a box fan.
  • Jollene “Jolly” Brown, 67, who lived in a studio apartment and had been in poor health. Her air conditioner was broken and a swamp cooler she was given didn’t work. When her son found her June 28, it was 99 degrees in her home, the report said.

“We will find the lessons of this heat event,” Deborah Kafoury, the Multnomah County chairwoman, said at a Tuesday press conference.

Kafoury said she will meet Wednesday with Gov. Kate Brown to discuss the three-day heat wave, which shattered Portland’s hottest temperature record by nine degrees, peaking at 116 degrees June 28. State officials said Monday that the emergency response to events like extreme heat is primarily a local responsibility that is supported by state agencies.

“What we did learn from this event is that it can’t just be one jurisdiction,” Kafoury said. “We need to work together as cities, as counties, as a state and as neighbors.”

Chris Voss, the county’s emergency management director, said the county is in discussions with city officials about opening more cooling centers for future heat waves and is closely examining the 211 system.

While city and state officials were telling residents who needed rides to cooling centers to call 211, a non-emergency line, the nonprofit that runs the phone line didn’t update its system to easily direct callers to information about the centers or transportation until the afternoon of the second day of extreme heat.

Those who died were overwhelmingly white (92%), male (63%) and older (82% were at least 60 years old).

Most deaths were not reported until the heat abated. The county said three deaths were documented on June 27, the second day of the heat wave, but that those deaths are not yet confirmed to have been caused by the heat. Three confirmed deaths were reported June 28, the last day of the heat wave.

Then came the spike: 22 dead on June 29, 12 dead on June 30 and eight dead on July 1. Bodies were still being found as late as July 7, the county said.

Two people died in the same assisted living facility. Jennifer Vines, the tri-county health officer, would not identify the facility nor any of the circumstances surrounding the deaths. She said the facility had been referred to the state Department of Human Services, which provides oversight of senior care facilities. State officials did not immediately respond to questions.

The 97209 ZIP code that includes the Pearl District and Old Town Chinatown recorded more confirmed heat deaths than any other locale: six. Lower-income ZIP codes, including those covering Cully, Brentwood-Darlington, Lents and parts of outer east Portland each recorded at least three fatalities.

County officials released the detailed death information two weeks after Portland set a string of all-time heat records, recording consecutive highs of 108 degrees June 26, 112 degrees June 27 and 116 degrees June 28.

Oregon has confirmed 83 heat deaths and identified 32 more that are under investigation — with most of those suspected deaths in Multnomah County. But state and Multnomah County officials have refused public records requests to release the names or addresses of the victims. Officials have pledged more transparency and the need to learn from the tragedy, prompting the release of Multnomah County’s report.

Mark Friesen contributed reporting.

— Rob Davis

rdavis@oregonian.com

503.294.7657; @robwdavis

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