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One Year Later, Many Question ‘Official’ Number of Texas Blackout Deaths – Houston Public Media

Ice covers trees and power lines in South Austin.

It’s been a year since millions of Texans woke up to find their power cut off during the freezing cold. Days without heating, electricity or water followed. Hundreds did not survive. But, on the anniversary of what became the worst blackout in Texas history, some say many of those who died have yet to be officially recognized.

On December 31, the state Department of Health and Human Services released its final report estimating the death toll at 246. The study aimed to include deaths caused directly by the storm (such as hypothermia), as well as “indirect deaths” – people who died later from injuries related to the breakdown of current and freezing temperatures.

The state said it identified the number of deaths through a review of “mortality surveillance forms, death certificates and verification of informally reported deaths.”

Long before the state released its report, however, others had put the death toll much higher. A Buzzfeed News study examining “excess mortality” during the crisis, found that 702 more Texans died during the blackout and freeze than would have been statistically expected to die during that time.

Now, a new estimate from a statistician who advised Buzzfeed on its initial study puts the number even higher: 814.

The number is “very, very preliminary,” Ariel Karlinsky told a group of Democratic lawmakers Tuesday at a “summit” they held at the state Capitol to commemorate the storm’s anniversary.

“I think the total death toll is much higher than officially published,” he said.

Karlinsky arrived at the new number by separating the number of excess deaths in Texas at the time of the storm with the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19.

In the weeks leading up to the storm, he said those numbers were “in tandem,” meaning any excess deaths in the state were likely caused by COVID-19. Then, he said, “during the winter storm and power outage, the excess number of deaths in Texas…suddenly peaked and turned away from the trajectory of COVID deaths. -19, which had decreased”.

Karlinsky, a PhD student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, also sits on the World Health Organization’s Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Mortality Assessment. He noted that he was conducting his research into Texas blackout deaths independently.

Others at Tuesday’s event on Capitol Hill shared stories of those who died during the crisis.

Selena Xie, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS Association, told lawmakers about an emergency call in which a person died while trying to recharge her CPAP device – which helps with breathing – in her car.

“I was frustrated with the undercount of deaths,” she said. “I think it would have counted as respiratory arrest and I don’t think it would have specifically counted” as a power failure or storm-related death.

Karlinsky said the state of Texas should commission an independent review of deaths during the freeze, similar to how Puerto Rico did after its catastrophic hurricane-related power outage in 2017.

“The government of Puerto Rico has officially accepted [the independent] estimate, so the current official estimate of deaths in Hurricane Maria has been revised upward from 65 to almost 3,000. This is the precedent I think we are talking about today.

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