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Portland’s Plans to Protect Residents Most Vulnerable to Heat Waves

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


The weather is poised to slam Portland (and the rest of the Northwest) with a second heat wave later this week—an occurrence that is more of a hardship for some Portlanders than for others. 

“We do know that low-income populations and communities of color currently face greater health disparities – which will likely mean that the health impacts associated with increased heat (and related impacts to air quality) will be felt more acutely by many people in those communities,” said Michele Crim, sustainability manager for the City of Portland. 

Heat-related illnesses are expected to rise as climate change continues to heat up. 

Portland and Multnomah County sustainability planners want to know more about what factors cause that vulnerability so that better planning can help change that, said Crim. A new study with Portland State University faculty is currently underway, and it should help planners to better target resources. 

While Multnomah County developed a heat vulnerability map based on census blocks, “We are working to get this information at a much finer scale in order to do a deeper analysis of the issues – including identifying where in the city those things line up (e.g. people most vulnerable to heat living in urban heat island ‘hot spots’),” said Crim.

The map below shows the areas in Portland with the highest numbers of residents most vulnerable to heat waves:

Portlanders most vulnerable to heat waves

The map below shows the most intense "heat islands" in Portland:

The hottest areas in Portland

Buildings and roadways warm a city causing the “urban heat island effect” in areas with the most infrastructure. Portland is an average of 4.8 degrees warmer than nearby rural areas, according to a Climate Central 2014 report. All that concrete and asphalt release heat slowly, meaning the overnight temperature difference between Portland and rural areas can differ as much as 8.9 degrees.

The report ranked Portland number four in the nation for having the hottest heat islands. 

In the newly approved Climate Action Plan, which is the fourth and latest blueprint for reducing carbon emissions, the city and the county identified where the hottest urban heat islands in the city are and discovered that they line up with the areas where vulnerable populations are most likely to live.

The urban island effect is most felt in downtown, near major roadways like 82nd Avenue, Sandy Boulevard, Foster Road and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, as well as near industrial areas in central Eastside, Northwest and the Columbia River corridor. 

Making matters worse, according to joint research efforts by Oregon Climate Institute at OSU and the Office of the Washington State Climatologist, heat waves have already begun to increase in the Pacific Northwest. A heat wave is defined as three consecutive days of temperatures higher than the 99th percentile of the historical maximum and minimum temperatures. 

Last Saturday, Portland logged its seventh consecutive day of temperatures in the 90s, breaking a previous record made in 2003. 

For the first time, the city and county carefully incorporated equity discussions into Climate Action Plan, acknowledging that communities of color and low-income populations will be more likely to be negatively impacted not only by heat waves but by many negative effects of climate change. 

For example, during a heat wave, low-income residents are more likely to lack access to air conditioning. 

They also are regular users of transit, meaning that they face more heat exposure as they walk to and from stops on hot days. 

Additionally, communities of color have historically been exposed to higher amounts of toxins, according to an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality report completed in 2011. Higher smog, primarily composed of ozone, correlates with hotter temperatures, as does pollen counts, according to the Climate Action Plan. 

Air quality issues could exacerbate asthma and allergies, which have higher rates in neighborhoods where people of color live. 

Ultimately, hot days can cause heat exhaustion or heatstroke, which can result in death. 

To ensure everyone stays cooler on hot days, the Climate Action Plan suggests a handful of actions. For starters, adding vegetation and planting trees in areas of the city with less tree canopy will increase access to shade. Ecoroofs could also lower the heat island effect.

Opening cooling centers that make sense for those most vulnerable, such as the elderly, is another strategy. 

Local agencies also plan to ensure detention facilities have adequate cooling and improve response to heat by health community service professionals, public safety officers and emergency responders.

Crim said that accomplishing all of the actions will probably take between three and five years. “The actions are not prioritized beyond that in the plans themselves, however there is some logical sequencing to the actions,” she said. 

Once results of the research and new mapping with PSU are known, the city can prioritize where to focus particular programs, she explained. 


Related Slideshow: 10 Significant Portland Fires

A four-alarm fire ripped through South Albany High School Wednesday morning, causing more than $1 million in damage. 

The community will spend the coming weeks and months recovering from the blaze -- but it's not the first time a fire has significantly impacted a Portland area school, church or neighborhood building.  

Here are 10 significant fires to recently impact Portland area communities. 

Prev Next

Thunderbird on the River - September 2012 

Thunderbird on the River, formerly the Red Lion Hotel, which had been vacant since 2005, was destroyed in a fire that caused more than $5 million in damages. 

One of only two five-alarm fires in recent years, the abandoned hotel on Hayden Island was home to multiple transient people and its owners owed more than $1 million in property taxes when it burned. 

Photo: YouTube / Michelle Kottwitz 

Prev Next

Monroe Apartments - August 2013 

The 46-unit apartment complex under construction on NE Monroe St. and NE MLK Boulevard burned to the ground in a five-alarm fire in August 2013. Officials estimated the damage to be $4 million. 

Investigators later determined the blaze in the six-story development was caused by arson. 

Photo: Flash Alert Newswire 

Prev Next

Eola Hills Charter School - October 2013

The Eola Hills Charter School, a small school in the Amity School District in Polk County burned to the ground in October 2013. 

The school, previously called the Ballston Community School, moved its 42 students to a McMinnville church following the blaze. 

Prev Next

Open Meadow High School  - April 2014

The Victorian house turned alternative school on Portland’s North Crawford Street was set to close the following year. The fire caused an estimated $50,000 in damage. 

The property, now restored, is currently for sale. 

Prev Next

St. Andrews Church - April 2013 

A two-alarm fire during Sunday service at the Presbyterian church on SW Sunset Boulevard caused the entire congregation to be evacuated. 

Damages from the fire, which started in the church’s game room, were estimated to be $20,000. 

Prev Next

Crestline Elementary - February 2013 

The Vancouver, Washington elementary burned down when a 17-year-old boy, later sentenced to 10 days in custody, started a fire on the school grounds. 

The three-alarm fire caused more than $20 million in damage, but the school was rebuilt, and reopened for the 2014-2015 school year. 

Photo: YouTube / Noah Patraw 

Prev Next

Marysville Elementary School - November 2009

The historic Southeast Portland elementary school was destroyed in a three-alarm blaze in which 500 students and teachers had to be evacuated. 

The school reopened in January 2013, after roughly $4.5 million in repairs. 

Photo: Youtube / Oregonashman

Prev Next

South Albany High School - April 2015 

A four-alarm fire ripped through South Albany High School Wednesday morning, causing more than $1 million in damage. 

The fire was in the school's cafeteria and auditorium, cancelling class for South Albany's 1,300 students. Oregon Governor Kate Brown visited the site of the blaze. 

Photo: Lebanon Fire District 

Prev Next

Chapman Elementary School - August 2013

A teacher arriving early fortunately spotted the orange glow of a growing fire in the Northwest Portland elementary school.

Fire investigators determined the blaze was caused by oily rags left in a trash can. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons 

Prev Next

Apolistic Faith Church - February 2013 

A two-alarm fire damaged the church at Southeast 52nd Avenue and Duke Street in February 2013. 

The blaze, which started in the attic and presented multiple structural challenges for firefighters, due to the building's sloped roof. It caused roughly $1 million in damage. 


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