Response from Multnomah County Chair, Jessica Vega Pederson

Read Thrive’s original letter to Multnomah County Commissioners HERE

Dear Thrive East PDX Vision Team, 

Thank you for writing to me to express your concerns and testimonies around the City of Portland and Multnomah County’s January 2024 severe weather response. The testimonies you provided are extremely informative and are being taken into consideration as we complete our severe weather after-action processes. I am happy to answer your questions and provide clarity on both the January 2024 severe weather response and the continuous process improvement we are taking in our after-action.

Severe weather shelters save lives during the very coldest and harshest nights of the year. Multnomah County uses the best information we have to make decisions about severe weather shelter openings and closings and preparations for both are multi-day endeavors. We consult weather and emergency management experts, and no decision is made lightly or without consultation with experts, leaders and partners. 

In January 17th’s shelter closing, we made informed decisions using the same metrics we consult during any potential weather emergency. But weather is unpredictable and sometimes events with very low probability, like the delayed thaw, happen. Predicting and timelining is inexact, and we’re always working with the best information available to make these tough decisions. 

Over the days following the 17th, guiding thresholds were not met to keep shelters open and we continued to make gear available, supporting those exiting shelters with tents, sleeping bags, TriMet passes, dry clothes and shoes and information and resources about ongoing shelter options and warming spaces. And Multnomah County opened three cold weather supply depots on January 18th and 19th to replace cold weather gear damaged in the storm and to supplement gear distributed at shelters. We continued to distribute supplies across the region.

I hope if this message communicates anything, it’s that I’m grateful for the many ways the community has been involved in our response, including the coalition behind Thrive East PDX. I understand our process was complicated by how misleading the weather forecast was. And I hear your desire for a better response in the future and share them. We know people’s lives depend on it and take that very seriously. One of Multnomah County’s strengths is that we adapt after every season, both winter and summer, so that our work can grow and change with our community’s needs. And we will do that following this weather emergency.

I want to clearly address the following questions and calls to action outlined in your email:

1. What specifically went wrong that caused a communication breakdown between the County and the City during the January 2024 winter storm? 

a. There was no communication breakdown between the County & the City. In fact, the County & City are engaging in collaborative after-action work much sooner than we ever have before. Both interjurisdictional, and with our partners.

b. On Tuesday, January 25th, the Mayor and I met to discuss the severe weather response. In a joint statement following that meeting, we clearly communicated, “Our community requires a strong and unified response for when extreme weather hits. We are committed to working together to improve the way we serve all residents of Portland and Multnomah County, particularly those living on our streets. Today’s discussion focused on shelter operations and coordination. As cold weather remains in the forecast, it is important for us to build on what went well and take immediate action to resource the next crisis with more coordination.” 

c. As part of our joint process improvement and after- action efforts, we discussed our unified public information and community education approach, an immediate contingency plan for near-term weather emergencies, and our shared commitment to continued development of a comprehensive emergency management plan.

2. Re-examine the County shelter policy in the emergency weather policy for opening shelters and providing more flexibility to respond to actual conditions.

a. The County’s severe weather response would not have been possible without a continuous commitment to analyze, improve, and implement. Continuous process improvement led to our ability to stand up the January 2024 response to shelter more than 1,200 people, to distribute gear across 37 regional zones to cover all of Multnomah County, and to continue street-level outreach at the Behavioral Health Resource Center. This work is done on top of the work that Multnomah County and its contractors do year-round, including providing more than 2,200 shelter beds today with hundreds more opening this year. These elements of our response are the result of previous after-action and process improvement, and I am committed to continuing that work today. This continuous improvement is a part of our value system that I elevate at every opportunity and is work that our senior leaders, including our COO and Director of Emergency Management, are committed to. It’s something County residents can count on us to do. And you can too. 

3. We are asking you to be vocal and publicize the changes widely for your partner organizations to be aware and take action that supports their communities adequately.

a. We hear this request, and commit to communicating these changes with our partner organizations in a timely manner. In the meantime, we ask that you sign up for Multnomah County Press Releases and Public Alerts in order to receive the most up-to-date information from Multnomah County & our regional partners. 

I know that East Portland faces unique needs during our severe weather events, and that’s why on January 20th we opened an emergency shelter at the Multnomah County East Building in Gresham. This shelter opened to provide emergency capacity as persistent high winds in east county kept temperatures low and prevented the thawing we were seeing in other parts of Multnomah County. Dozens of east county neighbors sheltered here.

You can continue to count on us to continue to show up and do our best. These recent 24-hour shelters required at least 350 shifts a day to cover all aspects of the operation. Preliminary numbers show that at least 1,000 County employees staffed shelters, drove people to them, delivered supplies and conducted communications over the week while facing the same ice, road closures and power outages that shut down the rest of the community. 

Our severe weather response is a system we are continuously improving with all of the resources we have. Thank you for raising your concerns and sharing your voice during this critical time for our community. 

Sincerely, 

JVP

Office of Chair Jessica Vega Pederson 

Multnomah County 

503-988-3308