Seven dead in Spokane heatwave as city opens ‘cooling centers’ in desperate bid to provide respite

Extreme heat warning extended for several days amid record temperatures, writes Andrew Buncombe from roasting Washington state

Friday 02 July 2021 09:03
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<p>Spokane is one of many cities to have opened ‘cooling centres’</p>

Spokane is one of many cities to have opened ‘cooling centres’

Pete & Belle’s Ice Cream Shop boasts of 48 varieties.

Among the most refreshing flavours, says employee Carey Pilalas, are lemon poppy seed and rainbow sherbet.

But for some customers, on scorching days such as these, it is the store’s efficient air-conditioning that is as much a draw as the admittedly delicious ice cream.

“I bought the pith hat I am wearing 10 years ago,” says a man called Karl, who does not want to have his picture taken. “When I leave work, I pour water on the hat, and then I come here.”

In this city of 220,000 people, located in eastern Washington about 300 miles from Seattle, residents have in recent days been doing anything to stay cool, as the community has been among many in the Pacific Northwest struck by record high temperatures.

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Spokane has always had hotter summers than Seattle, and its winters considerably more bitter. But on Tuesday the temperature hit 109F (42.2C), the highest temperature ever recorded there. The day after it fell a couple of degrees, and on Thursday it had dropped to the relatively moderate 100F.

“Yesterday it was crazy,” says JT Washington, who is heading to a mini-splash pool, with his partner, Jami Winehouse, and their children. “Even the water in the pool was hot.”

While cities such as Portland and Seattle, and places north of the border in Canada’s British Columbia, have made headlines for their startling temperatures and the reported deaths of hundreds of people, Spokane has in some respects been overlooked.

Yet officials here revealed on Thursday evening they too had identified seven fatalities they believed were the result of the record temperatures.

“At the present time there are seven deaths wherein circumstances suggest they may be heat related, although autopsy results are not yet available to confirm,” the Spokane County medical examiner wrote on its website.

Two of the victims had been identified as Robert Hunt, 68, who was found dead in his apartment by emergency crews on Wednesday. A second man, Andre Pharr, 36, was found dead in his apartment across the hallway.

To try and provide a sanctuary, the city has set up a series of ‘cooling centres’ where residents can sit in an air conditioned room, with free drinking water, sunscreen and even electrolyte drinks.

Labrador jumps in pool in California for heatwave relief

City spokesman Brian Coddington tells The Independent there are enough spots for up to 1,000 people. On average, he said, they have been hosting around 75 people a day. They will keep the centres open until Sunday, having extended the severe heat warning.

“We were monitoring the weather reports, and we wanted to be quick to respond,” he says. “We were actually informed by the plan we used in September with the wild fires. So that helped us this time.”

One cooling centre has been established in the Looff Carrousel building, which includes a celebrated merry-go-round. In a neighbouring hall, Steve Kinn, a volunteer, is welcoming people as they arrive and pointing out the water, the toilets and the power sockets.

“This is the hottest I have seen it here,” says Kinn, 64, a retired lawyer. “We usually get one or two hot days in July or August, but not like this.”

He says the region’s winters also used to be longer and more severe. In essence, he has seen the climate change in his life time, and it worries him.

“I think it is climate change. There may be other factors contributing to this particular heatwave, but climate change is contributing to it.”

One of a handful of people taking a break in the hall is 23-year-old Ronald Baumgarden. Baumgarden says he is homeless, having been pushed out of his foster home when he was 18. He says he has been in various programmes, and next month the authorities with provide him with an apartment in the city.

Baumgarden also believes climate change is responsible for the heatwave, the likes of which he has never seen.

Martin Fimon, 59, says he is making his way to Minnesota. He has spent time woking on sustainable farms in Hawaii, and plans to spend a month in Spokane before traveling to the Midwest. He is sleeping in a tent.

How is he managing to keep cool in the heat?

Jen Menzies stayed cool by going to work

“I watch the birds and the animals and do what they do,” he says. “I get up early, and then when it starts to get hot, I just hunker down.”

Close to the cooling centre, Jen Menzies is leaving work. She works in a toy shop, one that has air conditioning.

How did she stay cool the day before? “I stayed cool by going to work,” says the 45-year-old. “The shop has AC, but we don’t have it at home.”

Like many cities in the region hit by the heat, Spokane has seen rolling power outages to try and tackle the demand, even though like many cities in the Pacific Northwest, lots of residents do not have air conditioning at home.

Avista Utilities said around 9,000 customers in Spokane lost power on Monday. “We try to limit outages to one hour per customer,” Heather Rosentrater, an Avista vice president for energy delivery, told the Associated Press.

At the same time, many of the city’s hotels, especially those with pools, are packed to capacity, with people checking in to escape the heat.

While Pete & Belle’s Ice Cream Shop has been open throughout the heat wave, not every such shop in the city has been so fortunate.

Doyle’s Ice Cream Parlour has been serving Spokane’s west central neighbourhood since 1940.

But like a number of older, traditional stores in Seattle, it was closed this week. Dominic Palmides, who lives near the shop, says there is nothing else like it in the city.

Yet he sympathised with those who decided not to open shop. “It’s been 110F, 111F – outrageous,” he says.

The Facebook page of the shop features a cone, with the words – “It’s hot”.

“We will be closed this week due to the extreme heat,” says a post.

“If the waffle cone on display says it’s too hot, it’s too hot! Our freezers are having a hard time keeping up. Stay safe, and stay hydrated Spokane. This will pass.”

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