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The Pacific Northwest Battles Record High Temperatures, Many Without Air Conditioning


The Northwest is sweltering under this week's historic heat wave. Roads are buckling. Cables are melting. In Seattle, many people don't have air conditioning. And Mayor Jenny Durkan is urging people to treat it as a serious health risk.


JENNY DURKAN: Please, everybody, take care of each other. Be smart. Drink lots of water. Don't overexert yourself. Stay in the shade.

SHAPIRO: We're joined by reporter Paige Browning of member station KUOW in Seattle. Good to have you here.


SHAPIRO: Put this into context for us. How bad is it?

BROWNING: Ari, it's just so hot. It's been more than 30 degrees warmer than normal in Seattle. We've been seeing highs of 110 degrees, a little worse in Portland - closer to 50 degrees above normal, highs near 115 there and even worse in some inland areas, hitting 118. Part of the problem, Ari, is the overnight temperatures. It's just not cooling down overnight. It's still in the mid-70s. We are seeing some relief in the Puget Sound area today. The high is only 91 degrees, if you call that relief. But it's actually getting worse inland. Spokane, the second biggest city in Washington, is at or above 110 degrees for the next couple days.

SHAPIRO: And cities like Phoenix or Palm Springs might be accustomed to temperatures like this. But in Portland and Seattle, people don't have air conditioning. How are they coping?

BROWNING: Yeah, that's the thing. Among major cities, Seattle and Portland have some of the lowest percentages of homes with AC. Estimates put Seattle between 30 to 40% of homes with air conditioning. It's just not normally this hot, so people haven't purchased it. And people are, in general, energy-conscious and not wanting to worsen their impact on climate change. But some people now are giving in. I spoke with one of them, Vanessa Kirk-Riley, who went searching for an air conditioner at a hardware store.


VANESSA KIRK-RILEY: And Bob, the best employee ever, walked by. And I said, is there any chance that you have any? And he said, you know what? There might be one in the back. And that's how we got the last air conditioner in Seattle.

BROWNING: But not everyone's been so lucky. People are getting really creative here. We've seen a lot of people at lakes and rivers - one hack, like putting on wet socks before bed. And a lot of locals are renting hotel rooms.

SHAPIRO: We also know that the population of people who are homeless has grown in Portland and Seattle, like so many cities in recent years.


SHAPIRO: How is the city helping people who are not housed?

BROWNING: Right. We have an estimated 12,000 people living outside in broader Seattle and King County. So what the city's done is open dozens of cooling centers right now. These are in community centers, Salvation Armies, gyms, churches. Libraries are opened up. And the Seattle Parks Department has put on the sprinklers at large parks. They've opened a ton of wading pools, and they're turning on the public drinking fountains - just places where people can go for free to cool down.

SHAPIRO: And beyond the human toll, as we mentioned, this is hurting infrastructure. Tell us what's happening.

BROWNING: Yeah. We've seen a lot of issues on roads. At least four spots on Interstate 5 that runs through the Seattle area have just buckled under the heat. It's too hot. The concrete's expanding and just breaking into pieces. And there have been some problems on transit as well. The light rail had to be slowed down in Seattle and Portland because the tracks and lines just got too hot. And I should mention the utilities, too. They're being hit hard. And so now there are going to be some blackouts in Spokane, people being given a time that they won't have power.

SHAPIRO: That's Paige Browning of member station KUOW in Seattle.

Thanks for your reporting.

BROWNING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paige Browning
Year started with KUOW: 2015
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