Hundreds of people have died in heat wave despite efforts to help
SALEM, Ore. – Many dead have been found alone, in homes without air conditioning or fans. Some were elderly – as old as 97. The body of an immigrant farm worker was found in an Oregon nursery.
As forecasters warned of a record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada last weekend, officials set up cooling centers, distributed water to the sans – shelter and taken other measures. Yet hundreds of people are believed to have died from Friday to Tuesday.
An excessive heat warning remained in effect for parts of the interior of northwestern and western Canada on Thursday.
The death toll in Oregon alone has reached 79, the Oregon state medical examiner said Thursday, with most occurring in Multnomah County, which encompasses Portland.
In Canada, BC Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said her office received reports of at least 486 “sudden and unexpected deaths” between Friday and Wednesday afternoon. Normally, she said about 165 people would die in the province over a five-day period.
She said it was too early to say for sure how many of the deaths were heat-related, but it was likely the heat was behind most of them.
Authorities in Washington state have linked more than 20 deaths to the heat, but officials have said the number is likely to rise.
In Multnomah County, Oregon, the average age of the victim was 67 and the oldest 97, according to county health worker Jennifer Vines.
In a phone interview Thursday, Vines said she was concerned about the deaths amid the weather forecast. Authorities tried to prepare as best they could, turning nine air-conditioned county libraries into cooling centers.
Between Friday and Monday, 7,600 people cooled off among the piles of books. Others visited three other cooling centers. Nearly 60 teams searched for homeless people, providing them with water and electrolytes.
“We’ve been going around the county with outreach efforts, with appeals to low-income housing property managers to verify their residents,” Vines said.
But the efforts were not enough, she said: “It is really sobering to see these initial (death) numbers come out.”
Oregon Emergency Management Office director Andrew Phelps agreed. “The news of the tragic loss of life as a result of the recent heat wave is heartbreaking. As an emergency manager – and an Oregonian – it’s devastating that people haven’t been able to access the help they need during an emergency, ”he said.
Among the dead was a farm worker whose body was found Saturday by co-workers at a nursery in rural St. Paul, Oregon. The workers had moved irrigation lines, said Aaron Corvin, spokesperson for the state’s worker safety agency, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, or Oregon OSHA.
Oregon OSHA is investigating labor contractor Andres Pablo Lucas and Ernst Nursery and Farms, who did not respond to a request for comment. Pablo Lucas said the deceased man was from Guatemala, but declined to comment further.
Reyna Lopez, executive director of a Northwest Farm Workers Union, known by its initials in Spanish, PCUN, called the death “shameful” and criticized Oregon OSHA for failing to enact rules. emergency before the heat wave and at the nursery.
Corvin said the Oregon OSHA “is exploring the adoption of emergency requirements, and we continue to engage in discussions with worker and employer stakeholders.”
He added that employers are obligated to provide sufficient water, shade, extra breaks and training on heat hazards.
An executive order issued in March 2020 by Oregon Governor Kate Brown would formalize workers’ protection from the heat, but it is too late for the deceased farm worker, whose name has not been released. Brown’s ordinance focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and also tells the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon OSHA to jointly propose standards to protect workers from excessive heat and smoke from forest fires.
They had until June 30 to submit the proposals, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, both agencies requested that the deadline be extended to September.
In Bend, Oregon, a scenic town next to the snow-capped Cascade Range, the bodies of two men were found on a road on Sunday where dozens of homeless people are staying in trailers and tents.
Volunteer Luke Richter said he entered the trailer where one of the men, Alonzo “Lonnie” Boardman, was found.
“It was very clearly too late. It was basically a microwave in there, ”Richter told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Cooling stations were set up at the campsite on Saturday, with water, sports drinks and ice available.
Weather experts say the number of heat waves is only expected to increase in the Pacific Northwest, an area normally known for its cool and rainy weather, with a few hot and sunny days mixed, and where many people did not. no air conditioning.
“I think the community needs to be realistic that we’re going to have this as a more usual, non-one-time event, and that we need to prepare as a community,” said Dr. Steven Mitchell of Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, who treated an unprecedented number of severe heat-related cases. “We really need to increase our response to disasters. “
This week’s heat wave was caused by what meteorologists described as a dome of high pressure over the northwest and made worse by man-made climate change, making these extreme weather events more likely and more intense.
Seattle, Portland and many other cities have broken all-time heat records, with temperatures in some places reaching above 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 Celsius).
Associated Press reporter Manuel Valdes contributed to this report from Seattle.
Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky