Hundreds believed dead in US, Canada heatwave despite efforts to help

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Alberta, Canada

As forecasters warned of a record-breaking heatwave in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada last weekend, officials set up cooling centres, distributed water to the homeless and took other steps. Still, hundreds of people are believed to have died from Friday to Tuesday.

Many of the dead were found alone, in homes without air conditioning or fans. Some were elderly — one as old as 97. The body of an immigrant farm labourer was found in an Oregon nursery.

An excessive heat warning remained in effect for parts of the interior Northwest and western Canada on Thursday.

The death toll in Oregon alone reached 79, the Oregon state medical examiner said on Thursday, with most occurring in Multnomah County, which encompasses Portland.

In Canada, British Columbia’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said her office received reports of at least 486 “sudden and unexpected deaths” between Friday and Wednesday afternoon. Normally, she said about 165 people would die in the province over a five-day period.

She said it was too soon to say with certainty how many deaths were heat-related, but that it was likely the heat was behind most of them.

Washington state authorities have linked more than 20 deaths to the heat, but authorities said that number was likely to rise.

In Oregon’s Multnomah County, the average victim’s age was 67 and the oldest was 97, according to County Health Officer Jennifer Vines.

In a telephone interview on Thursday, Vines said she had been worried about fatalities amid the weather forecasts.

Authorities tried to prepare as best they could, turning nine air-conditioned county libraries into cooling centres.

Between Friday and Monday, 7,600 people cooled off amid the stacks of books. Others went to three more cooling centres. Nearly 60 teams sought out homeless people, offering water and electrolytes.

“We scoured the county with outreach efforts, with calls to building managers of low-income housing to be checking on their residents,” Vines said.

But the efforts weren’t enough, she said: “It’s been really sobering to see these initial (fatality) numbers come out.”

Oregon Office of Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps agreed. “Learning of the tragic loss of life as a result of the recent heatwave is heartbreaking.

As an emergency manager — and Oregonian — it is devastating that people were unable to access the help they needed during an emergency,” he said.

Among the dead was a farm labourer who collapsed on Saturday and was found by fellow workers at a nursery in rural St Paul, Oregon.

The workers had been moving irrigation lines, said Aaron Corvin, spokesman for the state’s worker safety agency, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, or Oregon OSHA.

Oregon OSHA, whose database listed the death as heat-related, is investigating labour contractor Andres Pablo Lucas and Ernst Nursery and Farms, which did not respond to a request for comment. Pablo Lucas declined to comment on Thursday.

Farm worker Pedro Lucas said the man who died was his uncle, Sebastian Francisco Perez, from Ixcan, Guatemala. He had turned 38 the day before he died.—AFP

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