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Harris County suffered far more blackout deaths, power outages than the rest of Texas, data shows



ABILENE, TX – Renée Cross, one of the principal authors of the study, said Texas is accustomed to many disasters, but a winter storm affecting all regions of the state is rare.

“That being said, if you look at the numbers, those of us in Harris County had it quite a bit worse,” Cross said. “And so that leads to the question of why? Is it just because we’re so large and the population has had its major booms? Is our infrastructure just not keeping up and a disaster like this just shows the weaknesses?”

State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said she also wondered whether Harris County’s massive population and aging infrastructure may help explain the storm’s disproportionate impact here compared to other areas. Within the county, however, she said the storm appeared to be mostly unsparing.

At first, when people saw the downtown skyscrapers were all lit up and downtown looked like a Christmas tree while we were all in the dark, they thought that was inequitable and I certainly agree with that,” Alvarado said. “But it seemed like everybody I know, no matter where they were, lost power for some time.”

Of those who lost power in sub-freezing temperatures, 34 percent of all respondents used a gas range or oven for heat while another 34 percent used a fireplace. Nine percent said they used a grill or smoker indoors, despite the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Twenty-six percent of Harris County respondents and 22 percent across the state said a family member became sick or injured during the storm. There were at least 500 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Houston area.

The survey also measured how Harris County respondents rated the performance of government officials and entities during the storm. President Joe Biden and County Judge Lina Hidalgo scored the highest, with more than 45 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly approving of their handling of the crisis.

Gov. Greg Abbott and state government as a whole were rated poorly, with about 21 percent somewhat or strongly approving of their performance. ERCOT polled the worst, with 78 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly disapproving of the power grid operator’s performance.

The survey found broad support among Harris County residents who identify as Republicans, Democrats and independents for a series of reforms. More than 70 percent of these respondents said they supported requiring the electric grid and natural gas pipelines to fully winterize and giving the Public Utilities Commission greater oversight over the electric grid.

To prevent Harris County from suffering the brunt of the blow next time, Alvarado said lawmakers should rely on recommendations federal officials made following a 2011 storm, most of which went unheeded.

“Winterizing. That has to be the No. 1 thing, and it has to be mandatory,” Alvarado said. “You saw in the last report, that was one of the recommendations. ERCOT and PUC have to mandate that.”

Fifty-three percent of respondents, however, said they were unwilling to have higher utility bills to ensure the grid is better-prepared for severe weather.

Alvarado said, based on committee testimony from energy officials and cost estimates she has reviewed, power companies can afford to take on the cost of winterization themselves.

“It shouldn’t be a cost that they have to pass on to the consumer,” she said.

The greatest partisan divides in the survey responses were around climate change and fuel sources. Ninety-three percent of Harris County residents agreed a changing climate has caused Texas to experience more severe weather than 30 years ago, compared to 52 percent of local Republicans.

Asked to choose the most important priority for addressing the country’s energy supply, 85 percent of Harris County Democrats said developing alternative sources such as wind, solar and hydrogen; 62 percent of local Republicans said expanding oil and gas use.

Harris County residents were far more likely to have lost electricity and water during February’s winter storm and blackout crisis than residents of other Texas counties, a survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found.

The findings may help explain why Harris County residents account for a third of the almost 200 deaths so far attributed to the storm, while only accounting for 16 percent of the state’s population. Most froze to death in their homes or while exposed to the elements, succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning or died when medical devices failed without electricity.

“During the week of the winter storm, Harris County residents were significantly more likely than other Texans to lose electrical power, lose internet service, lose access to drinkable water, be without running water, lose cell phone service, have food spoil, suffer economic damages, and experience difficulty finding a plumber,” the survey authors wrote.

Ninety-one percent of Harris County survey respondents said they lost power during the blackouts, compared to 64 percent of respondents from the other 212 counties on the state’s main power grid. Asked if they had lost water, 65 percent of Harris County residents said yes, compared to 44 percent of those in other counties. Thirty-eight percent of local respondents said they suffered burst pipes.

On average, Harris County respondents were without electricity for 49 total hours and 39 consecutive hours, confirming that the outages were not rotating as the grid operator, ERCOT, had hoped. CenterPoint Energy, the Houston area’s electricity distributor, said during the crisis it could not rotate blackouts because the drop in available power to distribute was so severe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 72 percent of Harris County respondents said they somewhat or strongly disagreed that the power outages were distributed in an equitable manner.

The online survey polled 1,500 Texas residents in 213 counties, excluding Harris, between March 9 and March 19. It has a margin of error of 2.5 percent. A separate sample of 513 Harris County residents also answered the questions; this portion has a margin of error of 4.3 percent.

Of the Harris County respondents, 38 percent identified as Democrats, 36 percent as independents and 17 percent as Republicans.