Austin-American Statesman reporter opens up on winter storm deaths

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KVUE’s Quita Culpepper spoke to Statesman reporter Katie Hall about the newspaper’s investigative report.

AUSTIN, Texas – Family members share stories of loved ones they lost in the winter storm in February. Austin American-Statesman reporters spent months investigating deaths attributed to winter storm Uri.

Katie Hall, one of those reporters, spoke to KVUE’s Quita Culpepper about the report, its findings and how difficult it was to track down information, although even now there is data that remains. incomplete almost a year after the storm. Hall also spoke about specific stories regarding the victims of the historic storm.

KVUE: The circumstances surrounding these deaths, they’re just heartbreaking to read.

Hall: Yeah, that was a really tough story and a really important story for all of us to tell. I think we really got to know these families really well over time, and in some cases it was really like solving a mystery because we had basic information like a name or an address. And then, finally, we got in touch with someone. And finally, they could share their whole story, often for the first time.

KVUE: Many of these victims, they were older and in vulnerable situations.

Hall: Yeah, that’s right. Not all. Some of them were surprisingly young, but most of the people, especially those who died, who had shelter, were elderly and vulnerable. There’s a case of Justine Belovoskey, for example, who died in the homeless camp that Governor Abbott set up, and there’s an example of Cynthia Pierce, who was in an assisted living facility. And like you said, Diana Rangel, who was on dialysis, who needed dialysis. And yet, many of these people really needed advanced power and heat to survive. And as a result, many of them eventually died from hypothermia.

KVUE: And it wasn’t just hypothermia that killed a lot of these victims.

Hall: Yes, that’s right. And besides, that’s what makes this investigation really difficult. We know the state said 28 people died from the storm, but they haven’t shared those names. And conversely, the EMS office here in Travis County shared all the names, but they don’t mean which ones were directly attributable to the winter storm. And so suddenly, some people died of heart failure, but it is not known whether they are counted among the victims or not. And a lot of cardiologists I’ve spoken to have said that when your body temperature gets really cold, your heart may eventually fail. But we do not know whether these people are counted among the victims or not.

KVUE: So I know you mentioned 28 people, but from what you say, we still don’t know how many people died due to the power grid collapse?

Hall: That’s right. We know that a total of 198 people died in Travis County that week. We were without electricity. We know it’s much higher than the average in Travis County. And these are the experts I spoke to [who] told me that 28 is probably an undercount, but there are probably some people who weren’t counted.

KVUE: So it’s been almost a year since the power grid went out. Why has it taken so long to tell these stories? I know you were saying that the EMS office was not able to give you a lot of information at the beginning, that sort of thing.

Hall: Yeah. You know, I think I have covered a lot of natural disasters in my career, and I expected that after this disaster, like any sort of disaster, we would get a list of victims from government agencies shortly thereafter. But in reality this list did not arrive and we had to research it ourselves. Initially, we just started to work on a tip basis and work on 911. A file that we went through, basically, and eventually the EMS office shared a spreadsheet of the cases they handled this. that week. However, the EMS office does not handle all deaths all the time. And so, as a result, it took a lot of investigative reporting from many different angles to determine who had died that week and … whose death was likely directly attributable to the freeze.

KVUE: Katie, when you’ve talked with family, friends, and neighbors about all of these victims, was there a particular story that really touched or touched you?

Hall: So I would say that I have been touched and directly affected by every family I have spoken to. Everyone had so much love to share about these people they had lost and were so heartbroken that they died, often in very painful ways. But I have to say that I really bonded with Justine Belovoskey’s daughter, Stephanie Mendez. It took me a long time to find the members of Justine’s family. Justine was homeless at the time of her death. And that’s – I went there, I went to the place, I spoke with people who knew her, but didn’t know her particularly well. And so I felt like all I really had was a name for a long time. And then, finally, when I spoke to Stephanie, I heard her story about how she had, you know, really tried to stay in touch with her mother. But for various reasons – addiction, mental health – it was difficult for her to keep in touch with her mother, and she was so scared when the storm hit, and then later, heartbroken when she found out her mother was. deceased. And she was so happy to be able to talk about not only her mother’s death, but also her life and who she was. And I was happy to finally honor his life.

KVUE: And all of these victims deserve to be honored in this way. And Katie, I know this story isn’t over yet. You and the rest of the Statesman reporters continue to study the human toll of the power grid failure.

Hall: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. We certainly continue to report on it and shed light on the number of people who lost their lives that week.

Read Statesman’s full report here.

Watch the extended interview here:

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