As Winter Storm Death Toll Exceeds Hurricane Harvey, Scope Of Loss Becomes Clearer
When severe winter weather caused the state’s power grid to partially collapse, millions of Texans lost power for days. Those who suffered the most were among the most vulnerable populations, according to an analysis of the latest data from the Harris County Medical Examiners’ Office.
When the winter freeze hit last month, Brandi Campanile was regularly checking in with her mom, Gloria Anderson, and her stepdad, Carrol Anderson, who goes by Andy. She said she spoke to her mom Tuesday morning and everything was fine.
But a few hours later, her phone started ringing again.
It was a paramedic, calling to tell Campanile that her stepfather had died. In shock, she and her boyfriend got to her parents' house in Crosby as fast as they could.
"It was horrible," she said. "I can’t express it any other way."
It took her a while to piece together what had happened. Her stepdad was a 75-year-old Vietnam War Veteran who used an oxygen tank. When the power went out, he lost the ability to use his stationary machine.
On that Tuesday morning, a pipe burst in their home. Anderson exhausted himself trying to get a generator set up so that his wife could use a shop-vac to clean up the water that was flooding their kitchen. Out of breath, he went out to his truck to get a portable tank that he kept there. But it was also empty, Campanile said.
"Because he can't utilize oxygen and circulation like we do to keep himself warmer, his temperature dropped too fast," she said. "He tried to get out of the truck. He got a leg out and then he just slumped over."
The Harris County Medical Examiner said he died of hypothermia.
But Campanile wants him to be remembered for more than that. A Vietnam veteran, Andy later worked for the Port Terminal Railroad Association for decades. Campanile said he was a man of few words and facial expressions, but cared deeply for those he loved.
"Whenever my son was born he turned into a big softy. They'd walk around wearing matching outfits. They were so cute, going on train rides," she said. "He was a good man."
He met her mom, Gloria, while she was working in a video store.
"This man walked into a video store and fell in love with a little lady that was going through her own troubles," Campanile said. "He walked in and took care of her and protected her, which is what she needed."
Statewide, an estimated 111 people died during last month's winter freeze, surpassing the death toll of Hurricane Harvey, according to the latest numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services.
That number could still rise as more deaths are verified.
In Harris County, at least 31 people lost their lives. Houston Public Media reviewed the latest data from the county medical examiner and found more than half of those who died were over the age of 60. The majority had pre-existing medical conditions, and 42% were black.
"Unfortunately, what we’ve been seeing with this particular event, which is something that we get to see echoed in other major hazards, (is that) the people that suffer the most are the most vulnerable," said Garett Sansom, an environmental epidemiologist at Texas A&M University who researches disaster preparedness.
The most vulnerable also tend to be those of lower income who lack the resources to properly prepare, or who may live in older homes that don't hold heat as well, he said.
"Newer, nicer homes can kind of deal with that sort of thing a little bit better," he said.
State officials say hypothermia was the main cause of most of the deaths, but across the state people also died from carbon monoxide poisoning, house fires and medical equipment failure.
In Houston, a mother, Etenesh Mersha, and her 7-year-old daughter, Rakaeb Zewodu, were among those who died from carbon monoxide poisoning. A relative told local media that Mersha had turned on her car in the garage to charge her cell phone. Her husband and son were also hospitalized, but survived.
In Sugarland, three children and their grandmother, Loan Le, died in a house fire. Olivia, Edison and Collette Nguyen were just 11, 8 and 5 years old. Their mom, Jackie Pham Nguyen, told the Houston Chronicle the last thing she remembers was playing cards by the fireplace before everyone headed to bed.
"I just know that I woke up in the hospital," Nguyen told the paper.
And in Dallas, six people died from a 133-car pileup that occurred due to icy roads. Officials said the cars started sliding and were unable to stop before crashing into each other.
"In my almost 20 years in service, this is the first time ever that I see anything like this in Fort Worth," said Fort Worth police officer Daniel Segura.
Sansom, the Texas A&M researcher, said he thinks many of the deaths could have been prevented if there had been more widespread public health messaging from state officials leading up to the storm.
"Things like charcoal grills inside people’s homes, or people passing away because they were in their cars in the garage, those sorts of things are easily preventable if we have appropriate, widespread communication that we give to different communities," he said. "You really can’t blame people for not knowing what to do in a winter storm when they’ve never experienced anything really like that."
As families who lost loved ones look for accountability, lawsuits are piling up.
Doyle Austin, 95, lost power at his house in Acres Homes on Sunday, Feb. 14. Two nights later, the temperature in Houston was in the teens and 40 degrees inside Austin's home.
Austin's family said he was in good health, but died of hypothermia. They're now suing the state's electric grid manager — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT — and Centerpoint, Houston's main utility company.
“They (ERCOT) were made aware and had committees and reports that showed that these grids needed to be updated and needed to be prepared for weather such as this,” family attorney Larry Taylor with The Cochran Firm in Houston previously told Houston Public Media.
The lawsuit points to recommendations that were made following a federal investigation of similar grid failures in 2011 and 1989.
ERCOT currently has sovereign immunity and is the only grid operator in the country that's protected from lawsuits. The Texas Supreme Court said earlier this month that they won't yet rule on a challenge to ERCOT's immunity, though numerous lawsuits from the freeze have been filed against the grid operator.
Lawyer Tony Buzbee represents more than 30 families who lost loved ones during the freeze, including Gloria Anderson. In most of his cases, they're suing the local utility companies.
"They were the ones that decided where the outages would be," Buzbee said. "And then secondly, they did not inform the public and they were not honest with the public about how long the outages would last."
He said if people had known the power outages would go on for days, they could have made different decisions.
Brandi Campanelle agrees. She said her family is still grieving.
"I don’t want this to happen to anybody else," she said. "My mother is crushed because she lost her best friend, her protector. That shouldn’t happen."