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Texas truth and reconciliation panel dissects Winter Storm Uri one year after the disaster

The state’s official count of 246 deaths attributed to Uri came under fire from a Democratic lawmaker who questioned why just 77 out of the state’s 254 counties reported deaths.

(CN) — A year after Winter Storm Uri brought freezing temperatures to Texas that triggered catastrophic power outages, a group of Democratic state lawmakers held a truth and reconciliation hearing Tuesday to discuss the death toll, what went wrong and whether legislative reforms to shore up the state’s grid went far enough.

“We call this event or this incident Winter Storm Uri and that always frustrates me because this was not a natural disaster, this was a man-made disaster. It was entirely predictable. And it hasn’t been fixed. And it will happen again,” said state Representative James Talerico.

He was one of four Austin-area Democratic state representatives who heard testimony at the Capitol from medical professionals, law enforcement officers, energy economists and a data analyst about the February 2021 storm that left millions of Texans without power for days when the state’s grid manager implemented blackouts due to a shortage of electricity.

Uri caused an estimated $295 billion in damage, according to the University of Houston.

The state’s official count of 246 deaths attributed to Uri came under fire with Representative Vikki Goodwin questioning why just 77 out of the state’s 254 counties reported deaths. She said it was surprising there were 28 deaths in Travis County, home to Austin, and none in neighboring Hays County.

BuzzFeed News consulted with Ariel Karlinsky, a statistician at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and other experts to verify the method it used in pegging the death toll at between 426 and 978 people in a May 2021 report.

Karlinsky told the panel Tuesday he found the news outlet’s method to be very sound. He said he came to his own estimate of 814 victims by linking excess deaths in Texas in early 2021 to Covid-19 deaths, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

“You can see a spike upward in total mortality during the period of the winter storm, while actually Covid-19 deaths and excess mortality in tandem had been going down since the beginning of 2021,” Karlinsky noted, citing several graphs.

Karlinsky called his figure a “very preliminary, crude and first estimate of total death toll from the winter storm and power outage,” which would make Uri the second deadliest event in the state’s recorded history behind a hurricane that struck Galveston in 1900 and killed more than 8,000 people.

Selena Xie, a paramedic and president of the Austin EMS Association, told of the chaos in responding to calls on icy roads and overpasses and picking up people who had to be rushed to the hospital after their oxygen machines went down when their homes lost power.

She said people who use CPAP machines when they sleep to prevent dying from sleep apnea found themselves in trouble.

“CPAP machines are a common medical device and because they didn’t have power, they struggled to breathe all night. And one person died while charging a CPAP in their car,” Xie recounted.

Tiffany Jones-Smith, president of the Texas Kidney Foundation, testified that the organization routed all its calls to her during the freeze. She said she felt helpless getting calls from family members of people who rely on dialysis to clean toxins from their blood because their kidneys have failed.

Many were sitting in the hospital, Jones-Smith said, but the hospitals had no usable water.

“Dialysis requires 38 to 42 gallons of water per patient per treatment and that’s potable water,” Jones-Smith explained. “You can’t have any kind of water, and that was part of the problem that happened during Winter Storm Uri. When the electric grid went out we also had a problem with water. That caused chaos across the state.”

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Texas had 445 dialysis centers close or send patients elsewhere due to lack of capacity during the storm, according to Jones-Smith, affecting more than 34,000 Texans with kidney disease. They had nowhere to go but hospitals.

She cited a report from Dr. Wajeh Qunibi, director of inpatient and outpatient hemodialysis services at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, who said due to the increased demand the hospital decided to operate its 12 dialysis units on an almost 24-hour basis and to limit dialysis to only 2 hours per patient — a treatment that normally takes 3 to 5 hours per patient, three to four days a week.

Dr. Doug Jeffrey, an Austin emergency physician, said his doctor group rented hotel rooms near their hospitals during the storm, so they did not have to commute to and from work on icy roads. But the plan did not work, he said, because the hotels were not close enough to the hospitals to not have their lights turned off. The state’s grid manager kept the lights on for facilities like hospitals that are deemed critical infrastructure.

“So the majority of the week I had to drive,” he said. “You know my normal 25-mile commute, which normally was about 30 minutes turned into a 2-hour white knuckle journey, and just driving 10 to 20 mph so I wouldn’t slide off the road or get hit.”

Jeffrey urged state lawmakers and local officials to draw up carefully considered plans ahead of inclement weather to ensure hospitals maintain power, water and adequate staff.

“What about getting to hospitals? Is that maintaining certain roads to access all our major hospitals?” he asked. “I worked in the northeast for a few years and when there were big winter storms people who needed to go to the hospital called the police department, and they came and got you in a big 4x4 with chains on it and brought you to the hospital.”

In the aftermath of the storm much of the blame went to the state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and five of its board members quickly resigned.

But Michael E. Webber, University of Texas-Austin energy resources professor, told the panel he believes ERCOT was unfairly scapegoated.

Webber said the “first domino to fall” starting on Feb. 10, 2021, was the state’s natural gas system and that proved devastating because natural gas fuels around 40% of the state’s electricity generation, more than wind, coal, nuclear and solar.

“Which created a power problem because power plants couldn’t get gas,” Webber said. “And the power problem became a bigger gas problem because power was turned off to gas plants, which became a bigger power problem because then we had a water problem, which became a humanitarian crisis.”

He noted it was an economic decision for Texas gas companies to not spend money to winterize their wells and pipelines, adding there is off-the-shelf technology that is used all the time for gas facilities in Canada, North Dakota, Russia and the North Sea.

He estimated it costs $10,000 to $80,000 to winterize a gas well.

Webber suggested Texas lawmakers should make it mandatory for natural gas companies to protect their equipment against wintry weather. Critics say in the wake of the storm, the Legislature gave gas companies a pass on winterization requirements they mandated for power plant operators.

“I think there’s a role for government to say if you want to participate in this market you must meet the minimum standards for responsibility. We do that in every other sector. And I think it’s reasonable to do that in the gas sector. Because the individual economic rational won’t take you there,” Webber said.  

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