At least 13 die in weather-related incidents across Houston area
When someone banged on the door of Daniel Jiang’s Sugar Land house in the early-morning hours Tuesday, he thought the pipes of his home had burst or frozen. It turned out to be far worse.
As he and family members raced from their home at the direction of firefighters, he saw flickers of flames and smoke from his neighbor’s house shrouding the cold night air.
A woman and her three grandchildren perished in the house fire, among more than a dozen people who died in incidents likely connected to the bitter-cold weather that’s enveloped the Houston region.
The cause of the fire had not been established late Tuesday, but authorities, citing social media accounts, said the family may have been using a fireplace to keep warm after their neighborhood lost power.
The arctic tempest took its toll in various ways on the community.
Emergency officials are urging people seeking ways to stay warm at their homes to exercise caution. Among their tips:
Don’t use an oven or stove to heat a home
Don’t use outdoor appliances, such as a grill, indoors
If using a generator, place it far away from a doorway or any other opening to the home
Don’t sit in a running car for heat if it’s in the garage, even if the garage door is open
When using a fireplace, make sure the chimney flue is open; don’t fall asleep with a fireplace or candles still burning
Try not to drive after sunset if temperatures fall below freezing because of the risk posed by “black ice” and icy roads
A woman and child died of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning in Houston, and hundreds of others were being treated at hospitals. Two homeless individuals died of possible exposure to the gripping cold. A man and woman, both 70, died in another house fire in the city, according to news reports. And three people died in motor vehicle accidents on roads glossing with clear and black ice.
And there were indications there could be more fatalities, as Galveston County Judge Mark Henry revealed that the medical examiner there had requested storage capacity for 20 to 50 deceased persons.
“We believe that the medical examiner would not make that request if it was not necessary,” Henry said Tuesday evening.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, expressed sympathy for the victims. She said she phoned local churches in an effort to find shelter for more people heading into Tuesday evening, but many lacked power as well.
“It’s very painful,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston. “I beg people to be very careful with their fireplaces, with their cars, and certainly to check on seniors.”
Death toll expected to grow
The initial accounts of death emerged as public health and emergency officials across the area and Texas pleaded with people to stay warm using safe methods to reduce the risk of lethal accidents.
But those without power were not left with many options to keep warm and it became clear the situation had grown more dire. Gov. Greg Abbott called the power outages “unacceptable” and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the circumstances for the millions without power was “life-threatening.”
Still, those circumstances persisted Tuesday.
In Galveston County, Sheriff Henry Trochesset, who did not have power himself and was getting by with a coat, scarf and gas fireplace, said the county’s medical examiner would determine the causes of death of those who’d died in his county, so he did not want to speculate as to how many had died due to the weather.
Nonetheless, he said a number of people had run out of oxygen during the storm before first responders could reach them and attempt life-saving measures. It was too late in several cases, he said.
“It’s unfortunate,” the sheriff said. “We should not be in this. If it’s a nonsustainable way of creating energy, then there should be a back-up plan.”
He added: “Too many millions of people are being affected by this.”
In Harris County, two homeless persons were among those who apparently died of weather-related causes. A 60-year-old man likely died of exposure after declining a previous offer to be taken to a warming center, according to the sheriff’s office.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said another individual, only identified as male, was found on a median near Midtown on Monday by a passerby who called authorities. He said the cause of death was also suspected to be exposure to cold weather, but an autopsy would establish the official cause of death.
Family apparently used fireplace
The identities of the woman and three children who died in the Sugar Land blaze had not been released by Tuesday evening.
Jiang, the neighbor, said he was not close enough to the family to know much about them but they exchanged greetings when they saw each other. He recalled the three children, who were described by a fire official as elementary school-aged, played “kid stuff” in the front yard, occasionally.
Another neighbor, Ali Guven, who lives across the street, said the neighborhood lost power sometime on Monday evening. It only got colder as the sky darkened. At about half past 9 p.m., Guven and his family decided to go to a friend’s house.
“Nothing was wrong in the neighborhood when we were leaving,” Guven recounted by phone.
On Tuesday morning, Guven got a call from school administrators: There had been a fire in the neighborhood and they wanted to check if their house had been affected. Guven turned on the news and heard about the fire.
“We were so sad,” Guven said, adding they were also not close with the family but also shared hellos and goodbyes. “They were nice people.”
The children’s mother reportedly tried to reenter the house and had to be restrained by firefighters.
Meanwhile in Houston, a woman and her 8-year-old daughter were pronounced dead after officers discovered them during a wellness check at a home on the 5300 block of La Roche Street. The suspected cause of death is carbon monoxide poisoning. A man and 7-year-old boy were taken to the hospital in critical condition.
The Harris County medical examiner identified the woman as Mersha Etenesh. The child had not been identified as of Tuesday evening.
Authorities believed the family had their car running in their garage to provide heat after losing power, Houston Police Department spokesman Lt. Larry Crowson said.
“It’s a tragedy,” said Aura Tapu, a neighbor who had left the neighborhood but recognized the home on the morning news. “It’s terrible, what’s happening to people.”
The suspected carbon monoxide poisonings were among more than 300 reported cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in Harris County, which expected the number to increase.
Many of the cases stem from people using BBQ pits and generators indoors to stay warm, said Drew Munhausen, a Memorial Hermann spokesperson. Doctors were treating 60 of those cases at the hospital’s Texas Medical Center location.
“With that number of patients going in, it’s turning into a mini-mass casualty event,” said Dr. Samuel Prater, a UTHealth emergency physician who works with Memorial Hermann. More than half the patients were children, Prater said.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she’s been told that the number of reported cases of carbon monoxide poisoning represents “just the tip of the iceberg.” She warned people, “I know you’re cold. Folks who don’t have power, do not bring appliances indoors that belong outdoors.”
Hidalgo also urged residents to be careful on the roads, which have been melting during the daylight hours and then freezing after dark.
At least three people died in incidents related to icy roads.
One of the victims, Carol Williams, lost control of her vehicle and called authorities, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Initially, her vehicle struck a retaining wall, but she got out.
Another driver heading toward the same patch of roadway did not see the stopped vehicle. Unable to stop, that driver struck part of the woman’s vehicle, which rotated and struck Williams, throwing her onto an eastbound lane of Interstate 10.
The driver of an unknown black, four-door sedan then struck the woman on the roadway.
She died at the scene.