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Beto O'Rourke And Texas Democrats Are Demanding An Investigation Into The True Death Count Of The Winter Storm

No Republicans returned requests for comment.

Posted on May 28, 2021, at 5:01 p.m. ET

Go Nakamura / Getty Images

Karla Perez and Esperanza Gonzalez warm up by a barbecue grill during the power outage caused by the winter storm on Feb. 16 in Houston.

Texas Democrats are demanding an investigation into the death toll of the catastrophic February storm and power outages after a BuzzFeed News analysis found that hundreds more people likely died from the freezing temperatures than the state has acknowledged.

“An official investigation into the true death toll of the power grid collapse is our best shot at guaranteeing accountability for those in power who allowed this to happen,” former member of Congress and 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke told BuzzFeed News in an email.

“The loss of life that is depicted in this story is heartbreaking and the fact that the death toll numbers have been miscalculated is absolutely unacceptable,” said Rep. Marc Veasey, a member of the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee, by email. “We can’t let this stand. We need answers and accountability.”

The state’s official tally of deaths from the storm currently stands at 151. But BuzzFeed News ran an “excess deaths” analysis of how many more people died during and right after the storm than would have been expected, given long-term demographic and seasonal trends. Our best estimate is that around 700 people were killed in the week of the storm and the worst power outages.

The staggering toll exposes the magnitude of the state’s failure in preventing the power grid’s collapse, despite being warned of its vulnerabilities, and adds new pressure to hold local leaders accountable. Moreover, an undercounted death toll creates economic problems for the families of victims. Without an official acknowledgment that their loved ones died due to the storm, relatives were unable to claim federal assistance for funeral costs.

In the wake of this reporting, Texas Republicans have remained silent. Not one contacted for this story responded by deadline. That included Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who drew fierce backlash for flying to Cancún while many of his constituents shivered in dark homes without running water.

Mega / GC Images

Sen. Ted Cruz checks in for a flight at Cancún International Airport as Texas endured a fatal winter storm on Feb. 18, 2021.

No Texas Republicans who serve on the House’s climate, energy, infrastructure, and science and technology committees responded to requests for comment. Neither did the Texas Republican Party, nor Republican leaders of the state’s legislature.

And Gov. Greg Abbott — who on the eve of the storm assured Texans that the state would not lose power — was also silent when asked if he would call for an investigation into the death toll. Previously, a spokesperson only told BuzzFeed News that he was “working collaboratively with the House and Senate to find meaningful and lasting solutions to ensure these tragic events are never repeated.”

The February blackouts, which impacted more than 4 million Texans, should not have surprised any official. A 2011 winter storm similarly triggered widespread blackouts and revealed the power grid’s vulnerability to cold temperatures. But a decade later, when forecasts warned of freezing weather on an unprecedented scale, power providers were still not required to protect their equipment.

Now state lawmakers are debating a proposal that would finally require power plants and some natural gas providers, which power much of the state’s electricity, to weatherize their equipment to the cold or face some fines. And with the legislative session ending on May 31, they are quickly running out of time.

“I’m honestly not sure if the bill passes,” state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Democrat, told BuzzFeed News. But he hopes the discussions about the disaster’s true death toll add pressure to get the bill over the finish line. “I would hope that it provides more drive to really take substantive measures to fix our electrical grid.”

And state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, a Democrat, told BuzzFeed News in an email, "we will be reconvening again in the fall for redistricting and should use that opportunity to address the risks that continue to threaten our grid and the lives of our people."

Eric Gay / AP

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in September 2020

The Texas Department of State Health Services, which is responsible for the state’s official count, said it is still working on the tally. But it has no current plans to use statistical methods similar to the BuzzFeed News analysis to investigate the full toll from the storm and power outages, which would include medically vulnerable people whose deaths have been attributed to their underlying conditions.

“As is noted on our website, the investigations into deaths related to the February winter storm is ongoing,” spokesperson Lara Anton told BuzzFeed News by email. “We expect the count to change as more information is reviewed. Our count includes deaths that can be verified as disaster-related rather than estimates of excess deaths from a statistical analysis.”

Meanwhile, Democrats in Texas are not only calling for an investigation into the storm’s death count but are also blaming the catastrophe on Republicans who control the state’s government.

“Texas Democrats will continue to push for real answers on the true scope of this disaster, and will hold Abbott and Texas Republicans accountable for their damaging and deadly failures in leadership,” Clare Donohue-Meyer, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, told BuzzFeed News in an email.

“Not only did Republican leadership fail to address the grid’s vulnerabilities while they still had a chance,” said O’Rourke, “but they also refused to adopt any sort of significant disaster response following the blackouts, leaving thousands of Texans without the vital services and medical care they needed to survive in the days and weeks after the storm hit.”

“Governor Abbott failed Texans miserably,” said Julián Castro, the former US secretary of housing and urban development. “He failed to prepare and respond to the winter power crisis that left hundreds more dead than his administration has told us. Republicans in the pocket of lobbyists left our state vulnerable to disaster and are now covering up the extent of their failures. Texans deserve an independent investigation to hold public and private sector leaders accountable and ensure this failure never happens again.”


A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.