AUSTIN, Texas — Officials on Thursday raised the death toll from February’s winter storm and power outages in Texas to at least 111 people — nearly doubling the state’s initial tally following one of the worst power outages in U.S. history.
The majority of the deaths are associated with hypothermia, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. And the dramatic number of new victims is still a potential undercount, as officials continue investigating deaths that happened around the time the storm knocked out power to more than 4 million customers in Texas.
Many homes went without power or drinkable water for days after subfreezing temperatures, failing power plants and record demand for heat pushed Texas’ electric grid to the breaking point.
Texas officials earlier this month put the initial tally of deaths at 57 but warned it would increase. The toll now officially exceeds that of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which was blamed for 68 deaths in Texas.
The list of victims from the February snowstorm cut a wide swath across the state of 30 million people: Some fatalities were nearly as far north as Oklahoma, while others were close to the U.S.-Mexico border. State officials said the causes of “multiple deaths” included motor vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failures, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire.
The most confirmed deaths occurred around Houston, where Harris County officials have reported at least 31 victims.
Among them was Gilbert Rivera, 60, who told relatives after the power went out in his garage apartment that he was cold but staying bundled up. Rivera, who worked for decades as a custodian, had a learning disability but reveled in his independence and chose to live on his own.
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Lawrence Ibarra, his 44-year-old nephew, said that after a day of being unable to reach Rivera, his father went out on Houston’s treacherously icy and snowy roads to check on him. When he arrived at Rivera’s garage apartment, he found his brother bundled up and dead on the floor. The temperature in Rivera’s house was 37 degrees fahrenheit (3 degrees celsius).
Ibarra said his father told him: “I think he froze to death.”
The autopsy determined the cause of death was hypothermia, which occurs when one’s body loses heat faster than it can produce it. The body first tries to generate heat by shivering and boosting one’s heart rate, but if internal temperatures keep dropping, that slows and the body will restrict blood circulation to extremities to maintain blood in the core and keep internal organs warm.
Left untreated, hypothermia begins to affect the brain.
“As people get colder, their mental status can change, and they can become unresponsive and not think as clearly,” said Dr. Deborah Diercks, chair of emergency medicine at UT Southwestern.
Rivera’s family is among dozens who have filed a lawsuits against electricity providers and the state’s embattled power grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The disaster led to a congressional investigation and the ouster of ERCOT CEO Bill Magness.
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Three people died in an East Austin, Texas, house fire during the freeze. Austin Fire Department investigators said Thursday they have not confirmed reports that the cause was an indoor fire built to keep warm.
Corrine Harris, who was 92 and relied on a wheelchair, and her two live-in caregivers were killed by the fire, according to her family. Harris’ family did not identify the caregivers, and the Austin Fire Department has not yet released their names.
A woman also died of cardiac arrest Feb. 15 at an encampment in Southeast Austin that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott set up for people experiencing homelessness, Austin-Travis County EMS officials said. It is unclear whether the death was related to the cold weather.
The freeze also resulted in serious health issues that were not fatal. Dozens of people – many of them homeless – suffered from frostbite in Austin in February, the Austin American-Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network, reported this week. Ascension Medical Center doctors amputated 11 feet; five people had both feet amputated.
Next week, the Texas House is expected to vote on a package in response to the storm, including efforts to winterize power plants. On Thursday, ERCOT announced that projections show a “low risk” for blackouts during Texas’ sweltering summer months, when demand on the system is typically highest.
Contributing: Katie Hall, Austin American-Statesman