PORTLAND, Ore. – When temperatures in Salem, Oregon, hit 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47 degrees Celsius) during the unprecedented June heatwave, Bryleigh O’Neil and three roommates couldn’t afford or find air conditioning.
They spent their days recovering from record-breaking temperatures in grocery stores and college classrooms. At night, the roommates slept downstairs on the floor next to fans blowing over bowls of ice.
“No matter how much water we drank or how many different attempts we made to keep cool, we still had major concerns about our physical health and safety,” O’Neil said in written testimony before the Oregon State Legislature. “While none of us had to be hospitalized for heat exhaustion or heat stroke, many other Oregonians weren’t so lucky.”
The historic heat wave killed at least 200 people in Oregon and Washington. Now lawmakers in the Pacific Northwest are eyeing several emergency heat relief bills aimed at helping vulnerable people.
The measures would provide millions in funding for cooling systems and shelters for future extreme weather events.
Three consecutive days of exceptional temperatures in the Pacific Northwest sent public health officials into a frenzy between June 25-28. Temperatures in Portland, Oregon hit triple digits for three days, peaking at 116°F (46.7°C). Temperatures hit a record 108 F (42 C) in Seattle, Washington.
An initial scientific analysis by World Weather Attribution found that the deadly heatwave would have been all but impossible without human-caused climate change, which would have raised record-breaking temperatures by a few extra degrees.
In the western part of the Pacific Northwest, summers are typically mild and air conditioning is not as common as in other parts of the country.
According to data from the US Census Bureau’s 2019 American Housing Survey, approximately 91% of US homes nationwide have primary air conditioning. This compares to 78% for Portland and just 44% for Seattle.
“Most of those who died did not have access to life-saving cooling equipment such as air conditioners or heating and cooling pumps in their homes,” Oriana Magnera, an executive for environmental justice nonprofit Verde, said during a public hearing in the ongoing trial before the Oregon state legislature last week .
The first of Oregon’s two proposed heat relief laws, both of which have received bipartisan support, would direct $5 million to the Oregon Health Authority to create an emergency distribution program that would ship air conditioners and air filters to low-income families. It would also provide $10 million to create an incentive program to make it easier for vulnerable households to purchase energy-efficient heat-pump refrigeration systems.
In addition, the bill directs the Oregon Public Utility Commission to find ways to “mitigate spikes” in energy bills during extreme weather events.
During the heatwave, hospital emergency room visits for heat illness in Multnomah County — home to Portland — surged more than 30 times above normal levels.
Despite this, district officials received reports from residents who chose not to run air conditioners over concerns about the additional costs.
“As the frequency and severity of extreme weather events increases, fear of high billing spikes shouldn’t stop people from relying on the energy they need to stay in place safely,” said John Wasiutynski, director of the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability Director.
Oregon’s second Heat Relief Act would remove barriers for renters to install portable air conditioners in their homes and would require cooling systems in newly constructed rental units.
The bill would also provide $2 million for local and tribal governments to create extreme weather relief centers.
Legislatures in two other states have also passed bills focused on expanding and opening cold storage facilities over the past three years. In 2019, the California legislature passed a law allowing the aide to use vacant armories as temporary cool housing for the homeless. In 2021, the Illinois legislature passed a measure requiring communities to allocate space for use as cool shelters during extreme heat emergencies.
In Washington, lawmakers are considering a bill that would expand the use of air conditioning in retirement homes.
During last year’s heatwave, PJ Knowles — a firefighter and paramedic for the Puget Sound Regional Fire — responded to numerous calls from adult homes to find residents “baking inside.”
Washington’s proposed bill would allocate $5 million to establish a grant program at the Department of Social and Health Services to ensure adult families have air-conditioning in their homes. The bill would also require license applicants for new single-family adult homes to provide air conditioning.
“I know a lot of homes here in the Pacific Northwest don’t have air conditioning, and most of the year we don’t need it,” said Sen. Mark Mullet, an Issaquah Democrat who sponsored the law. “But our weather variability is becoming more extreme, and these days, a lack of air conditioning can be deadly.”
Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover topics.
Associated Press Reporter Rachel La Corte contributed from Olympia, Washington.
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