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'She wasn't supposed to go this way': 57 confirmed to have died from Texas freeze, early report says

Katie Hall Lee Rood Krista Johnson
Austin American-Statesman
Miguel Rangel, 30, sits for a portrait next to a photo of his mother, Diana Martinez Rangel, 71, while at their home in Manor on March 2. Daniel died Feb. 19 as millions of Texans were without power, heat and water after a winter storm slammed into the state. Her family believes she died after having missed two dialysis appointments when the clinic was closed due to the storm.

Diana Martinez Rangel was the epitome of strength, resilience and kindness to her family. She'd learned to navigate the world without her hearing, raised six children, persevered through multiple heart attacks and stuck to a strict dialysis regimen for the past seven years.

Inside her Manor home, weeks after the mid-February winter storm, her son Miguel Rangel said he was still in shock that she had died. 

“It just hurts because she wasn’t supposed to go this way,” Rangel said.  

More:How a rural hospital, Dell Children's team stepped up to care for baby born prematurely during winter storm

A photo of Diana Martinez Rangel, 71, can be seen on the shirt of her son, Miguel Rangel, 30, at their home in Manor. Diana died Feb. 19 when millions in Texas were without power, water and heat after a winter storm slammed into the state.

In stage 4 kidney failure, Martinez Rangel needed dialysis treatments three times a week. After the freeze left millions across the state without electricity or water, the dialysis center she depended on had to shutter. The day before they reopened, she died.

The Rangel family believes she died because she could not get the medical attention she required while the city's infrastructure buckled under the strain of freezing temperatures. If true, she joins the list of at least 57 other Texans whose lives were claimed by the harsh freeze, according to a report by the Texas Department of State Health Services published Monday.

More:Strangers who became heroes: How Austinites helped each other weather the storm

Miguel Rangel, 30, becomes emotional as he reflects on his mother's death at her home in Manor. “It just hurts because she wasn’t supposed to go this way,” Rangel says. "It still doesn’t feel real."

At least 86 people died in Travis County from Feb. 13 to Feb. 20, but it's unclear how many of those deaths are related to the storm. Martinez Rangel's physician is in charge of her case, not the Travis County medical examiner, said Hector Nieto, Travis County spokesman.

The Travis County medical examiner's office takes about 30 to 90 days to complete a medical examiner's report, Nieto said. 

"Ultimately, the goal of the medical examiner’s office is to provide accurate and factual information, no matter the length of time," Nieto said.

The state's list is still preliminary and subject to change as more death records are reviewed and more information is gathered, state officials said. 

Nearly half of the deaths have so far been recorded in Harris County. State officials have verified that 25 people in that county died for reasons related to the freeze, though the Houston Chronicle estimated the number is closer to 50.

More:Austin aid groups, volunteers stepped up to shelter homeless during February storms

Corrine Williams Butler Harris, 92, was among three people died in a house fire during the freeze in the 2900 block of East 12th Street.

It's unclear why the Houston area makes up nearly half the list, said Douglas Loveday, Department of State Health Services spokesman.

"It could be more deaths happened there," Loveday said. "It could be the medical examiner has done a really comprehensive job of notifying us."

The state health department is tracking freeze-related deaths that occurred from Feb. 11 to March 5. The majority of storm-related deaths verified to this point were caused by hypothermia. Multiple people died in car crashes, from carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, falls and fires, department officials said. 

Selena Xie, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS union, said she believes at least three people died because they missed dialysis during the freeze. She noted at least two people who were unsheltered died.

"It's going to be hard to quantify," Xie said.

In Travis County, three people died in an East Austin house fire during the freeze. Austin Fire Department investigators said Monday they had not confirmed reports that the cause was an indoor fire built to keep warm.

Corrine Harris, who was 92 and relied on a wheelchair, and two live-in caregivers died after that fire broke out in her blue bungalow in the 2900 block of East 12th Street in East Austin.

The oldest of five siblings in Austin in July 1928, Harris died Feb. 18, a day after the fire, at Dell Seton Medical Center.

Jewel Andrews, her youngest sibling, said she was told by hospital nurses treating her sister that she suffered smoke inhalation, but no burns. 

"I learned about it when I saw it on TV. Breaking news," said Andrews, 82. "It was very, very hard to see that and not go to her. But there was ice and snow, and I couldn’t go to her. I couldn’t. It wasn’t safe."

Andrews said she did not know the last names of her sister's caregivers.

A woman died of cardiac arrest Feb. 15 at an encampment near U.S. 183 and Texas 71 in Southeast Austin that Gov. Greg Abbott set up for people experiencing homelessness, Austin-Travis County EMS officials said. It is unclear whether the death was related to the cold weather.

One man who was close with her and who lives at the camp identified her as Justine. 

"What if I had been there?" said Mike Field, who had left the camp to visit friends in East Austin. "Maybe things would've changed." 

The state health department is notified of freeze-related deaths when medical professionals submit a form, specifying that a particular death was related to a disaster; when workers flag a death record as disaster-related; or when state epidemiologists match public reports of disaster-related deaths to death records.

The list will be updated weekly, state officials said.

Deaths that fall under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner are not historically identified or associated with specific events, Nieto said. 

"How the cause and manner of death are considered to be related to the storm may be a matter of interpretation. ... However, at the request of the Department of State Health Services, we are referencing the winter storm when appropriate," he said. 

Xie said this information is a crucial data point to track. 

"If we don't do anything, if we don't learn from these deaths, then we're absolutely going to see this happen again if these weather events continue to get worse," Xie said.

This is the current tally:

Confirmed Texas deaths because of February freeze

Aransas: 1

Bandera: 1

Bexar: 1

Cass: 1

Collin: 2

Fort Bend: 2

Frio: 1

Galveston: 1

Grayson: 1

Hale: 1

Harris: 25

Hill: 2

Hopkins: 1

Kendall: 1

Lavaca: 2

Lee: 1

Montgomery: 1

Pecos: 1

Rusk: 1

San Saba: 1

Sutton: 1

Taylor: 5

Wharton: 1

Wichita: 1

Williamson: 1

Total: 57