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Portland's Top Health Official On Preparing For Extreme Weather As The 'New Normal'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the Pacific Northwest, the heat has finally relented. For days, people without air conditioning endured record-breaking temperatures above 110 degrees. Now, medical professionals are starting to assess the damage. Dr. Jennifer Vines is the lead health officer for the Portland metro area.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JENNIFER VINES: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Give us a picture of the medical situation over the last few days. What did you see?

VINES: So we saw day-over-day increases and calls for help, both to our 911 dispatch, transports by ambulances and people showing up to emergency departments and urgent cares. I would say the crisis really spiked on Monday. That was our third triple-digit day. It was the hottest day, when we had hundreds of people in our cooling shelters and just record-breaking days for calls to 911 and for animal welfare and people needing medical attention in our emergency departments.

SHAPIRO: I know you were working in the cooling centers. Paint a picture of what the situation was like there. I mean, who was arriving? How were they doing? What was the scene?

VINES: So our flagship cooling center was at the Oregon Convention Center, which is a beautiful, iconic meeting space in inner Portland. We took over a large room that, again, expanded day over day with a seating area that looked a bit like an airport lounge, with people coming in with crossword puzzles, laptops, people watching television, and then extended into just a field of cots, where people had come in with their belongings to sleep, to spend the night and to cool off in there. So there were dogs on leashes. There were cats in carriers. There were families with babies. There were people who looked like they had just come from a business meeting and had just come in to work on their laptop for a little while. So a very colorful scene, but also really sad to see people coming in with wheelchairs, their main belongings, and several people telling us that they had come from really hot apartments, so several people with homes that were just simply too hot to be in.

SHAPIRO: In British Columbia, just north of the border, Canadian officials say hundreds of people died over the weekend during the heat wave. Can you explain why Oregon and Washington have not reported a similar death toll? Or is it possible that we might learn of fatalities in the days ahead?

VINES: So we have some initial information that's really sobering around deaths related to the extreme heat. Our calls to our county medical examiners reporting deaths showed a clear spike over those three hottest days. Many of those appear to have been heat-related. These were people who were found alone with no fan, no air conditioning, many of them older with underlying conditions. So we're looking not just at excess deaths, but we'll be looking for details as the medical examiners determine cause of death to really understand what role heat played. But I think there's no question that there was a spike that accompanied the higher temperatures.

SHAPIRO: What did you and your team learn from this emergency? If these kinds of heat waves are going to become more common as the climate changes, do you feel prepared to handle extreme weather in the future? Are there lessons that you learned that you'd take forward?

VINES: Yeah. Thanks for the question. I was one of 800 county employees. That's about a quarter of our entire workforce responding. We knew heading into the forecast that this was going to be a life-threatening heat. And, unfortunately, that has turned out to be true. I think, especially in Portland, Ore., this comes just four months after a severe winter storm, where we had historic ice storms, several months after wildfires last fall that gave us some of the worst air quality on the planet. So I think there is a sense that this is a taste of the new normal. I'm a believer in public service. People show up and do the right thing to help their neighbors and to help their communities. But I do think that as we come out of this particular event, we're going to be looking at how we set up sustainably to be able to respond to events like this, you know, without completely burning through all of our staff that have already been working so hard for the last year and a half.

SHAPIRO: That is Dr. Jennifer Vines, lead health officer for the Portland metro area.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

VINES: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.