EDIT (4:50pm ET): Thanks y'all! This was a great experience. Signing off for now, but stay in the loop with our reporting at https://www.twitter.com/SuzyKhimm and https://www.twitter.com/renLarson_

Hi Reddit, we're Suzy Khimm, national investigative reporter for NBC News, and Ren Larson, data reporter for the Texas Tribune + ProPublica investigative unit, to continue the conversation about our story “Texas Enabled the Worst Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Catastrophe in Recent U.S. History.”

We'll be here Thursday at 3pm ET to answer your questions.

Our reporting for NBC News, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, showed how Texas is one of just six states lacking statewide requirements for carbon monoxide detectors in homes, and the state legislature has failed multiple times to protect residents against this invisible gas.

February's freeze and power outages led to more than 1,400 carbon monoxide poisonings and more than a dozen deaths — disproportionately affecting Black, Hispanic, and Asian Texans.

Comments: 179 • Responses: 16  • Date: 

relppa120 karma

What was the actual death count? I read that it was apparently 10 when news started coming out after the storm, but I thought there was no way so few perished. Also, I read an article that stated that the bill for losses incurred by the energy companies is apparently being passed to the private citizen...is that true?

nbcnews187 karma

Ren: Official death counts after a disaster often lag. The state’s current number of deaths that it attributes to the winter storm is 151. When we published our piece, 11 of these were attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning, and this number has since risen to 17.

But, many researchers have countered that the way that deaths are attributed often undercounts the true toll. A recent investigation by Buzzfeed found that during the week of the winter storm, the number of deaths from all causes was significantly higher than what it usually would be — more than 700 deaths above normal. These included individuals who were unable to get to their typical medical care, were frail or had compromised health conditions.

nowlan10159 karma

Is Buzzfeed a valid news source? I hear all the time that they use the revenue from their click-baity articles to fund good journalism but I’ve yet to see a trusted news source, NBC, NYTimes, WSJ, The Post, get beaten by them on a breaking news story.

What’s your opinion(s) as a reporter?

nbcnews167 karma

Ren: TL;DR Buzzfeed’s investigations are great and if you’re not afraid of math you can read the methodology for the 700 deaths here.

One thing to note is that reporters and outlets can cover a variety of different topics. Readers are interested in the clickbait and the serious. Sometimes the clickbait funds the important stories. Other times the important stories get the traction and the subscribers. There’s a whole lot of funding models in this industry that I won't get into, but let me just iterate that Buzzfeed’s investigations and beat reporters produce incredible journalism; many of their quick read stories are incredibly well researched. If you want (and if you like thinking about regressions) you can comb through the methodology for this story, which they vetted with external social scientists, a standard in my profession.

nbcnews110 karma

Ren: The number of deaths attributed to a natural disaster often increases in the following months, which is why the initial number seemed to sweep the devastation under the rug.

This past week, Texas’ legislature approved a bill that would cover the $7 billion of the gas utilities’ electric cooperatives and electric companies’ debt from the winter storm. And, yes, the legislators approved everyday Texans to pick up this cost, which will likely lead to more expensive bills over the next two decades. That bill is now on Governor Abbott's desk.

Oonabot55 karma

Do you know if anyone is investigating the damages caused to those in the disabled community, either financially, emotionally, or otherwise from being stranded for days in the freezing cold without our life support systems at home that require power? How many died because they simply ran out of oxygen? Do you know what those numbers are compared to carbon monoxide poisonings?

nbcnews73 karma

Suzy: There are multiple lawsuits alleging that medically fragile adults and children suffered serious injuries because they rely on medical equipment that lost power.

Our colleagues wrote about some of these cases here: https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/09/texas-covid-power-outages/

These families can apply for a "critical care" designation that is supposed to prioritize their homes in the event of power loss. But the power outage in February was so extreme and widespread that these homes couldn't be prioritized, officials say. https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/nbc-5-responds/is-there-a-way-to-prioritize-medically-fragile-texans-in-a-power-disaster/2590136/

There isn't an official tally of these deaths, but efforts to compile a more comprehensive death toll are ongoing.

rtc5429 karma

Does the state have a plan to provide resources/education around carbon monoxide safety for the future?

nbcnews32 karma

Suzy: Since February, the state government has not announced any new plans for more resources or education on CO, as far as we are aware. The state legislature has also failed to address the issue. However, the state fire marshal's office does undertake some CO awareness and outreach at safety fairs and other events. Fire safety experts stress that more education is necessary year-round — especially in vulnerable communities. But the broad consensus is that education alone isn't sufficient — requirements for CO detectors help protect folks especially in emergency situations and natural disasters, who may not be thinking clearly and/or have other pressing needs to address.

nbcnews14 karma

Ren: The one thing they did pass was an emergency alert system that could be used in events like this.

N3ws_h0und22 karma

Why did this issue disproportionately affect minorities of color?

nbcnews63 karma

Ren: Carbon monoxide can poison anyone, no matter their income, race or ethnicity.

But the winter storm didn’t affect Texans equally, which leads to our finding that Black, Hispanic and Asian Texans were disproportionately poisoned by the invisible gas. A separate analysis combining satellite imagery and U.S. census data found that areas with a high share of residents of color were four times more likely to lose power compared with predominantly white areas.

sssndhsndr17 karma

I'd also be interested to get a sense of which state/local agencies you had to FOIA for records on 911 calls, emergency room data, statewide hospital data etc. Thanks again!

nbcnews22 karma

Ren: Since we're working with state-level data we thankfully didn't have to FOIA, but were able to get records under the state's Public Information Act. Texas has more counties than any other state in the country (254!), which means that when we’re doing investigations it takes reaching out to a lot of different agencies.

We started by requesting 911 logs from the state’s largest cities, which often — though not always! — have systems and staff to respond promptly.

To confirm carbon monoxide deaths, my indefatigable coworker Lexi Churchill confirmed with the counties where we had deaths from the storm reported. The morning of publication, one more investigation confirmed CO as a cause of death.

Across the state, hospitals, ERs and urgent care facilities report daily visits. We can’t see individual-level data, but the state’s health department was able to tell us how many people sought care each day for things like hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning.

DaStompa13 karma


nbcnews67 karma

Ren: Many people who weren't in Texas to experience this record storm don't understand the severity.

My house - built in the 1920s - has single pane glass windows and no insulation. Outside, temperatures were in the single digits. This meant many people were trying to survive in homes that were 30-40 degrees for days on end, without the coats and blankets necessary for those conditions.

Our roads were iced over, so even if you wanted to get to a family member's home across town, you couldn't. 4.5 million Texan homes + businesses lost power. People faced dire choices: risk hypothermia or improvise to keep warm. While some were unaware of the danger of carbon monoxide, other people we spoke to just weren't thinking straight.

Will people on a failing airplane really want to put the overhead oxygen mask on a child before themselves? The answer is yes. Which is why you hear that message every time you get on a plane.

supersebas969 karma

How did these carbon monoxide poisonings happen?

nbcnews16 karma

caster32358 karma

Why did the carbon monoxide poisonings disproportionately affect the blacks ,hispanics and Asians?

nbcnews32 karma

Suzy: Experts say these communities had limited resources to escape the cold once their power went out, leaving them more vulnerable to using alternative power sources that can result in CO poisoning. Few had relatives they could stay with. Some didn’t have vehicles that could handle icy roads and others lacked awareness of local warming shelters. This left many trapped in freezing homes and at higher risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, says Melissa DuPont-Reyes, an assistant professor at Texas A&M who studies health disparities.

jackmagpie6 karma

What is the source of CO gas in American households?

nbcnews25 karma

Suzy: Gas-fired appliances are the most common source -- furnaces, stoves, water heaters and clothes dryers can all emit CO at dangerous/fatal levels if they are malfunctioning or poorly ventilated, as can car engines idling in garages. Alternative sources of power/heat can also emit deadly levels of CO, including generators and grills.

We published a guide explaining how to protect yourself from CO poisoning at home: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/how-prevent-carbon-monoxide-poisoning-your-home-n1265717

sssndhsndr4 karma

Thanks for covering this important, devastating story. I'd be interested to understand what is currently holding up the Texas state legislature from passing rules for carbon monoxide alarms to be installed in all homes in the state, which industry groups are still lobbying state lawmakers against such a measure, and what they're spending to do so.

nbcnews23 karma

Suzy: Previous proposals — both on the state and local level — have often drawn opposition from industry groups representing landlords, who have criticized such requirements for being too expensive and onerous to implement; some However, the TX state legislature did recently pass a broader overhaul of building codes that would require newly constructed residences to have CO detectors (all existing buildings would be exempt). The construction industry did support this bill: https://capitol.texas.gov/BillLookup/Text.aspx?LegSess=87R&Bill=HB738

blu3falc0n6 karma

Who's going to pay for them? What was stopping people from putting one or two in the house? Legislation may affect more builds, but how are you going to police existing construction?

nbcnews17 karma

Suzy: There are a few ways that other states/cities check for detectors in existing buildings: 1) require them when homes are sold/transferred to a new owner, which you can check through the home inspection process; 2) check for them during local health/safety inspections of rental buildings, requiring landlords to install them when they're missing.

The biggest blind spot is single family homes that aren't for sale - the onus is really on the homeowners to install them and make sure they're working properly, which is why education is also so important.

gunnathrowitaway-6 karma

Have you been threatened or intimidated by the big business interests that allowed the power outages to happen?

nbcnews19 karma

Ren: In many countries, being a journalist is a dangerous profession, and while deaths and imprisonments in the United States are rare, many reporters and visual journalists face harassment at events and online.

Our reporting has been well received — but it's also not a controversial topic, which is informed by publicly available information.