About the story
This investigation began with an attempt to learn more about heat-related deaths and emergencies in Texas as temperatures have risen over the past decade. Reporters requested reports for heat-related deaths from medical examiners’ offices across the state. Though some offices, including in Bexar, Nueces and Webb counties, were unable to fulfill requests, other offices provided 320 reports dating back to 2008.
The reports revealed a strong nexus between electricity affordability and heat deaths. In addition to numerous Texans who were found dead after refusing to run their air-conditioning units because they feared high bills, we identified several residents who had no electricity service in their homes. That led us to request power disconnection numbers from the Public Utility Commission, which regulates electricity service in the two-thirds of the state served by private companies, as well as from large municipal- and cooperative-owned utilities.
We found that from 2009 to 2018 disconnections skyrocketed among customers served by private companies. The disconnection numbers decreased among those who receive power from municipal utilities such as Austin Energy. Co-ops refused to release disconnection numbers, arguing that they are not bound by the Texas Public Information Act.
We also requested emergency calls for heat-related illnesses in major metro areas. The data revealed that each summer heat-related emergencies afflict Texans by the thousands, and particularly those in low-income and minority neighborhoods.
Among the medical examiner death records, we also identified a large number of worker deaths, including two dozen deaths on the job that were not investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health administration. Reporters learned that Texas has the largest number of worksite heat-related deaths, yet both Texas lawmakers and federal OSHA officials have refused to adopt safety measures that could prevent heat-related deaths and illnesses of workers.
Interviews with scientists and climate experts helped us understand that the increasing electricity disconnections, heat deaths and health emergencies were happening amid historic rising temperatures, hotter years than the Lone Star state has seen before. Yet no state agency is holistically examining the public health effects of rising heat or searching for solutions to mitigate the increasing toll of climate change here. And in Texas’ conservative legislature, lawmakers have largely refused to acknowledge the reality of rising heat, failing to even hold hearings on climate-related proposals during the 2019 legislative session.
In all, we submitted nearly two dozen Texas Public Information Act requests for this report, analyzed hundreds of data points and interviewed dozens of residents, utility assistance workers, consumer advocates, state and local officials and company representatives.
Investigative and data analysis team
Jeremy Schwartz | Investigative reporter
Andrea Ball | Investigative reporter
Brandi Swicegood | Investigative editor
Dan Keemahill | Web developer
Jay Janner | American-Statesman photographer
Nick Wagner | American-Statesman photographer
Nell Carroll | American-Statesman director of photo and video
Development, design and production
Mara Corbett | Creative operations editor
Rachel Kilroy | National projects designer
Sean Smith | Front-end developer
Jennifer Borresen | Data visualization editor
Rindy Weatherly | American-Statesman copy editor