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Q&A: Austin American-Statesman reporter discusses investigation into winter storm deaths

KVUE's Quita Culpepper spoke with Statesman reporter Katie Hall about the newspaper's investigative report.

AUSTIN, Texas — Family members are sharing stories of loved ones who they lost during the February winter storm. Journalists at the Austin American-Statesman spent months looking into the deaths attributed to Winter Storm Uri. 

Katie Hall, one of those journalists, spoke with KVUE's Quita Culpepper about the report, its findings and just 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 of specific stories regarding the victims of the historic storm.

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

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

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

Hall: Yes, that's right. Not all of them. Some of them were surprisingly young, but most people, particularly those who died, who did have shelter, were elderly and vulnerable. There's an instance of Justine Belovoskey, for example, who died in the homeless camp that Gov. Abbott set up, and there is an example of Cynthia Pierce, who was in a assisted living facility. And as you said, Diana Rangel, who was on dialysis, who required dialysis. And yet many of these people really needed peak power and heat to survive. And as a result, many of them passed away from hypothermia ultimately.

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

Hall: Yeah, that's correct. And as a matter of fact, that is what makes this investigation really difficult. We know that the state has said that 28 people died as a result of the storm, but they have not shared those names. And conversely, the EMS office here in Travis County has shared all the names, but they're unwilling to say which were directly attributable to the winter storm. And so as a result, some people died from heart failure, but we don't know if they're being counted among the victims or not. And lots of cardiologists that I spoke to said that when your body temperature gets very cold, your heart can ultimately fail. But we don't know if these people are being counted among the victims or not.   

KVUE: So I know you guys had talked about 28 people, but from what you're saying, we still don't know just how many people died due to the power grid collapse?

Hall: That's correct. We know that, in total, 198 people died in Travis County that week. We were without power. We know that that's much higher than the average in Travis County. And it's the experts that I spoke to [who] told me that 28 is likely an undercount, but there are likely people who have gone uncounted.

KVUE: So it's been almost a year since the power grid failure. Why did it take so long to tell these stories? I know you were saying that the EMS office wasn't able to give you a lot of the information at first, that sort of thing.  

Hall: Yeah. You know, I think I've covered a lot of natural disasters in my career, and I expected that after this disaster, like any sort of disaster, that we would get a list of the victims from government agencies soon afterwards. But the reality was, that list did not come and we had to seek it out ourselves. Initially, we just began to work based off of tips and work through 911. One records that we looked through, basically, and eventually the EMS office did share a spreadsheet of cases that they handled 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 a lot of different angles to figure out who had died that week and ... whose death was likely directly attributable to the freeze.

KVUE: Katie, when you spoke with the family, the friends and the neighbors of all of these victims, is there a particular story that really touched you or affected you?

Hall: So I would say I was touched and directly affected by every family that I spoke to. Everyone had so much love to share about these people that they had lost and were so completely heartbroken that they had died, often in very painful ways. But I would have to say that I really connected with the daughter of Justine Belovoskey, Stephanie Mendez. It took me a long time to find the family members of Justine. Justine had been experiencing homelessness at the time when she passed away. And it's – I went out there, I went to the scene, I talked 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 talked to Stephanie, I heard her story about how she had, you know, really tried to stay connected with her mother. But for a variety of reasons – addiction, mental health – it was difficult for her to stay in touch with her mother, and she was so scared when the storm happened and then later completely heartbroken when she had learned that her mother passed away. And she was so glad to be able to talk about not only her mother's death, but her life as well and the person that she was. And I was glad to finally honor her life.

KVUE: And all of those victims deserve to be honored that way. And Katie, I know that this story, it's not over yet. You and the other journalists at the Statesman are continuing to look into the human toll behind the power grid failure.

Hall: Yes, that's absolutely right. We're definitely continuing to report on it and to get to the bottom of how many people lost their lives that week.

Read the full Statesman report here.

Watch the extended interview here:

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