Death Toll from Texas’ Winter Storm Rises to 111

3 weeks ago

Officials previously had said that the storm, which devastated the state’s power grid in February, had killed nearly 60 people.

HOUSTON — Far more people died in the winter storm that crippled Texas last month than had been previously understood. At least 111 people — nearly twice as many as officials had estimated earlier — perished in the storm that plunged the state into darkness and bitter cold, state officials announced on Thursday.

The scale of loss was stunning, significantly higher than had been known and even higher than that in Hurricane Harvey, which had battered Houston in 2017 and had claimed at least 68 lives.

“Worse than anyone could have imagined,” Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio, said in a post on Twitter.

Just a week ago, officials with the Texas Department of Health had said that the storm, which had hit in mid-February and had forced thousands of Texans to seek warmth anywhere they could find it, was believed to have killed nearly 60 people. At the time, officials had warned that the figures were preliminary and were likely to change.

Douglas Loveday, a spokesman with the state health department, said on Thursday that it had taken investigators weeks to link the additional deaths to the cold weather and the accompanying storm.

Deaths from the storm had many causes. Most of the victims died as a result of hypothermia, including an 11-year-old boy who froze to death in his family’s bed in the Houston area as temperatures dropped to record lows. Others died from vehicle accidents, medical equipment failures, chronic illnesses that were suddenly worsened, a lack of home oxygen, falls, and fire, state officials said. Others died of carbon monoxide poisoning, in some cases as they tried to heat their homes.

Some of the deaths took place as early as Feb. 11; others died as a result of their illnesses and injuries as recently as March 5.

Harris County, the most populous metropolitan area in Texas and home to Houston, saw more casualties than in any other county. Thirty-one people died there. Galveston County saw six deaths, and the rest were scattered in 47 other counties around Texas.

Richard Dearing, whose mother died in the storm, described the new, far higher death toll as “really sad.” His mother, Pauline Dearing, 86, was found dead in her backyard on Feb. 19 in Abilene.

The authorities said that Ms. Dearing, who suffered from dementia, had wandered into her backyard and collapsed as temperatures dipped to freezing levels. The paramedics who found her told county officials that it appeared that she had broken a leg and was not able to get back inside. Her body was found six feet from a rear door, officials said.

“We don’t know if she cried for help or if anyone heard her,” said Mike McAuliffe, a justice of the peace in Taylor County.

The storm’s devastation, Mr. Dearing said, could not be understated, adding, “I’m surprised the number isn’t bigger considering how bad it was.”

The storm disrupted the power infrastructure, which, officials said, was unprepared for such intense winter conditions. State officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, blamed the failures on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the agency that controls electricity for some 26 million residents. High-level officials at the council, known as ERCOT, and the state’s utility regulator have resigned.

Officials have called for an overhaul of the state’s power system. Critics said widespread, lasting power outages underscored the flaws in Texas’ singular approach to electricity as it opted to have a power grid of its own and eschew regulation.

“We’re horrified that this can happen in modern-day society,” Celeste Peterson, campaign director in Houston for the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for Black and Latino communities, said of the state’s new death toll.

“Unfortunately, Texas paid the price for some really poor planning and disregard, frankly, for human life,” she said.

The storm itself was massive, engulfing much of Texas with snow, ice and frigid temperatures that broke records in many places. But the devastation intensified as millions were left to weather the storm and days that followed without electricity.

A family without power warmed itself by burning pieces of an old armoire in a barbecue grill during the frigid conditions.
Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

As the temperatures dropped, the demand for electricity soared, all while supply plummeted as power facilities started falling offline. The state’s power grid was less than five minutes away from a complete collapse, ERCOT officials told state lawmakers, prompting power operators to implement rotating blackouts that submerged much of the state into prolonged darkness.

The frigid conditions soon passed, yet it took days for power to return and even longer for water service to be restored across the state. Texas continues to grapple with the physical devastation and enduring emotional toll.

“A lot of these deaths could have been prevented,” said Domingo Garcia, an attorney for Maria Elisa Pineda, the mother of the 11-year-old who died of hypothermia. “More than a hundred deaths is devastating, but one death is too many.”

The outages have led prosecutors across the state to start investigations into whether the power losses had involved criminal negligence and to tense hearings in the State Legislature.

“Who’s at fault?” Todd Hunter, a nine-term Republican state lawmaker from Corpus Christi, asked of energy officials during one of the recent hearings. “I want the public to know who screwed up,” he added. “I want names and details.”

In another hearing, Bill Magness, the chief executive of the ERCOT, said the agency essentially had no other option as the system careened toward a meltdown.

“Now it didn’t work for people’s lives, but it worked to preserve the integrity of the system,” Mr. Magness said of the decisions made by grid operators, adding that if the system had completely failed, “We’d still be talking about how we’d get the power on.”

Mr. Magness was forced out as leader of ERCOT, and several other members of the agency’s board resigned after they were criticized for overseeing Texas’ electric infrastructure while living out of state. DeAnn T. Walker, who has been the chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas since 2017, also resigned.

Tatiana Sokolik, a teacher who lives in Austin and went days without electricity and water during the winter storm, called the death toll devastating, and said state leadership made residents feel like “we’re on our own.”

Edgar Sandoval reported from Houston, Rick Rojas from Nashville, and Allyson Waller from Conroe, Texas.

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