Free transit, functioning call centers could have saved lives during heat wave, state says

Paul Smith, right, watches a movie while cooling off at the cooling center at Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As Salem is predicted to see more triple digits temperatures, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management said better planning could have saved lives during the June heat wave that killed at least four people in Marion County and one in Polk County.

The agency’s after-action report, released Tuesday, contained several recommendations to improve the state’s response to extreme heat. At least 83 Oregonians are confirmed to have died from the June heat wave, which lasted from June 25 to June 30 reaching a scorching 117 degrees in Salem. Another 33 deaths which are believed to be heat related are still under investigation, nine in Marion County.

The report comes as Salem’s forecast calls for temperatures to reach 100 degrees on Thursday and Friday, and 93 degrees Saturday, according to the National Weather Service in Portland.  

Andrew Phelps, the state’s emergency management director, said local and regional governments should consider eliminating fees for public transportation during extreme weather events during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

“Transportation shouldn’t be a barrier for folks accessing the help they need during an emergency,” he said.

Patricia Feeny, Cherriots spokesperson, said Salem’s bus service offers free rides for people heading to cooling centers in the summer or warming shelters in the winter.

During the June heat wave Cherriots offered free rides to cooling centers, she said.

Ashley Hamilton, program director at The ARCHES Project, said the day center closes at noon on Thursday, but staff will be offering water, cold towels and sprinklers outside after 1:30 p.m.

On Thursday morning, she said the agency was still working on options for Friday.

Another recommendation from the OEM report was to provide 24/7 access to 211, a nonprofit call line that connects people to local resources like cooling centers. During the June heat wave, people weren’t able to call 211 because there weren’t staff answering phones on June 26 and most of the following day.

During Wednesday’s press call, Fariborz Pakseresht, director of the Oregon Department of Human Services, said the state wasn’t aware the legislature-funded call line wasn’t staffed on that day. He said by the afternoon of June 27 the nonprofit brought staff in.

He said the call line would be fully staffed ahead of the higher temperatures expected over the coming days and for the duration of the wildfire season.

Phelps also emphasized the importance of community members checking on their neighbors.

He said many of those who died during the last heat wave were alone at home without air conditioning. 

Feeny said the transit agency would offer rides to the following places (bus service doesn’t currently run on Sundays):

The ARCHES Project

2475 Center St. N.E.

8:15 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday 

Church at the Park 

2410 Turner Rd. S.E.

8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to Sunday

Recovery Outreach Community Center

2555 Silverton Rd. N.E.

Noon to 6 p.m. Thursday to Sunday

UPDATE 3 p.m.: This story was updated to reflect the cooling centers which are open.