Portland heatwave ‘is like being in a microwave with a hairdryer blowing at you’

In the leafy suburbs of southeast Portland, thermometers don’t generally go above 32C in July and August. But this, the fourth summer I’ve spent in this city, is like no other before.

I moved to Portland from Abu Dhabi just two years ago, and how strange it is to experience that same kind of obliterating summer heat – like being in a microwave with a hairdryer simultaneously blowing at you – but without the infrastructure to deal with it. I now fondly recall the enveloping chill of a UAE mall or office block.

Very few buildings in Oregon have air conditioning, and electrical power lines don’t run underground as they do in the UAE but along streets and between houses, threading among bone-dry trees and posing a fire hazard.

Nobody here was prepared for the record breaking “heat dome” temperatures of this week, which peaked on Monday at 46.6C, hotter than Miami, Dallas or Los Angeles have ever been.

How a heat dome is formed

Some people have been forced to shut all the curtains, take off all their clothes and shower every half an hour, experiencing brain fog and nausea even as they stay indoors.

Others have resorted to sleeping in their cars with the engine running.

Desperate Americans have flooded social media sites such as Nexdoor to beg for help with a loan of a second-hand AC unit, a temporary home for their beloved pet or lift to an air-conditioned space such as a local library or convention centre.

In a city where even newbuilds generally come without strong air conditioning, residents are piling in with family or friends who did have it, or sleeping in whichever room has a noisy portable air conditioner or ancient window unit.

A man cools off in the Salmon Street springs fountain in Portland, Oregon on June 28, 2021, as a heatwave moves over much of the United States

Credit: AFP

Even then, the air leaking in and out of older, uninsulated detached wooden homes means it is a losing battle; the temperature inside the houses of two of my neighbours went up to 35.5C.

Fortunately, I have a central AC system, but even when fully cranked this struggled to keep the indoor temperature below 23C in the hottest part of the 3 day “extreme heat event”.

But when over 6,000 residents suffered a total power cut due to the heat, and homeless are living in tents on street corners, I was just thankful to have it.

People sleep at a cooling shelter set up during an unprecedented heat wave in Portland, Oregon

Credit: REUTERS

America’s infrastructure is clearly unfit to cope with this extreme weather. The uneven, pothole-ridden roads ruptured in several places, and cables powering the downtown streetcar tram service melted.

Many shops and services were shut down, and restaurants and bars were unable to take the heat in their own kitchens. Authorities closed public outdoor pools because after lifeguards came down with heatstroke.

Now temperatures have lowered to a mere 32C, and some Portlanders have started venturing back out and tending to their scorched gardens.

After last year’s late summer forest fires, which led to almost unbreathable air for three whole weeks and evacuation alerts just down the road from my house, there is a huge sense of foreboding about what is to come.

Fireworks and campfires have been temporarily banned, but updating infrastructure and tackling America’s role in climate change won’t be so easy.

Read more: Hotter than the human body can handle: Pakistan city broils in world’s highest temperatures

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