The historic Texas winter storm may have killed up to 702 people – more than four times the final death toll shared by Lone Star State officials, a new analysis finds.
Using excess mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control, researchers were able to determine that 702 people died from causes likely related to the storm, according to an analysis by Buzzfeed News. The final official state census was 151.
The analysis looks at people with underlying conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and kidney problems, which may have been fatally aggravated by the extreme cold and loss of power.
Many of those who died suffered fatal health emergencies due to freezing weather, while others were fatally weakened after vital medical equipment went dark during power outages, which took days for many Texans.
Between February 13 and February 17, Winter Storm Uri plunged a wide swath of the United States, from Texas to the New England region, into a deep cold snap. Dallas saw sub-zero temperatures for the first time since 1930, and cold records were set in a number of other cities in the state.
An estimated 3.5 million Texans lost power after a lack of winter resistance on much of the state’s electricity infrastructure – which is independent from the rest of the US – causing the power grid to collapse. According to an University of Houston study, the electricity was out for an average of 42 hours.
Between 426 and 978 more people died than expected during the week ending Feb. 20, according to the CDC’s excess mortality data, meaning even the most conservative estimates would place the storm’s death toll three times higher than the number of the dead. state.
This chart shows total Texas deaths for the week of Storm Uri, as well as the same week a year earlier. An estimated 702 of those additional fatalities have been attributed to the storm
Another graph showing how deaths from natural causes were much higher in the week of Storm Uri than in the same week a year earlier. There have been COVID-19 fatalities
Neighbors push a car off a snow-covered driveway in Austin on Feb. 15. Winter storm Uri caused an estimated 702 deaths – nearly five times the official figure, a new analysis claims.
Hotel employees shovel ice outside the SureStay Plus Hotel in Benbrook on Feb. 16. Many of those who feared being killed in the storm suffered from underlying health problems that were fatally exacerbated by cold weather and power cuts, Buzzfeed News said.
A pickup truck struggles to gain traction in Round Rock, Texas, on Feb. 17. Winter storm Uri was the worst in nearly a century, causing massive power outages across Texas
Winter storm Uri brought historically low temperatures to Texas, leaving two-thirds of the state’s residents without power for days
The state’s toll is based on the number of confirmed deaths from hypothermia, motor vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, falls and fire. However, according to the analysis, that official count includes few people with pre-existing medical conditions
Experts believe hundreds of such patients were killed by Uri, with medical researchers unaware that they had other causes listed on their death certificates. Two additional deaths were attributed to Uri after Buzzfeed contacted medical investigators with evidence to back up their claims.
In addition, the official figures are based on death figures submitted by officials in individual counties. Only about a dozen of the state’s 254 counties have their own medical examination bureau, but the responsibility for determining a person’s cause of death is left to locally elected officials.
Even in areas with a medical examiner, it was challenging to link deaths to the storm, according to the analysis. For example, hypothermia is “ notoriously difficult to diagnose, ” Hannah Jarvis, an assistant medical researcher at the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, told Buzzfeed.
To illustrate the challenges of determining an accurate cause of death in such a disaster, the outlet also looked at two deaths in which medical researchers, after some consideration, changed the cause and associated it with the storm.
One, an 89-year-old woman, was initially thought to have died of heart failure, but after it was discovered that the oxygen machine she needed to breathe went offline for 18 hours, her death was reclassified as the result of the storm.
In another case, a 68-year-old woman collapsed in her home, but even after EMTs restarted her heart, she was hospitalized with a body temperature indicative of hypothermia.
The Bryant family huddled in their North Texas home on February 15. The new analysis indicates that a number of people may have died due to factors related to the storm that were previously unexplained.
Temperatures dropped below zero in some parts of the state. Studies show that the cold combined with power outages can lead to more cases of heart failure in people with pre-existing conditions
Studies have also shown that the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease during winter storms, especially if the electricity goes out. The week of Feb. 20 in Texas saw an increase of more than 200 deaths from heart disease, according to CDC figures.
Despite the higher number of deaths from cardiovascular disease, hospitals did not see an increase in the number of related visits, suggesting that people either died before calling for help, or with ambulances struggling, were unable to get to a hospital in time to to be saved.
Loss of power, it seems, was a major factor in the increased death toll. Neighboring countries that did not have widespread outages did not have a similar increase in deaths, according to Buzzfeed.
The inaccurate accounting of the Texas storm’s deaths has far-reaching ramifications. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a utility to help families reimburse funeral expenses, but the application deadline was May 20.
In addition, the full toll could be critical to preventing such a disaster from happening again.
“We need to know who is most at risk,” Joan Casey, an environmental epidemiologist at Columbia University, told Buzzfeed. ‘At the moment we are missing large amounts of data and many people are missed from this bookkeeping.’