The Texas Winter Storm And Power Outages Killed Hundreds More People Than The State Says

A BuzzFeed News analysis shows the catastrophic failure of Texas’s power grid in February killed hundreds of medically vulnerable people.

5/27/2021 1:15:00 AM

A BuzzFeed News analysis shows the catastrophic failure of Texas’s power grid in February killed hundreds of medically vulnerable people.

A BuzzFeed News analysis shows the catastrophic failure of Texas’s power grid in February killed hundreds of medically vulnerable people.

On the morning of February 16, Gerald Herring, an Army veteran who had just turned 70, was struggling with a power outage, burst pipes, and a cold home in Sugar Land, southwest of Houston.Over the phone, Herring told his son Jonathan that he was carrying water in from a neighbor’s house. This mention of heavy lifting worried his son. Despite him seeming to be “in good health, all things considered,” Jonathan Herring, 36, told BuzzFeed News that he was worried because his father had undergone surgery a few years ago to repair a torn valve in his heart.

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“From what I knew, it was going OK, and/or he hadn’t had any episodes or things like that,” said another son, Chris Herring, 33, who also spoke with his dad by phone that day and remembered that he seemed to be in good spirits. “He was always good about monitoring. If he didn’t feel good, if he didn’t feel well, he would tell my stepmom.”

Tap to play or pause GIFTap to play or pause GIFPeter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Viapoweroutage.usPercentage of customers without power across the region by county, before, during, and after the storm hit.But later that day, Gerald Herring became unresponsive. Though paramedics arrived to rush him to the hospital, the drive there and back took longer than usual on the icy roads, Chris recalled. Gerald was pronounced dead not long after. His death was officially attributed to cardiovascular disease caused by high blood pressure and narrowed arteries.

While he did have heart problems, his sons believe that the cold was likely the ultimate catalyst for his death. “Adding stress for someone who has a heart condition, no power, no water — it's not a good set of circumstances,” Chris said.If the storm had not hit and the power had not gone out, Jonathan said, “We’re not going to get another 10 years — I’m not an idiot — but it wouldn’t have happened that day.”

Asked why the deaths of Julius Gonzales and Gerald Herring were attributed to natural causes, Stephen Pustilnik, the Fort Bend County chief medical examiner, told BuzzFeed News that “none of the history that you gathered was ever told to our investigators.”

“I don't necessarily deny these were storm-related,” Pustilnik said. “But if we had known — if the family had told us when we asked them what was going on with the deceased family members — we certainly would have included them. If we don’t know about it, we can’t act on it.”

Justin Sullivan / Getty ImagesThe U.S. and Texas flags fly next to a power pole on February 21, 2021 in Houston, Texas.Other families arealso convinced their loved ones died as a result of the power failures and cold. But with no official confirmation of this, they are left with no clear answers and little hope of holding anyone to account.

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The precise circumstances surrounding the final hours of many of those who died during the storm have not been scrutinized, since many deaths were never reviewed by medical examiners. Even when they were, the cause of death was often determined by an external examination of the body, rather than a full autopsy.

If you’re used to watching TV crime dramas where medical examiners deliver precise diagnoses after thorough autopsies, the fact that the causes of many of the deaths following the storm are mired in confusion may seem surprising. But for deaths linked to underlying medical conditions, autopsies are actually rare — in 2017, only around 7% of US deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease, for instance, were confirmed by autopsy, according to a

study published last year.Establishing a precise cause of death in Texas is particularly challenging. Only about a dozen of Texas’s 254 counties have their own medical examiner’s offices. In the rest, confirming the cause of death is the responsibility of elected officials who are not required to have prior medical expertise. And while these counties can refer deaths to a medical examiner in one of the larger counties for further investigation, they have to pay for each examination or autopsy that is conducted.

“There are certainly some [counties] that do a great job and others, you know, that might not do as good of a job,” Kathryn Pinneri, forensic director for Montgomery County, Texas, and vice president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, told BuzzFeed News.

Two deaths in Galveston County illustrate how deaths initially attributed to natural causes may, upon further consideration, be linked to the storm and power outages. After BuzzFeed News was sent a list of deaths following the storm from the county medical examiner’s office, we received an update noting that the primary cause of one of these deaths, that of 89-year-old Eula Piangenti, had been changed from heart failure to “environmental exposure due to Feb 2021 winter storm.”

Erin Barnhart, the chief medical examiner for Galveston County and a pathologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told BuzzFeed News that she reclassified this case after being contacted about it by a reporter with Texas Monthly, who wasinvestigating deaths in Galveston

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when the storm and power outages hit.Piangenti had Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular problems, and was living with her daughter, Sharon Stacy. She required oxygen to help her breathe,which went offlinefor about 18 hours when the electricity supply to Stacy’s house failed. She died on the morning of February 16, shortly after power was restored.

Although Piangenti was under remote hospice care, her daughter had not expected her to die so soon. “She wasn’t on her last breath. She was still functioning,” Stacy toldTexas Monthly.By the time Barnhart was told of the circumstances surrounding Piangenti’s death, the funeral had already taken place and there was no body to examine. But she decided she had enough information to rule that Piangenti and another

were in fact victims of the power outages following the storm.The second case was68-year-old Shirley Napier, who collapsed in her home on February 15 after the power failed overnight. Her heart had stopped beating and was shocked back into rhythm by the EMT team who took her to a nearby hospital — where she was admitted with a body temperature below the threshold for hypothermia. Napier never recovered, and died the following Sunday. On the death certificate, her cause of death was recorded as a brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen following a heart attack.

“I didn’t agree with the cause of death when it first came out,” Steven Napier, Shirley’s husband, told BuzzFeed News.He is now suing theElectric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which manages the state’s power grid, and CenterPoint Energy, the utility that supplied their home with electricity, for the wrongful death of his wife. He blames the state’s decision not to protect its power grid after the 2011 storm for his wife’s death. “They didn’t want to spend the money to fix the system,” Napier said. “It’s negligent homicide.”

Incourt filings, ERCOT has disputed Napier’s claims. The grid operator did not respond to repeated requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.Barnhart, the medical examiner in Galveston County, was not surprised that many deaths caused by the storm had been missed in the state’s official count. “Did we capture all of them? Probably not,” she said.

Shelia James (left) and Dale Guss (right), friends for more than 40 years, moved into an apartment in Houston in 2018. Their power went out on Monday, February 15, and wasn’t fully restored until Thursday night, according to James, 60. “The whole time, she was cold,” she recalled of her 65-year-old roommate during that “horrible” week. “I put all the covers on her.”

On Friday, Guss died. “You watch some people you know and love, and you’re talking to them and you get to the point I could hardly understand some of the things she was saying,” James said.James knew that Guss had been dealing with some kind of medical condition, as she was losing a lot of weight, but her roommate didn’t talk about it. Yet as far as James knew, she wasn’t taking any heart medications and she wasn’t drinking or smoking as much as she used to. So James questioned the cause of death given for Guss: a damaged heart valve and chronic ethanolism, a term often used to refer to people who drink themselves to death. “I don’t think the storm killed her. It just hurried up the process,” James said.

The Harris County medical examiner’s office said they had no further comment on Guss’s case.Courtesy Shelia JamesDwight Walker, 67, endured the brunt of the storm without power at his house in Dallas County. Even though it was still icy and snowy out, he moved to his sister Alfredia Walker Strhan’s house to get warm, only to die there less than a day later on February 18, 2021. “My brother was a loving person,” Walker Strhan told BuzzFeed News. “You should have been at his services. You could have seen people just coming from everywhere.”

Strhan blames the cold and power outages for Walker’s death. “I think with a big body like that, you can’t get warm right away,” she said about her brother. But his official cause of death, according to county records obtained by BuzzFeed News, was listed as “Hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease” and “diabetes mellitus.” Jeffrey Barnard, the county’s chief medical examiner, said there were no records of Walker having been cold or living without power before his death in the information shared with his office.

Courtesy Alfredia Walker StrhanTo estimate the full death tollfrom the storm and power outages, BuzzFeed News used a statistical model to predict expected deaths in any week, given long-term and seasonal trends. Our estimate of deaths caused by the storm and power outages excludes deaths from COVID-19, which were declining steadily in Texas through February.

The three independent experts who reviewed our methods and findings all agreed that the CDC data shows a large spike in deaths in Texas during the week ending February 20, when the power outages and extreme cold were most severe.“There appears to be a clear jump in deaths following the winter storm in mid-February that defies trends in Texas,” said Steven Woolf of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, whose team has used similar methods to

estimate the total US death tollduring the COVID-19 pandemic.This spike in deaths was specific to Texas: No similar pattern showed up in neighboring states which were affected by the winter storm but didn’t experience such widespread and prolonged power outages.

To further probe the reasons for the high death toll in Texas after the storm, BuzzFeed News looked at the primary cause of death noted in the CDC data. More than 175 deaths in Texas in the week ending February 20 have yet to be assigned a cause. But even with this gap in the data, there were still spikes for diabetes and for “diseases of heart” — a broad category including heart failure, arrhythmias, and heart attacks — which had a sudden uptick of more than 200 deaths in that week.

That fits with previous research. “We have a huge body of epidemiologic literature that shows cold temperatures are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, hospitalizations, and mortality,” said Joan Casey, an environmental epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Read more: BuzzFeed »

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Nothing has been done by the state legislature except passing hate bills Tell me again how they want to regulate abortion because they are pro-life.

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