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Lessons from Portland's 2021 heatwave that can help us prep for the hot summer ahead

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As summer officially arrived last week, a heat wave broke records all over the U.S. This is more than just uncomfortable. In the U.S., heat kills more people than any other type of extreme weather. Portland, Ore., knows that well. Last year, almost 70 people in the Portland metro area died in a June heat wave.

JENNIFER VINES: These were people who were found alone, with no fan, no air conditioning, many of them older, with underlying conditions.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. Jennifer Vines, who I spoke with a year ago as temperatures hit 110 degrees in Portland. She helped oversee the response to that disaster as the Portland metro area's lead health officer, and we called her up again to hear the lessons learned for this season.

So this is just the beginning of the summer, and already temperatures are breaking records across the country. What are you and Portland doing right now to prepare for the next three months?

VINES: We're mobilizing, right now, the most important part of any heat response, which is communication. And so putting in really structured outreach, making sure people know that the forecast is coming, make sure that they have options for what to do to stay cool and to stay well.

SHAPIRO: Like what? What's your message to them?

VINES: Right. So our message is making sure people are paying attention to forecasted hot weather and that they have a plan for how they're going to stay cool, whether that's teaming up with family members, friends, common rooms in apartment buildings that they know where they can go to give their bodies a break from the heat.

SHAPIRO: One consequence of climate change is that extreme heat is arriving in places that historically have not experienced it. I mean, when I grew up in Portland, summers were temperate and only about a third of homes in the city have air conditioning. So as you look across the country at this growing trend, do you have specific advice for communities that have not dealt with extreme heat in the past?

VINES: Yeah. I think what I would say to those communities is, assume that it can happen, assume that it will happen and, again, that the foundation is really around communication, so alerting your constituents to the dangers and really having resources for people to know where they can get to stay cool. I know there's a lot of focus in my jurisdiction about cooling shelters and places where people can go to get out of the heat, whether it's libraries, malls, movie theaters. Preparing ahead of time for where to direct people to get cool, should you have a heat wave, is by far the most important thing.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I'm wondering about, when a heat crisis strikes, whether people even know to call 911. Like, you can see floodwaters rising in your house, you can tell when a tornado is coming, but heat sneaks up on you.

VINES: Heat can sneak up on you, and we know, from other disastrous heat waves that after about two days is when people really - when their bodies actually start to fail. And one of the most important components of a heat wave is actually the overnight cooling 'cause that's what gives our bodies a rest. And unfortunately, we're looking at not only daytime highs but the level of nighttime cooling when a heat wave happens because earlier in the summer, we've had less of a chance for our bodies to adapt to heat. But it can overtake people in ways unexpected. It can happen quickly. It can also happen again after a couple of days of just really a lot of heat stress on the body just from sitting at home.

SHAPIRO: Beyond the importance of communication, are there other lessons that Portland learned from that deadly heat wave last year that you think will be useful as the rest of the country experiences similar things this summer?

VINES: We did, actually. We learned that for cooling shelters, when those do have a role, having a - smaller settings, more dispersed geographically are more welcoming to people, and there's less conflict in bringing lots of people together if it's a smaller setting. We also...

SHAPIRO: A larger number of smaller places, not the convention center with thousands of beds.

VINES: Exactly. So those smaller-scale cooling centers were an important lesson learned. Another one is allowing pets in all of those places 'cause a lot of people will not leave their animals behind. And then finally, making sure that public transit is on board with the sense of emergency and making sure that people can ride for free to get someplace cool.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. Jennifer Vines, lead health officer for the Portland metro area. Thank you very much.

VINES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Mia Venkat
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.