People swim in the Sandy River near Portland, Oregon, during record heat in June 2021

People sought relief in the Sandy River by Troutdale, Ore., on June 28, 2021, where temperatures reached an all-time high of 116 degrees Fahrenheit. The three-day "heat dome" over the Pacific Northwest caused more than 100 deaths.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest were sitting in the single digits, with rare snow in the cities along the I-5 corridor, as this piece came in for editing. Long-time weather-watcher Stuart Tomlinson reflected back on the “heat dome” that baked Portland, Oregon, just six months earlier. His prediction: More to come.

 

I sat, astonished, as the temperatures on my outdoor weather station climbed above 90 degrees before noon on all three days of the historic heat wave that killed nearly a hundred Oregonians towards the last days of June 2021. By 5 p.m. on June 26, 27 and 28, the window air conditioning unit at our house in Portland was pumping out tepid air. It was a toasty 88 degrees inside. Outside, it climbed to 108 degrees, 112 degrees and then 116 degrees.

I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for 40 years, and fashioned myself a full-time weather beat for 30 of them. Wildfires, floods, search and rescue, drought, snow and, of course, rain — my standard fare. But this? This was different.

And it was just the beginning.

Three hours north, in Seattle, writer James Ross Gardner also endured the record-breaking heat last June. He joined throngs of other Seattleites who purchased air conditioning for the first time — or tried to. The stores soon ran out, leaving Seattle with the distinction of being the least air conditioned major city in the country.

“That really kind of shook me, and my partner really got affected by it, too,” Gardner, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, said when I phoned him. When the heat wave broke, with high temperatures back to the more typical summer 60s, and 70s he said it “felt like a re-birth…after being hot for so long.”

That same day his editor at The New Yorker asked him to do a quick-turn commentary piece about the heat wave. “Seattle Under the Heat Dome” published the next day, June 30. From his story:

And so, window blinds down, Seattle residents endured varieties of heat: the still, hot air that sits in the dark bedroom corner like an apparition; the diffuse heat that strikes every part of the body and never lets up; the penetrating heat that holds you by the throat. Or, the only endurable variety, and it’s barely even that: air pushed around by a fan. The placement of fans becomes its own kind of science. Two strategically stationed box fans create a small tempest, swooshing the parched, artificial wind across the skin in multiple directions. The same fans perched on an open windowsill can blow in the cool air after the sun goes down. Except, for three days here, there was no cool air.

But within an hour, Gardner said, it was out-of-date. News of nearly 100 heat-related deaths in Oregon began to trickle.

“We were stunned that that many people had died,” he said. “I had never seen anything like it.”

The New Yorker sent Gardner to Portland a few days later to take a more in-depth look, a chronological tick-tock that became “Seventy-Two Hours Under the Heat Dome.” The subhed is especially noteworthy: “A chronicle of a slow-motion climate disaster that became one of Oregon’s deadliest calamities.”

For me, coming into Portland for the first time on August 8, 1981, became an unexpected introduction to the intense surges of Pacific Northwest weather.

A week before, a friend accepted an assignment from Motocross Action Magazine to photograph the yearly motorcycle races in Washougal, in southwest Washington just across the Columbia River from Portland. He asked me to write the accompanying text.

That Saturday, we crossed over the Fremont Bridge into northwest Portland into a cauldron. The radio in my friend’s small pickup crackled with news of a heat wave that would likely break or tie some record highs for the city. By late afternoon the temperature at Portland International Airport hit 107 degrees, tying the record set back on July 30, 1965.

Growing up in Pennsylvania and Chicago, I was used to hot, humid summers, but not to this kind of dry, searing heat. As Johnny Carson loved to say, “It’s a dry heat. So’s my oven.”

We sweltered in our tents with dozens of other motocross fans that Saturday and Sunday nights. On Monday, the high again spiked to 107 degrees, but by then we were already heading north to much cooler Bellingham, Washington.

As with past heat waves and those to come, this one lasted three days.

When Gardner got to Portland in early Julythis past summer, he began the painstaking process of connecting heat-related deaths with names while he built a straight-ahead timeline: The story would be a chronology of the hottest three-days Portland had ever experienced. He recorded the rise of deaths next to the rise of the thermometer.

A person seeks relief at a cooling shelter in Portland, Oregon, during record heat in June 2021

King Born Allah sought shelter at the Convention Center in Portland, Oregon, on June 28, 2021, as temperatures reached dangerous, record highs.

He had already spoken with Multnomah County officials and first-responders. When he got to Portland, a county official took him around the Oregon Convention Center, which had sheltered more than a thousand residents as one of three major cooling centers. Although it was empty by the time Gardner got there in early July, he was able to use the tour to set up the atmospherics. Here was where someone collapsed. Over there is where they had the food. And here were the beds.

“I was able to visualize it that way,’’ he said, later using notes from his visit and photographs to bring readers under the baking umbrella of the heat dome and follow the county’s response.

He returned to Seattle, but had already filed a public records request with the City of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communication for 9-1-1 calls for those 72-hours. Too many calls, the city said, so Gardner asked for calls that mentioned heat. There were 241 calls for service.

The list was precise down to the second, had rough locations and notes from dispatchers.

“You’ll probably guess from reading the piece that I used that a lot,” he said. “Just having that right down to the minute of things happening.”

By 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 26th, thermometers already read eighty-two degrees. At 10:14, a barefoot man wearing a T-shirt and blue sweatpants was found lying in the grass; a caller to 911 said that the man was coherent but in need of help, likely because of the heat. A little more than an hour later, in the Hazelwood neighborhood, a resident found a man unconscious in a doorway; that caller, too, thought the emergency was heat-related. Calls to E.M.S. climbed to double the normal volume. At 1:37 p.m., when the temperature was nearing ninety-six degrees, a man was found at a bus stop in Mill Park, passed out on the sidewalk. Around 2:34, two callers reported seeing a man with a cane stumble and collapse on East Burnside Street, evidently toppled by the heat.

One of the main reasons I moved from the Chicago area to Bellingham, in the most northwestern county of the most northwestern state of the contiguous U.S., was the weather. The week I spent there in early September 1980 had been idyllic: Sunny, with daytime highs in the high 60s to low 70s, and much cooler at night. So when it came time to pull up stakes and launch my adult life, I packed up my stuff in a friend’s 1973 Mercury Cougar and made the trip out West.

Retired Oregonian reporter Stuart Tomlinson

Stuart Tomlinson

When I pulled into town on the first day of summer in 1981, the weather was like a personal welcome. No humidity. Highs, I was told, barely cracked 80 degrees. A sweater or a light jacket was always close at hand at night.

I learned that it could be 50 degrees and raining at any time of the year. For Bellingham and Seattle, temperatures above 90 were extremely rare.

I eventually made my way down to Portland and joined The Oregonian to be the pop music critic. By 1990, I was off the music beat and working general assignment. I quickly latched onto covering not only weather, but all weather-related stories. In a wildly diverse region — wild oceans, verdant farmland, towering mountains, high and dry desert — I had no end of raw material to work from.

Other reporters would sometimes duck behind their desks when the city editor looked around for someone to write weather stories. I loved them. It was a ticket out of the office, and for the next 25 years I reveled in covering the beat.

In summer, that often meant covering the heat.

Working with the public records and a preliminary report from the state medical examiner’s office and county officials, Gardner heard that The Oregonian and other news outlets had complained to the Oregon Attorney General about the names of the dead not being released.

Finding and talking to surviving family members, as any reporter can tell you, is often the hardest part of the job. For Gardner’s piece, it was also crucial.

The AG’s office got the names released. Gardner created his own database, specifically focusing on Portland residents who had succumbed to the heat.

“It sounds kind of silly, but I just started Googling all the names and, probably in about a third of them, I found obituaries,” he said. “Through the obituaries I was able to find surviving family members, and then I was able to find them either through Facebook or where they worked.”

Some requests went unanswered. Others showed promise and involved a lot of back-and-forth with relatives via text or phone, before he was shut down. He was stalled until he found Shane Brown, a 35-year-old Amazon worker whose 67-year-old mother, Jollene Brown, had died from hyperthermia in her Rockwood neighborhood in Gresham. On June 26…

In Northeast Portland, a thirty-five-year-old Amazon distribution employee named Shane Brown drove to a Walmart, where he picked up groceries curbside, and headed to the neighborhood of Rockwood, where his sixty-seven-year-old mother, Jollene Brown, lived in an apartment complex. Junked cars lined the street—abandoned automobiles that had been gutted or filled with trash. He stepped out of the car and onto the scorching asphalt of the parking lot; it was before noon, and already into the nineties. He pulled out two bags of groceries for his mother. In her studio apartment, sunlight passed through a pair of sliding glass doors and crept across the hardwood floors. The entire space comprised a small kitchen, a bathroom, and a room crammed with a television, a bed, and an orthopedic recliner.

Shane greeted his mom. Jollene, who had gone by Jolly since childhood, propped her legs up on the recliner’s footrest. A tube trailed from her nostrils to an oxygen tank next to the chair. Twenty years ago, doctors discovered blood clots in her lungs and diagnosed a pulmonary embolism; she’d needed supplementary oxygen ever since. Shane set his mother’s groceries on the counter, then returned to the car to retrieve a package that Jolly had arranged to have delivered to Shane’s apartment, because, at fifteen pounds, it was too heavy for her to carry. It was a swamp cooler, which runs fans over water to cool the air a few degrees. It stood about two and a half feet tall and had wheels, enabling Shane to roll it as close to his mother as possible.

Two days later …

Jollene Brown was one of eleven people confirmed to have died from the heat that Monday in Portland, including a seventy-eight-year-old retired mathematics professor and an eighty-three-year-old former airline mechanic. One woman died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Late in the night, a fifty-seven-year-old woman went downstairs to the bathroom, and was discovered by her spouse early Tuesday morning, unresponsive, near the foot of the steps.

Shane Brown had gone on record on an official Multnomah County report about her death, which was essential for Gardner’s reporting: “I had not just a name, but someone who was willing to talk on the record.”

Brown and his mother’s story became the meat of the story thanks to Brown’s willingness and patience with Gardner’s probing inquiries, essential for good narrative story-telling.

“I talked to him so many times,” he said. “‘What did your mom’s apartment look like the last day you saw her? What was she wearing?’ Just those kind of questions no one likes to answer. But he was just so patient.”

As Gardner wrote, his editor kept pushing for him to keep the piece linear — not to jump around but to stick to minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour chronicle of the “slow motion disaster.” The work was going okay, he said, but he had a nagging worry: Everyone he spoke to on-the-record rode out the heat wave mostly in one spot, one location. He needed a fuller scope of the day from someone who was moving around the city.

National Weather Service chart of temperatures in Portland, Oregon, in summer 2021

A chart from the National Weather Service shows the dramatic rise of temperatures in Portland, Oregon, during three days in late June 2021

Enter Portland State University professor Vivek Shandas, who specializes in measuring ambient heat; he studies the effects of urban heat islands and the temperature variations between leafy, richer neighborhoods and poorer, concrete ones. Shandas and his young son spent Monday, June 28 — the hottest of the three days at 116 degrees — taking temperature samples.

“He traveled around the city on that historic day and it was kind of what the piece needed — a roving tour of the city,” Gardner said. “A lot of time I look for that in a story anyway — movement, where someone is moving around. The reader feels like they’re moving, too.”

That interview allowed Gardner to explore the economic factors of the heat wave, the mitigating force of trees, and the impacts of climate change.

“It really added richness to the reporting,” Gardner said.

Descriptions of how heat affects the human body came from an Oregon Health Sciences University ER doctor who treated people for hyperthermia, heat stroke and heat exhaustion during those three days. The symptoms were some of same that popped up in the 9-1-1 calls: A person in front of a grocery store trying to drink water and throwing up; another who was incoherent and dizzy.

Finally, Gardner used his database — everything from the 9-1-1 calls to the hourly temperatures, the deaths and addresses, family members and county documents — to cross-reference times-of-day with the temperatures and tie it all together.

“In past pieces I liked to jump around a lot,’’ Gardner said. “But this was a strictly chronological, linear piece. When I do jump around, I feel like I’m playing with fire. There’s a really high chance of making it confusing, and it can lead to bad writing. I appreciated the discipline of this one.”

Before the summer was over, my wife and I let go of our overworked window AC unit with a heat-pump; it’s equipped with so-called mini-splits that provide both heating in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. Experts think that rather than exacerbating climate change, efficient heat pumps could cut greenhouse emissions in the winter, and provide life-saving cooling during dangerous summer spikes.

We also had to let go of our romantic notions of the Pacific Northwest as a mostly temperate climate, especially in the summers. Portland summers can always heat up to the century mark, but they have often been short-lived. Now we must expect those days to become even more frequent and intense, and be prepared to handle them.

We also need to be prepared to write weather stories with the depth and seriousness they deserve.

***

Stuart Tomlinson covered weather and related issues for The Oregonian for several years, then worked as a special projects producer for the ABC-TV affiliate in Portland. He retired last summer and lives with his wife in Portland, where he still keeps a keen eye on the weather.

 

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