The true human toll of February’s winter storm is only now becoming clear, and it’s nearly double the number the state originally estimated.
The Houston Chronicle looked into the stated number of Texans who died because of the weather and related power blackouts in Feburary. The Chronicle’s Zach Despart told Texas Standard that previous reporting on the number of deaths in the Houston area led the newspaper’s investigative team to suspect that the statewide total might be higher than the stated number. At that time, the Chronicle found that 50 people had died in the Houston area.
“We had thought – since Houston is about 15% of the state’s population – if there were 50 deaths there, we feared that the statewide number was as many as a couple hundred,” Despart said.
Texas’ decentralized death certificate recording systems proved to be a challenge for the reporters. They contacted officials in each of the state’s 254 counties, read news reports and examined lawsuit filings to gather the data.
Of the 194 deaths, attributed to the storm, at least 100 were caused by hypothermia, the Chronicle reported. Another 16 lost their lives due to carbon monoxide poisoning and 22 died because medical devices they relied on lost power.
Despart said half of the people who died were over 65.
“Most of these deaths were preventable,” Despart says officials told him. “Most of them were attributable to the fact that Texas simply could not insure that electricity would stay on during a severe winter weather event.”
Despart says the death toll will probably rise as more information about what happened that week in February becomes available.
“In a disaster like this, where most people died quietly, died in their homes – there [wasn’t] large, visible evidence of property damage – It’s a much harder one to wrap your head around,” he said.