October 23, 2021

Wars Try

Inspired By Pets

Buildings, bridges, roads mostly withstood ‘heat dome,’ but can Portland area continue to handle climate change?

Over three days of record-breaking heat, when temperatures reached as high as 116 degrees in Portland, the metro area and the state experienced strains to its physical infrastructure and critical services.

By most accounts, the systems held up while experiencing some failures. And now, from buildings to energy, transportation, water and sanitation, Portland agencies — including the fire bureau — are assessing the damage and strain wreaked by the heat wave, including power outages, transportation glitches, buckling roads and exhausted crews.

Officials are looking at how to adapt to a new normal and learn from the extreme weather event and adapt for the future, because while the heat dome may be an anomaly, climate change research shows extreme weather events will keep happening, and more often.

That extreme heat took also took a historic human toll, with dozens of deaths and hundreds of heat-related hospital visits. Public services agencies are still assessing how many died and what could have prevented those deaths.

For those who study climate in Oregon, the record-breaking temperatures didn’t come as much of a surprise.

“This is consistent with what is being observed and projected as our climate continues to change,” said Erica Fleishman, director of Oregon State University’s Oregon Climate Change Research Institute. “It is becoming warmer during the summer, and heat waves are more frequent; they are of greater magnitude, and they are lasting longer.”

Infrastructure in many U.S. cities has exceeded its design life and continues to age, resulting in an increasingly fragile system. The heightened vulnerability of coastal cities and other metropolitan areas that are subject to storm surge, flooding and other extreme weather will exacerbate the impact of climate change on infrastructure systems and people, according to the National Climate Assessment report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Existing infrastructure is expected to become incredibly stressed in the next decade, and its breakdown will have a cascading, detrimental effect on the economy and the population as a whole, experts say.

In the aftermath of an unprecedented heat wave, that daunting picture has left the question: Is Portland prepared for the inevitable?

Strain on public health

People make use of a cooling center at the Oregon Convention Center during Portland’s unprecedented heat wave on Monday, June 28, 2021. The building’s air conditioning provided relief from temperatures that rose to record levels.The Oregonian

The three successive days of historic heat in Portland led to a high demand on hospital emergency departments and beds and is being tied to at least 79 deaths statewide and 52 deaths in Multnomah County.

The Multnomah County Medical Examiner said the preliminary cause of death for the county’s victims was hyperthermia, or an abnormally high body temperature caused by a failure of the body to deal with heat coming from the environment.

For comparison, between 2017 and 2019 in all of Oregon, 12 people died from hyperthermia.

A total of 506 heat-related illness visits were made to Oregon hospitals between June 25 and 28, the Oregon Health Authority said. Monday alone accounted for 251.

Beds at hospitals in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties were in critically short supply, according to the agency. As such, the state’s health authority urged people in the future to seek nonemergency services for heat-related illnesses as a way to keep stress off of hospitals. Statewide hospitals also reported similar surge demands that strained emergency medical services.

Most of heat-related deaths the state medical examiner reported Wednesday included people who were found alone, with no fan or air conditioning, many of them elderly and with underlying conditions. Officials continue to examine how those who died might have been helped.

Multnomah County emergency services reported an all-time high of 491 calls for 911 medical on Monday, a 63 percent increase over normal. The County Health Department is still analyzing data, said Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, communications director for the county. Anecdotally, hospitals reported two to five times the number of cardiac arrests.

As the heat settled in on June 25, Multnomah County opened three cooling shelters in the Oregon Convention Center and two other locations. The cooling centers had a total of 1,040 overnight guests and served hundreds more during the daytime as people came in for water, meals and relief from the heat. 7,610 people found relief at nine Multnomah County libraries between Friday and Monday, which opened or extended hours as cooling spaces.

Many people came into cooling centers worried about their pets, Sullivan-Springhetti said, and calls for animals in crisis to Animal Services were up 300%. Animal Services fielded 143 calls between Friday and Tuesday — 47 of them were heat related. A normal summer weekend would have five heat-related calls. In addition, two adult dogs died.

And as often happens during hot days, the pull toward Oregon’s water recreation areas turned deadly, with at least five people drowning in the past week. Two men died while swimming in the Willamette River south of the metro area, a woman drowned after being caught in a rip current near a Lincoln City beach, a man is presumed drowned while trying to rescue his child in the Fern Ridge Reservoir, and a man is suspected to have drowned in the Sandy River, though his body has not yet been recovered. On Thursday, Hood River officials reported a 10-year-old girl died in the Columbia River.

Fires expected to worsen

Milwaukie, Oregon fire late Monday rips through townhouses

Fire ripped through townhouses and a nearby home late Monday afternoon in Milwaukie, where several Clackamas firefighters came at the blaze through the early evening. June 28, 2021 Beth Nakamura/Staff The Oregonian

Portland Fire & Rescue responded to about 12 structure fires over the weekend, but it wasn’t clear whether the heat contributed to the fires, according to Rob Garrison, public information officer for the department.

Rather, the biggest issue the heat dome presented this time was the danger for firefighters.

At a residential fire in Milwaukie on Monday, where a faulty barbecue left unattended cause a fire to spread through three townhomes and a single-family home, firefighters visibly struggled in the heat, pouring bottles of water over their heads and falling to the ground with fatigue.

“The guys put their gear on and go into a hot fire, but when they come out to take their gear off and the ambient temperature is 115 degrees, it’s impossible to cool off,” Garrison said.

Responding to fires then becomes a much more labor-intensive operation, requiring more crews and resources.

The department is concerned about the extended season of brush fires as well. After three days of over 100-degree heat, and one of the driest springs on record, the conditions are primed for brush and wildfires, Garrison said.

“These conditions wouldn’t normally happen until late July or early August,” Garrison said. “Every 4th of July we have fires caused by fireworks, but we’re not usually in these conditions during the Fourth of July.”

Garrison said Portland Fire & Rescue is “paying attention to and concerned about climate change” while assessing any necessary changes to their tactics, whether through training or allocating resources differently.

Buckling roads

A crack in the pavement on a road

Raised concrete cracks a road likely because of extreme heat at North Denver Avenue in the Kenton neighborhood of North Portland on June 28, 2021.Photo courtesy of Kenton Neighborhood Association.

The heat wave caused significant damage in Portland’s Kenton neighborhood, where a road buckled on North Denver Avenue from Interstate Avenue to Kilpatrick Street.

The heat caused a concrete-tile section of the road to pop out of place as the concrete expanded, but no utilities were damaged, according to Hannah Schafer, a Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesperson.

Most of Portland’s streets are made of asphalt, which can withstand extreme temperatures better and kept damage to a minimum.

“Given the heat we had this week, we’ve had relatively few incidents of road buckling,” Schafer said.

But PBOT recognizes the infrastructure is not invincible, given the inevitable effects of climate change.

Over 40% of Portland’s climate emissions come from vehicles, so PBOT has encouraged alternate mode of transit.

The agency is also pursuing other ways of dealing with climate change, such as planting trees in east Portland, where lack of forestation causes the neighborhoods to be hotter than other areas.

But the city already has a $4 billion dollar maintenance deficit, and addressing the effects of climate change is going to require a lot of resources and a lot of money, Schafer told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

“The way we designed our transportation systems hasn’t taken into account major changes in the climate,” Schafer said. “That is the reality we are facing. And we have to address these issues in an equitable way, knowing that there are people in our community who are more affected by the climate crisis.”

The Oregon Department of Transportation is assessing their roads in the aftermath of the heat wave this week, but it has not reported any significant road buckling or damage caused by the heat, said Don Hamilton, an agency public information officer.

The agency’s relatively new Climate Office is already developing sustainability efforts across the state as the region experiences weather extremes and hazards to the transportation system that continue to grow in both magnitude and frequency, said Geoff Crook, policy lead for the office.

The agency is working on an “adaptation roadmap,” Crook said, which will outline where, when and how the highway system will be most vulnerable in the future, from wildfires to coastal erosion to flooding to extreme heat.

“Even though the temperatures were unprecedented, it would take a longer duration of the heat to cause damage to roadways,” Crook said. “Our highways are paved with asphalt, which can buckle or warp with extreme temperatures over time. In other states, like [Arizona], they’ve already adapted materials to extreme temperatures. Here in the Northwest, we are used to cooler temperatures and how things have always been, but we need to be thinking about 20, 30 or 50 years or more into the future, and preparing for how things might change.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation saw sections of pavement on Interstate 5 buckle. At least four buckling repairs were underway during the Monday evening commute on I-5, WSDOT said, with another on I-90 near North Bend. The department dealt with at least seven incidents of pavement buckling over the weekend.

Effects for transportation

TriMet in the time of coronavirus

TriMet MAX trains in Portland.

TriMet’s MAX system was designed decades ago to withstand temperatures up to about 110 degrees.

Until this weekend, the region had never experienced temperatures any higher.

As a result, TriMet closed several of its MAX lines Monday, leaving fewer transportation options for Portlanders — including those who might use the system to get to a cooling center.

“This was a historic event, one that tested the limits of the system,” said agency spokesperson Tyler Graff. “As the temperature rises to 100 degrees and beyond, it places more stress on our copper overhead wires, which expand in high heat and lose tension. With the recent heat wave, it wasn’t just the severity of the heat, but the duration.”

At one point Sunday, the temperature of overhead wires on a MAX line was 120 degrees, while the rails were 140 degrees. And there was no time overnight for the system to cool down, Graff said. Temperatures didn’t drop below 80 degrees overnight Sunday heading into Monday, when they would reach an all-time high of 116 degrees.

“With extreme weather becoming more common, we’re realizing that we, as an agency, need to become more climate resilient,” Graff said. “We have already begun an internal review of what we need to do to become more resilient to these extreme temperatures. We’re going to take a lessons-learned approach to what worked, and what didn’t, before setting a path forward.”

Energy grid strain

Beavercreek power outage

PGE crews work to fix the power lines along Beavercreek Road during a previous power outage. (Oregonian file photo) Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

More than 6,300 Portland General Electric customers were hit with power outages this weekend as the city’s all-time high temperature climbed to 112 degrees late Sunday afternoon, according to PGE data. That shut down air conditioners and fans.

By Monday morning, the outages had been restored. But again Tuesday, another outage left more than 2,000 people without power.

PGE was quick to restore the outages, but the future is likely to bring more strain to the region’s grid.

“PGE was prepared for the heat, we expected the outages and we had all the generation resources we needed,” said PGE spokesperson Allison Dobscha. “We understand that these kinds of weather events will be more common. After this week, we’ll asses how our system preformed and look at any changes we may need to make in the future to predict and meed our customers’ needs.”

Oregonian staff writer Kale Williams contributed to this report.

–Savannah Eadens; [email protected]; 503-221-6651; @savannaheadens