The Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office on Tuesday requested a refrigerated storage truck to help accommodate at least 20 bodies of people who had died over the past two days during brutally cold weather and a lingering power outage, county officials said.
The order puts into perspective how great the toll the last two days may have taken on county residents.
There might be as many as 50 bodies to store, far beyond the storage capacity of the medical examiner’s office, Galveston County officials said.
Many details about the deaths were unclear, including where the bodies are from and how the people died. The medical examiner’s office serves Galveston, Brazoria and Matagorda counties.
The deaths are presumed to have happened within the past 36 hours, said Tyler Drummond, the chief of staff for Galveston County Judge Mark Henry.
The county contracts with the University of Texas Medical Branch for medical examiner services. A medical branch spokesman on Tuesday afternoon gave a slightly differing explanation about Galveston County Medical Examiner Erin Barnhart’s request for a truck.
“She made the request because she knew there was going to be a need for it because of the roads and the cold,” spokesman Christopher Smith Gonzalez said.
But Smith Gonzalez said the office couldn’t provide figures about the number of people who had died and whose deaths were being responded to by investigators and that it likely wouldn’t be able to provide more information before today.
Drummond, however, said the medical examiner’s office called the county’s Office of Emergency Management around noon Tuesday and reported it had an immediate need for the refrigerated truck.
The county ordered the truck soon after receiving the request, Drummond said.
“As far as details about how many days this need has been there, how these people passed away and if they all came in last night and what the circumstances were — those are all details that we have yet to get explained to us,” Drummond said.
The Galveston Police Department and Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed they were investigating unattended deaths in Galveston and unincorporated Santa Fe. But local law enforcement hadn’t confirmed multiple reports of people dying in their homes.
Around 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Santa Fe Police Department confirmed it had responded to three deaths that were believed connected to the cold, including two people at Heritage Crossing, an apartment complex for people older than 55. Other details about those deaths were not immediately available on Tuesday evening.
The Galveston Area Ambulance Authority, which serves Galveston, Jamaica Beach, Bayou Vista, Tiki Island, Hitchcock and unincorporated areas of the county, responded to more than 70 cold-related calls for service, according to Ashley Tompkins, a spokeswoman for the Galveston County Health District.
The calls ranged from people suffering carbon monoxide poisoning and hypothermia, to injuries from slips and falls on the ice.
Hundreds of thousands of homes in Galveston County have been without power since Monday morning. Temperatures were below freezing for much of that time period, potentially exposing people to life-threatening cold.
Local officials have expressed concern that the coming days will result in more people being found dead in their homes after trying to survive the cold on Monday evening into Tuesday morning.
One local police official said he hoped police wouldn’t have to resort to marking homes off with red cross marks, the way searchers did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to indicate there were dead bodies inside.