Disaster epidemiologists with the Texas Department of State Health Services are working to determine a statewide death count. They are compiling information from medical examiners, physicians, and Justices of the Peace. They will also look at media reports to find deaths that were not flagged as disaster-related by a medical certifier.
A DSHS spokesperson says deaths will be sorted into these three categories:
- "Direct —refers to a death caused by the environmental force of the disaster (e.g., wind, rain, floods, or earthquakes) or by the direct consequences of these forces (e.g., structural collapse, flying debris)."
- "Indirect— refers to unsafe or unhealthy conditions or conditions that cause a loss or disruption of usual services that contributed to the death. Unsafe or unhealthy conditions may include but are not limited to hazardous road conditions, contaminated water supplies, scattered debris. Disruptions of usual services may include but are not limited to utilities, transportation, environmental protection, medical care or police/fire."
- "Possible— refers to a death that occurred in the disaster-affected area during the disaster period. The cause of death appears to be directly-related or indirectly-related to the event but for which there is inadequate information available to make that determination at the time of recovery."
From Saturday, Feb. 13 to Saturday, Feb. 20 the Travis County medical examiner's office received 86 bodies, with 22 coming from nearby counties. Last year, the office saw 70 cases in that same timeframe. They only receive cases when someone dies outside of a doctor's care.
On average it takes the ME’s office 30 to 60 days to complete a case. Even then, Hector Nieto, a Travis County spokesperson, says it will often remain unclear if weather played a role in someone's death.
"Deaths that fall under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner are not historically identified or associated with specific events. The medical examiner’s office will make final determinations of the cause and manner of death of each individual who was examined by our office during the period of the storm. How the cause and death are related to the storm may be a matter of interpretation." said Nieto.
One death under investigation occurred at the Esperanza Community, a state sanctioned homeless encampment near 183 in Montopolis Monday. A woman was found dead inside her tent. Her neighbor and camp Council Member Teddy Maddux says her name was Justine.
"She was quiet, kind of stuck to herself. She seemed to always have a sweet demeanor though," said Maddux.
Justine died during a storm where the low temperature that day was 8 degrees. Her cause of death is still unknown. "It’s tragic, it’s a shame for a human being to die like that," Maddux said.
Max Moscoe of The Other Ones Foundation, a nonprofit providing services for the camp, says the organization teamed up with other local charities to transport people to hotels, and provide two onsite warming stations. Still, Maddux says many chose to ride the storms out in their tent, or in his case, a vehicle.
"What we do know is this isn’t an isolated incident, people die in the streets unhoused all the time," said Moscoe.
Maddux believes additional housing and structures could have "saved a life." The Other Ones Foundation is currently working to provide 200 permanent tiny homes at the Esperanza site. They are working out logistics, and hope to secure funding soon.
"I mean most people knew to bring in their house plants, but you know, sometimes you forget that there’s people out there on the streets or living under overpasses that need help too," said Maddux.