In the past two weeks, Multnomah County and the state have released a slew of information about the victims of the unprecedented heat wave in late June.
It’s not enough.
Last month, Oregon experienced a full-on mass casualty event. More people died in Oregon than in the Florida condo collapse and, while a building did not fail, it appears Oregon’s safety net did.
We need to know why.
To prevent future losses, Oregonians deserve an independent examination into each victim’s circumstances.
A few counties have released some names, but most have not. The state and the county have disclosed gender, age and general location of residence for the 115 victims, as of Friday.
We know many people who died of extreme heat in Multnomah County lived in apartments, and some in vehicles. Most did not have air conditioning to combat the triple-digit temperatures. Some had only a fan, and a few did not even have that.
Nearly 80% of Multnomah County’s victims lived alone, but two died in a “senior living community.”
That alone raises all sorts of questions we’d like to see answered. And other people with loved ones in that particular senior living facility have a strong interest in knowing what happened there.
Some readers might think releasing a dead person’s name and address is an invasion of privacy.
But government officials routinely release basic death information to the public, as soon as next of kin have been notified. Many of us hand personal checks bearing our home address to strangers all the time.
In Oregon, your home address is a matter of public record if you used it to register to vote or to obtain a hunting, fishing or pet license.
Newspapers have long published the names of those who died in car wrecks, accidental drownings, fires, plane crashes and similar public safety events.
The historic heat wave certainly qualifies as a public safety event.
So, what is the holdup?
A few law enforcement agencies have released victims’ names and ages because their incident reports and call logs are fundamental public records, typically released upon request.
A medical examiner’s records, however, are exempt from release under the public records law, unless certain conditions are met.
Mainly, there has to be a public interest in disclosure that overcomes the interest in keeping the records confidential.
We think the fact dozens of people died during this historic heat wave, despite numerous attempts at government intervention, means the public has a significant interest in those individual cases. What went wrong?
While the state and the county have pledged examinations into their responses to the heat, those reviews cannot replace an independent investigation by journalists.
Editor’s note: There were two such suspected heat-related deaths of homeless people in Deschutes County during the recent heat wave. However, county officials have deemed that both deaths were not due to the heat.