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Federal Funds Will Help Convert Schools To Shelters In The Next Heatwave

Multnomah County and Portland Public Schools have received federal funds to study schools as heat and smoke shelters.
Troutdale, Oregon during the 2020 Labor Day wildfires. | ©PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP (USED WITH PERMISSION).
February 15, 2022

Multnomah County and Portland Public Schools will get federal assistance this year to plan how to use school buildings as places for people to escape extreme heat and wildfire smoke. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the county and school district a non-monetary grant to help evaluate how selected schools could serve as clean air and cooling centers, particularly in summer when school isn't in session, according to a Monday, Feb. 14, announcement from Multnomah County. 

Extreme heat and wildfire smoke were listed as the most likely risks to human health in both Multnomah County's Climate Change and Public Health Preparation Plan and Climate Action Plan. 

County officials cited the worst air quality on record in Oregon during the 2020 Labor Day fires and last June's "heat dome," which brought record-breaking 116-degree heat to the region, in the grant announcement. Emergency room visits due to respiratory problems roughly doubled during the smoke event, officials said, adding that the extreme heat event caused at least 69 deaths in the county. 

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said in a statement the heat dome was a wake-up call for the community. 

"The climate crisis is here, now," Kafoury said. "It's imperative that we take urgent action to create the infrastructure our community needs to be resilient in the face of extreme weather events fueled by global heating. Partnerships like this one are key ways for us to help our community stay safe while we work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

The grant will provide for an EPA consultant team with expertise in community engagement, disaster policy and HVAC engineering to host workshops with local partners. 

The workshops will produce an action plan to retrofit identified schools as clean air and cooling centers, officials said. 

Goals of the action plan will include: improving school ventilation and filtration systems to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and other airborne illnesses; creating healthy learning environments with improved indoor air quality; keeping schools open during more frequent extreme heat and smoke events; and making clean air and cooling centers in areas with more residents susceptible to serious health impacts from extreme heat and smoke. 

Multnomah County and PPS plan to partner with the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management and community-based organizations including Coalition of Communities of Color, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Verde, IRCO, Native American Youth and Family Center and Home Forward. 

The grant provides for technical assistance only, so Multnomah County will need to find funding sources for any possible retrofitting identified in the action plan. 

County officials said the grant will make the county and PPS more competitive for state funds designated for air filtration systems in public buildings serving as clean air shelters. The funding is part of last year's Senate Bill 762.

The city of Portland already is applying for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to retrofit community buildings as heat and smoke centers, officials said, adding that PPS buildings could fit into the city's plan for that funding. 

Additionally, a school improvement bond, which voters passed for PPS in 2020, provides $75 million to replace or repair high-priority mechanical systems, including heating, cooling and ventilation systems, in district schools. The grant will help identify those priority facilities, officials said. 

"If the fall of 2020 and the summer of 2021 have taught us anything, it's the urgency of meeting the climate crisis for our most vulnerable community members," said PPS board chair Michelle DePass in a statement. "The climate crisis is here and we need to take critical steps to ensure community resilience and the safety and well-being of our community members." 

The workshops hosted by EPA consultants are expected to begin this summer, said Abby Hall, local and regional planning advisor at the EPA. 

Multnomah County was one of four locations selected for the EPA grants. Other locations to receive grants included Washington's Kittitas County, Arizona's Pima County, and California's Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

This story was originally published by Pamplin Media Group.