Seattle and Portland Aren’t Built for Extreme Heat Waves

Punishing heat has left hundreds dead as it buckles roads and strains bridges. Cities are exploring how to adjust for a warming climate.,


Continue reading the main story

The Pacific Northwest, Built for Mild Summers, Is Scorching Yet Again

Haika Mushi with Portland Street response, left, and 17-year-old high school student Alex Dolle with the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, delivering water and snacks to the homeless community along the Springwater Corridor Trail in east Portland, where temperatures reached 101?F, August 12, 2021.Credit…Tojo Andrianarivo for The New York Times

By Mike Baker and Sergio Olmos

Aug. 13, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

SEATTLE — Road crews sprayed water on century-old bridges in Seattle on Thursday to keep the steel from expanding in the sizzling heat. In Portland, Ore., where heat has already killed dozens of people this summer, volunteers delivered water door to door. Restaurants and even some ice cream shops decided it was too hot to open.

For the second time this summer, a part of the country known for its snow-capped mountains and fleece-clad inhabitants was enduring a heat wave so intense that it threatened lives and critical infrastructure. The region’s latest round of sweltering temperatures further exposed how communities built for the mild summers of decades past are grossly unprepared for the extreme heat stoked by a warming climate.

The previous heat wave, which baked the Pacific Northwest in late June, shattered temperature records. This week’s weather has not quite reached those same levels, but the heat was still jarring by historical standards: Portland averages about one 100-degree day a year. Wednesday and Thursday brought the fourth and fifth of 2021. Friday will likely be the sixth.


Heat waves distort a street scene in Seattle on June 23, 2021.Credit…Amanda Snyder/The Seattle Times, via Associated Press

In Seattle, which has recorded three 100-degree days this summer — as many as it did in the entire century before — officials are once again encouraging people to visit libraries and community centers to stay cool. But not all of them are available to help, because most of the city’s community centers and some of the libraries don’t have air conditioning, something the city is looking to change in the coming years.

“It’s a stunning shift, even in government,” said Stephanie Formas, the chief of staff to Mayor Jenny Durkan. “We have to fundamentally shift how we think about infrastructure here — roads, homes, office buildings.”

It is not just a matter of comfort. The region is still tallying a death toll from the June heat wave, and mortality data analyzed by The New York Times shows that about 600 more people died in Washington and Oregon during that week than would have been typical.

Officials in Portland’s Multnomah County pointed to a lack of air conditioning in homes as a key factor in deaths. Unlike large swaths of the country where air conditioning is now standard, many in the Pacific Northwest live without such relief. Just 44 percent of residents in Seattle reported having some sort of air conditioning in 2019, although those numbers have been on the rise, with installers struggling to keep up with demand.


Portland firefighter Michael Silva aids a homeless woman named Mary in Lents Park. Volunteers with a group called PDX Saints Love set up a tent to distribute water and snacks to homeless people in east Portland, August 12, 2021.Credit…Tojo Andrianarivo for The New York Times

Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon declared a state of emergency heading into this week’s heat wave, and Portland’s emergency management department has mobilized 2,000 volunteers, trained to respond to natural disasters, to help manage cooling centers and misting stations and to deliver water to people who might need it. In some cases, they are going door to door.

Officials are encouraging people to check on their neighbors, especially those who are elderly or living on the streets.

Along with more immediate efforts, emergency planners are discussing longer-term strategies, said Dan Douthit, a spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. Does the area need to require air conditioning in buildings? Does the city need to establish dedicated cooling centers?

The June heat wave, which sent temperatures in Portland to a record high of 116 degrees, would almost certainly not have occurred without global warming, an international team of researchers has said. A major United Nations report this week found that warming will intensify across the planet over the next three decades because nations have delayed curbing fossil-fuel emissions for so long.

The warming particularly threatens residents of low-income neighborhoods. During the last heat wave, Dr. Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University, went to the poorest parts of the city with a calibrated thermometer and got a reading of 121 degrees, five degrees higher than the official high for the day, recorded at the airport.

Now officials have asked Dr. Shandas to perform an official study on heat pockets across the city; a team of volunteer researchers planned to take temperature readings of East Portland, with less shade cover and green spaces, and produce a report on their findings.

“We’re seeing a big shift from managers, municipal agencies that want to get out in front of these things, because they are hearing the fatalities we had during the last heat wave were preventable,” Dr. Shandas said.


Dr. Vivek Shandas in Portland, Oregon, August 12, 2021.Credit…Tojo Andrianarivo for The New York Times

As heat peaked across the region, its transportation infrastructure was also straining again. Portland’s light-rail system, designed for the usual temperature ranges of the local climate, began slowing some of its lines, so that operators could keep an eye out for components that might be damaged in the heat. In June, the Portland Streetcar had to shut down during the heat wave, which melted part of a cable.

Washington State has also dealt with transportation disruptions. The metal draw bridges that link Seattle’s historic neighborhoods need cold showers to keep them operating. In June, concrete buckled on parts of Interstate 5 and on sidewalks in Snohomish County, north of Seattle. Some local officials are now reassessing the materials used in road projects.

“We are looking at some different methods used in hotter ares of the country that are more used to this kind of extreme heat,” said James Parker, the county’s road maintenance director. “We can’t just assume this is an isolated incident. Things are trending hotter.”


Work continues on a future Sound Transit light rail station during high temperatures near Federal Way, Wash., south of Seattle, Tuesday, June 29, 2021.Credit…Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The eastern parts of Washington and Oregon are more used to hot summer temperatures, but they have also struggled to manage the heat. In June, the utility Avista, which serves parts of Washington, Idaho and Oregon, couldn’t keep up with demand as air-conditioning units strained the grid. Thousands of customers endured rolling blackouts.

Avista is now examining how to account for longer and more intense heat waves and planning capacity upgrades in some areas.

The heat has also damaged crops, left salmon scarred with white fungus, worsened wildfire conditions and exacerbated the historic drought in the West, where wells are running dry and some farmers have been cut off from irrigation water.


Customer at Fifty Licks Ice Cream, Portland, Oregon, August 12, 2021.Credit…Tojo Andrianarivo for The New York Times

In Portland on Thursday, many restaurants closed their doors. One ice cream shop announced that it wouldn’t open until Saturday, worried about customers who might faint in line.

At a different shop, Fifty Licks Ice Cream, the owner, Chad Draizin, closed during the heat in June. He said he would do so again if temperatures got to 110 degrees, worried about customers and employees — and whether his shop’s equipment could even handle those conditions.

“The equipment starts failing, temperatures inside the shop rise, air-conditioners can’t keep up,” Mr. Draizin said. “Freezers have nowhere to expel the heat and eventually the ice cream just melts.”

Leave a Reply