According to a BuzzFeed News analysis of CDC data and public records, an estimated 702 people were killed by the winter storm that wiped out power and gas to much of the state amid freezing temperatures, a number nearly five times higher than the state has reported.
According to the state of Texas, only 151 people died from causes related to the storm. But using historical data, BuzzFeed News built a model for how many deaths would be expected during the week of the storm, discounted deaths from Covid-19 and compared those numbers to counts of actual deaths from the CDC — a common method for determining the death toll of natural disasters. According to the report, the data suggests that between 426-978 more people died than would have been expected in Texas for the week the storm hit.
“There appears to be a clear jump in deaths following the winter storm in mid-February that defies trends in Texas,” Steven Woolf, a researcher with the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, told BuzzFeed News.
Most of the deaths counted by the Texas Department of State Health Services are due to hypothermia as well as carbon monoxide poisoning, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Many people likely died as a result of the storm because lack of power or heat worsened their existing medical conditions, although there are relatively few of those cases that made it into the official state count. This undercounting of deaths in a natural disaster is an issue affecting not just Texas but other states as well.
Chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or kidney problems make people more vulnerable to stress and cold. And BuzzFeed News’ report is full of devastating personal stories of losing family members because of the outages — a great-grandfather whose kidney dialysis appointments were canceled because the hospital didn’t have power or an elderly woman who had hypothermia but whose death was officially ruled a brain injury from a lack of oxygen following a heart attack. But those deaths were not included in the official count because they were attributed to their chronic conditions, not the storms.
Even worse, E&E News uncovered phone records and documents reviewed by Ars Technica that show Governor Greg Abbott’s office knew the state was facing an impending natural gas shortage on February 10, five days before the blackouts began. On February 15, then-chair of the Texas Public Utility Commission, DeAnn Walker, warned Abbott’s office that natural gas suppliers were shutting down because power plants did not have enough gas to generate enough electricity, and the blackouts began. Despite this, Abbott smugly lied on Fox News the next day, saying that solar power and wind turbines were the main cause of the outages.
And as former congressman Beto O’Rourke pointed out on Twitter, the state has known about potential failings of its power grid for a long time and lawmakers have failed to act. “Texas officials received SEVERAL warnings over the past DECADE from state utility regulators about the human tragedy that could come if power grid vulnerabilities went unaddressed. These warnings were ignored,” O’Rourke said, adding that Gov. Abbott has banked $26 million in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry.