‘Alone and cold’: Family of woman who died in February winter storm waiting on legislative action

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The electricity never went out at Elyse Yates’ Austin home during February’s winter storm. In fact, she said she hosted some friends and family who had lost power at their houses.

She had no clue, just a few miles away, her Aunt Cindy’s assisted living facility had been without power for hours.

“We did not know that she was in trouble — did not know that there were problems,” she said. “We thought that she was fine.”

Cindy Pierce, pictured with her daughter. (Photo provided by Elyse Yates)
Cindy Pierce, pictured with her daughter. (Photo provided by Elyse Yates)

To her family’s knowledge, the home had backup generators. She said they never received a call alerting them of any issues, and if they had, she said they could have come and picked up Cindy. Instead, Yates said the first indication something was wrong didn’t come until an emergency room nurse called her cousin — Cindy’s daughter — to ask if the elderly woman had a do-not-resuscitate order.

“Her body temperature was 94 degrees when she got to the hospital,” Yates said. “She’d frozen to death, and that was devastating.” 

Her aunt’s death certificate is stamped with the word: ‘hypothermia.’

Months later, Yates said it still “haunts” the family, who all wish they would have known what was going on and been able to save her.

Rep. Ed Thompson (R-Pearland) put forth a bill requiring backup power generation for 72 hours at vulnerable nursing homes and assisted living facilities, hoping to prevent deaths like Cindy’s.

“They couldn’t get to people,” he said. “A lot of those people were on oxygen.”

The effort began long before Winter Storm Uri, he said. His office began crafting what would become HB 2325 after severe flooding in his district knocked out power to a senior living home and nearly trapped the residents inside. That time, he said, the main threat was the Texas heat.

“The storm, Uri, kicked us into high gear,” he said.

Unfortunately, the bill never made it out of the House Human Services Committee.

Thompson’s office turned their attention to House Bill 1423, brought forth by Rep. Liz Campos, relating to the inspection of certain long-term care facilities, including a survey of certain long-term care facilities and of their emergency power sources.

“I think it’s the first step,” he said, hopeful the survey would provide data they could use to bring back the generator requirement in future legislative sessions.

Thompson told KXAN he was surprised at the pushback he received when he first presented HB 2325.

Diana Martinez, President and CEO of the Texas Assisted Living Association, testified on the bill in committee. She said they weren’t against the measure, but said it wasn’t feasible for most homes as-written.

“Some places, that’s just not do-able. The size of the tanks that you would need are just incredible,” she said.

In particular, she noted around half of the state’s assisted living facilities were considered small, housing less than 16 people. These homes are often located in residential neighborhoods, where large propane tanks and generators would be difficult to implement.

Their main concern, however, remained the cost of such an endeavor.

“Some of these systems, depending on the building, you’re looking at $350,000 to, well, we have one system that an industry partner installed, and this thing does run an entire campus. I mean, this thing is huge,” she said. “The price tag on that was over a million dollars.”

Yates said her aunt’s home did have a backup generator on-site, but it wasn’t powerful enough. Yates still doesn’t know exactly what went wrong.

“There is no doubt that the facility failed us,” she said. “But there’s also no doubt that they were multiple days into a statewide blackout with limited resources, and that was a part of a bigger picture.”

Yates places most of the blame on state regulators and the power producers themselves for letting the electric grid fail and sending the state into days-long blackouts.

She testified on behalf of her family on Senate Bill 3, aimed at preparing for, preventing and responding to weather emergencies and power outages across the state. She asked lawmakers to keep in requirements for power plants to weatherize their equipment and register as “critical infrastructure.” She also told lawmakers she wanted to see some “teeth” behind the policy.

“Not a: ‘We would like you do to this; you should do this,'” she said. “But a: ‘You must do this.'”

Still, with lawmakers ironing out different amendments and verbiage of SB 3, with just days left to send something to the governor’s desk, she’s worried.

She doesn’t want her Aunt Cindy, who she described as a smart woman, brilliant computer programmer and lover of Greek mythology, to have died in vain.

“In 2021, that my aunt could freeze to death, is unimaginable,” she said.

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