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Texas Standard

BuzzFeed Report Estimates Winter Storm Deaths At Least Triple That Of Texas’ Count

austin_winter_storm_gas_station.jpg
Julia Reihs/KUT
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People lined up at a gas station in Austin during February's winter storm.

From Texas Standard:

The official death count so far from February’s winter storm and subsequent power outages is 151. But a new report by BuzzFeed News indicates the count could be as high as 702.

BuzzFeed science reporter Peter Aldhous tells Texas Standard he used a statistical model called “excess deaths” analysis to try to account for deaths that the state may have missed through its approach of counting death certificates directly associated with the storm.

“You calculate from previous trends how many deaths you would expect to see in any week, and then you look at how many happen in each week,” Aldhous said. “And I was looking, in particular, at the week directly after the storm and during the power outages, and basically what comes out of that is there’s a very clear spike.”

Using that approach, Aldhous came up with a new estimated death count: between 426 and 978. Even the lowest end of that estimate is almost three times that of the state’s count.

To dive deeper into the numbers, Aldhous and his colleagues contacted county medical examiners’ offices across the state to get a list of deaths during and right after the storm. They looked specifically for deaths of the most “medically vulnerable” – people whose fragile health may have been most affected by freezing temperatures, lack of water and more during the power outages. If their deaths weren’t directly attributed to the storm, the state wouldn’t have included them in their count. But that doesn’t mean the storm didn't play a role in their deaths.

BuzzFeed spoke with families of some of the people who had died.

“These were truly harrowing stories of sort of awful last hours that people had with a power outage and freezing temperatures, unable to keep warm, incredibly stressed,” Aldhous said.

Some family members have struggled since the storm because of uncertainty about their loved ones’ cause of death, including one woman who couldn’t access her husband’s pension.

Aldous says BuzzFeed has received “mixed” reactions from Texas leaders; some concern from Democratic lawmakers and little response from Republicans. The Department of State Heath Services responded to the news organization with a statement reiterating its method of counting death certificates.

DSHS also contacted Texas standard, saying, “DSHS is counting deaths that were reported by local officials as being related to the winter storm. This is an ongoing process and what we have posted is a preliminary count that is likely to increase as more information is received.” The agency also said that it had not yet reviewed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study using the excess deaths analysis BuzzFeed used in its reporting.

Aldhous says the bigger issue at the root of the deaths is the state’s failed power grid. One bill aimed at strengthening the grid passed during the recent legislative session, but much more needs to be done to prevent future failures.

“It really was an avoidable disaster. The power didn’t need to go down for so many people for so long,” he said.

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