Soon after Carrol Anderson lost power in his Crosby home earlier this week, his oxygen machine stopped working. He had asked his provider for more tanks the previous week but didn’t get any before harsh winter conditions set in. The 75-year old Vietnam War veteran turned to two small bottles of oxygen he had, but his supply quickly depleted.
With no firewood left and temperatures plummeting, Anderson turned to his last resort to breathe: A small portable oxygen tank he kept in his truck.
It was 19 degrees outside. He died in his truck Tuesday, February 15, 2021.
“He shouldn’t have had to die because he couldn’t breathe because we didn’t have power,” said Gloria Anderson, Carrol’s wife of 30 years, through tears in a telephone interview.
Anderson’s death was one of four deaths caused by hypothermia that Harris County authorities announced on Thursday. Two people, Jimmie Gloud and Mary Gee, died at their Houston homes. A man was also found dead early Thursday in a parking lot in the northern part of Harris County, a fatality also attributed to the cold weather.
As temperatures rose and the Houston region began to thaw after several days of sub-freezing temperatures, the number of reported local deaths related to cold weather doubled on Thursday, bringing the toll of the crisis into sharper focus.
In addition to the Harris County deaths, Galveston and Brazoria counties reported nine fatalities, bringing the number in the area who are believed to have died in weather-related incidents to 25. That several people were found dead from hypothermia inside their homes underscored how the extremely frigid weather since Monday combined with massive power outages had created unusually severe conditions. Temperatures were expected to drop into the 20s overnight before climbing into the mid-40s on Friday.
“The weather is not just cold, it’s deadly,” said Ed Gonzalez, the Harris County sheriff.
Death toll uncertainty
The spate of weather-related deaths incensed Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, who called for the district attorney to open an investigation, speculating that the body count is larger than what has been reported.
Earlier in the week, Henry received a request from the county medical examiner’s office for temporary storage for 20 to 50 bodies that it did not normally have a capacity for.
“I just want to make sure that there’s someone to file a complaint to get the process started to have an investigation about people who died that shouldn’t have,” Henry said.
Of the seven dead in Galveston County, two victims, a 50-year old Hitchcock man, and an 88-year old Bacliff woman died from cold exposure on Tuesday. A 70-year old Santa Fe man was also found dead on Tuesday, from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning.
Four additional Galveston County deaths were possibly related to cold weather exposure, pending autopsies. A 62-year old Galveston man was found dead on Monday. On Tuesday, authorities recovered three bodies: an 85-year old Dickinson woman; an 89-year old Hitchock woman; and a 62-year old Santa Fe man.
Henry Trochesset, the Galveston County sheriff, had said on Tuesday alone his deputies responded to five deaths in unincorporated parts of the county, all from residents who died in their homes.
“We had a couple of calls where my dispatch said their oxygen levels dropped or ran out,” Trochesset said, adding that several of the deaths that his deputies responded to hadn’t been reported yet.
The medical examiner’s office also reported two deaths from Brazoria County. A 39-year old Angleton woman died Wednesday from possible cold exposure. And a 72-year old Pearland man was found dead on Saturday from possible carbon monoxide poisoning.
Indoor hypothermia deaths rare
Medical experts say the cluster of hypothermia deaths involving people found inside is highly unusual. Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees. However, it starts to become more dangerous at 89 degrees
Dr. Christopher Langan, vice president and chief medical officer at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center and Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital, said in extreme cases, hypothermia or low body temperature can cause issues with a person’s heart and abnormal heart rhythms that can lead to death.
“That’s when you start becoming confused and then your body also loses the ability to shiver,” Langan said.
When a person’s core body temperature drops to 82 degrees, he or she can become unconscious and go into cardiac arrest, Langan said.
“If you’re inside, you have that shelter, you’re blocked from wind and the wind chill, usually people are doing better that way,” said Langan. “Obviously, people that are homeless, for example, or if they’ve had an event outside that leaves them with the inability to get back inside, those are the ones that are really quite at risk.”
In addition to layering up inside, Langan also advised people to avoid drinking alcohol and not overexert themselves, which can lead to sweating — causing the body to cool down even more. He advises people to call 911 if someone’s mental status changes.
Carbon monoxide deaths are becoming more frequent as well in cold weather, as people rely on gas generators to power their homes and vehicles to charge devices.
Etenesh Mersha and her 7-year old daughter were found dead Monday, likely of carbon monoxide poisoning, after she ran her car in the garage of her family’s west Houston home to charge a cell phone, according to authorities and a relative.
Mersha’s husband, Ato Shalemu Bekele, collapsed from carbon monoxide exposure while attempting to aid his wife. Bekele and the couple’s son were taken to the hospital in critical condition. Bekele was discharged Thursday but his son remained in the hospital.
“It’s very hard to bear this,” said Negash Desta, a relative of Mersha.
Pain of loss
For Gloria Anderson, the pain of losing her life partner is compounded by how easily it could have been avoided had power outages not forced him into sub-freezing temperatures to find an oxygen tank.
Carrol Anderson worked for the Port Terminal Railroad Association for 36 years. The two met at a video store where Gloria worked that Anderson frequented, checking out western films and Bruce Willis-type action movies like “Die Hard.” She said he was a caring man who loved his daughter and grandson “to pieces.”
Instead, she stayed with Carrol’s body in the bitter cold for hours waiting for authorities to arrive and carry him away.
“I mean we are not spring chickens but there was no reason for this,” Anderson said.