This past year has shown us that the Portland region's infrastructure is not adequate for extreme weather.
Multiple extreme weather events over the last year have demonstrated that the Portland region is woefully unprepared to respond to climate change.
As temperatures in the Portland metro area climbed to record breaking levels in late June – in some places reaching 116 or higher -- infrastructure started to fail. MAX trains and streetcar service were suspended as officials discovered tracks and overhead lines that were unable to withstand such high temperatures. Streets buckled. And in some areas, the electrical grid went out, forcing people to find other places to stay cool.
The Oregon Medical Examiner’s office reported that 107 people died as a direct result of the heat, and officials fear that that number may continue to climb.
Many of the deceased were found in homes that did not have fans or air conditioning. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 78% percent of Portland homes have air conditioning, compared to a national average of 91%. However, those numbers are skewed by participation.
Many in the region rely on one or more window air conditioners, which are not up to the task of fighting 116 degree temperatures. And officials note that low-income households, people of color, and people living in high rises are significantly less likely to have air conditioning in their homes.
Renters are at particular risk, with many reporting that their lease agreements specifically forbid them from using air conditioning units under threat of eviction. Landlords claim that air conditioning use increases energy costs, despite the fact that most area landlords require renters to pay for their own power bills. Some Oregon lawmakers now say that there should be a law requiring landlords to allow AC.
It’s not just extreme heat that’s a challenge for the Portland metro area. Residents remember the dangerously toxic air quality just last fall due to multiple wildfires across Oregon and Washington, many of which were caused by or exacerbated by drought and lightning.
Less than five months ago the city was crippled by another extreme weather event: ice. Just as with the heat event in June, the severe weather impacted public transportation, damaged roads, and caused thousands to be without power, some for close to a week.
In both extreme heat and severe winter weather, officials in Multnomah County have spent tens of thousands of dollars opening and staffing cooling and warming shelters where residents could have a place to escape the weather. Cooling and warming centers are regularly set up with sleeping cots, meals, and places for pets, but not everyone can or will go to a shelter.
Nor should they have to. As climate change causes extreme heat and cold, as well as increases in other weather-related disasters such as wildfires and wind, Oregonians are wondering what state and local government are going to do to keep the region livable with its new, harsher climate.
Local officials note that Oregon, like much of the country, just has not invested in ongoing infrastructure improvements. The consequences have been deadly and will get worse without significant investment.
Hannah Schafer, a spokesperson for the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) told KOIN news:
“Frankly, we have a maintenance backlog of $4 billion in the city of Portland for our road systems. We already know we have a lot of repairs that are needed. I think that, combined with the potential for additional damage because climate, it could, climate change could be a very expensive proposition for our city. These are considerations that we didn’t have to take into account in the past that we will moving forward.”
Portland General Electric (PGE), the region’s largest electrical provider, reports that it is constantly updating its systems to reduce outages. But even the best system will struggle, and improvements come at the price of increased rates for consumers, many of whom are already struggling.
Climate change is not going away, and the Portland region will likely continue to see summer temperatures rising and winter weather worsening. The question is: what will local, state, and federal governments do to invest in mitigation measures to keep residents safe?
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