““I don’t wish this on anyone”: Two families mourn their losses after a record year for Texas heat deaths” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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FREEPORT — On a grassy bank of the Brazos River, Don Green’s children repeat the same numbers over and over in hushed tones: Core body temperature of 110 degrees. Eighty-six years old. One hour.
His stepson points out the shore where he fished. His daughter clutches a box of his ashes. About three dozen friends, family members and neighbors quietly shuffle into a loose circle and wait for his celebration of life to begin.
Green was among the 334 people in Texas who died from heat in 2023, according to data compiled by the Texas Department of State Health Services between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30.
The heat killed more Texans in 2023 than any other year on record, according to the figures, which are not yet final. The state’s heat-related death records began in 1989.
More than twice as many people died from heat in 2023 than in 2011, which holds the record for the hottest summer in state history. The state’s population has only increased by 19% in those 12 years, so the increase in heat-related deaths has outpaced population growth.
A crushing heat wave blanketed Texas in the late summer, which helped make 2023 the state’s second hottest summer on record by average temperature and one of its most extreme in terms of 100-degree days. Climate change has made such heat waves more common, severe and longer-lasting, scientists have found. It’s made the heat more dangerous.
“Heat is the No. 1 weather-related cause of death in our country, and that affects everyone,” said Hosmay Lopez, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has studied heat waves. “Whether you’re young and healthy or old. Heat doesn’t care.”
According to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, 2023 was the hottest full year on record for Texas. Extreme heat is becoming more common in Texas as climate change worsens, Nielsen-Gammon said.
Globally, it was the Earth’s warmest year on record, according to NOAA.
“A small change in temperature makes a big difference,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “Deaths tend to increase rapidly [as heat increases].”
Heat killed Texans of all ages
Most deaths occurred in the state’s most populous metro regions, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, in addition to Texas’ border regions. Migrants crossing the border from Mexico into Texas are at a particularly high risk of heat-related death, experts have said.
Harris County, Tarrant County and Dallas County topped the list of the most heat-related deaths by county in 2023, according to the state’s data.
County medical examiner data shows the devastating details: The heat killed a 6-month-old Hispanic child in Dallas and a 5-day-old Black child in Irving. Both died of hyperthermia, which is when a person’s body overheats. It killed a 50-year-old white woman in Fort Worth and a 77-year-old Asian woman in Cypress.
The heat killed a 66-year-old Black postal worker delivering mail in Dallas, sparking nationwide outrage. Eugene Gates Jr.’s widow is now fighting for better protections for people who work in the heat.
And the heat killed Green, whose wife of almost four decades held his hand and watched him take his last breath.
Green was 86 and a Vietnam veteran, and he wasn’t the picture of health, but he’d been improving. He spent 20 minutes a day on an exercise bike. He shouldn’t have died like this, his children said.
“It was heartbreaking to lose him like we did,” said Jerry Barker, his stepson. He described his stepfather’s death as “horrific.”
“Just a very caring person”
Mourning her husband’s death at his celebration of life in Freeport in December, June Barker Green, 88, gazed over the Brazos River and the beautiful lake house where she and Green had lived for much of their marriage. A revolving line of friends, family, and neighbors tended to her and offered condolences.
She and Don met in 1981, on Surfside Beach.
“He started sending me flowers,” Barker Green said. “And then he would come and take me to lunch, so then finally that won my heart over.”
They married in 1986 and moved to a lake house on the intracoastal waterway near Surfside Beach.
But Green had always wanted a nicer place to call their forever home. When Barker Green spotted some property for sale on the Brazos River in Freeport, she and Green got some friends together to purchase adjoining lots. They built their dream house.
Green groomed the yard and fished from the riverbank. He installed a pond stocked with catfish and bought his wife a greenhouse that she filled with more than 100 plumerias, a Hawaiian flower. Thirty-five years went by. Eight grandchildren and step-grandchildren were born.
Barker Green is now mostly paralyzed from a 2016 spinal injury. After evacuating Freeport during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, her husband agreed to sell their dream home and move almost 300 miles north to Whitney, closer to family who could help with her medical needs.
Her late husband had taken care of her. Green was her nurse, her best friend, her joy. He checked on her at night. He made sure she took her medicine on time.
Green grew nine of the plumeria flowers that his wife loved, but could no longer water herself.
“He was just a very caring person,” Barker Green said. “And he loved plants.”
Tragedy in the driveway
On Aug. 18, Green said he was going to drive to the bank. When he didn’t return after about an hour, his wife began to worry.
It was 110 degrees that day, a record high for the area. She asked the at-home caretaker to check outside to see if his car was in the driveway.
It was. Then the nurse began screaming for help.
Green was lying face down and unconscious on the scalding pavement. The nurse called 911.
The EMTs revived Green with six defibrillator shocks on the way to the hospital.
He had second- and third-degree burns all over his legs. In some areas, Green’s flesh had peeled away, revealing bone. The doctors could hardly believe Barker Green when she told them the culprit was the sun.
Green was wearing shorts and a copper knee brace at the time of his fall; the family suspects the hot metal and exposed skin is what made the burns so extreme.
Over the next few weeks, doctors performed skin grafts, moving skin from other areas of his body to his burned legs. But he wasn’t recovering.
Finally, the doctors gave the family a choice: Amputate his legs, or send Green home for end of life care.
They picked surgery.
“We figured we’d rather have him with no legs than not at all,” said Sherrie Lovejoy, Green’s daughter. “But the stress from the surgery was just too much.”
Dr. Jessica Dwyer, a medical examiner for Dallas County who later performed Green’s autopsy, said that she suspects Green may have experienced some sort of natural event — such as a heart attack — that caused him to fall, then he couldn’t get up from the hot pavement.
But the heat is ultimately what killed him, she said.
“If he had some sort of natural event in his air-conditioned living room, he might have been able to get to the hospital, and he may have lived,” Dwyer said. “Unfortunately, in this really hot environment … they just couldn’t get him back.”
Heat-related deaths are typically associated with a secondary factor such as mobility problems, mental illness, drug and alcohol use or homelessness that prevents people from escaping extreme heat, Dwyer said. That’s one reason why elderly people have a higher risk of heat-related death, she said.
“There’s usually some sort of underlying factor to consider, because why aren’t they able to get out of that uncomfortable, unsafe environment, and into a cooler environment?” Dwyer said.
The death of a postal worker
More than 80 miles northeast of Whitney in Dallas, Eugene Gates Jr. went to work on a hot June day. He never came home.
Six months later, Carla Gates’ home in Lancaster didn’t have Christmas decorations or the smell of gumbo, her husband’s favorite seasonal dish. Eugene was gone, and so was Carla’s holiday spirit.
The cold, rainy December weather matched the 56-year-old widow’s mood. She misses her husband’s daily text messages and romantic gestures like opening doors for her. She missed binge-watching movies with him on Christmas Day.
Her husband died after his body dangerously overheated in triple-digit heat on June 20 while he was working his mail delivery route. His death made national news, a symbol of the deadly consequences of extreme heat.
“Being out in that heat that particular day, it was a death trap,” Carla Gates said.
It was his first day back at work after a weeklong vacation. He got up at 3:30 a.m., prepared a breakfast of bacon and eggs, then packed his cooler with water, grape juice, and tea, topped with ice from the new ice maker he’d purchased just for his work cooler.
He collapsed in the front yard of a home and was rushed to the hospital.
When Carla Gates arrived at the hospital after an hour of navigating rush hour traffic, her husband was already gone. She collapsed to the floor, hyperventilating.
The autopsy report concluded that Gates died as a result of hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and hyperthermia. His body temperature was 104.6 degrees when he arrived at the hospital, the report said.
Today, Carla Gates still keeps Eugene’s last bag of ice.
“It was just sentimental to me that this was his last bag of ice,” she said. “I won’t let anyone use this bag of ice.”
“A slap on the face”
Gates’ death sparked discussions about climate change and the impact of heat on outdoor workers.
U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, issued a statement saying, “the manner of Eugene’s death — exposed to dangerously high heat while performing a public service — deepens this tragedy and demands immediate investigation and response.”
In August, Texas lawmakers sent a letter to the U.S. Postal Service urging the agency to supply bottled water to letter carriers on their route following claims by San Antonio postal workers and residents that the agency stopped doing so during the summer heatwave. Lawmakers asked the agency to create a plan to ensure that letter carriers are permitted to “take necessary breaks from the heat without retaliation, access cold water without having to pay out of pocket and visit a store or return to the station to pick up water bottles without penalty.”
A recent citation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration stated that USPS failed to protect its workers from the heat on June 20, the date of Eugene Gates Jr.’s death. The heat index in Dallas ranged from 96 to 113 degrees that day. OSHA proposed a $15,625 fine and recommended that the Postal Service train employees on how to deal with heat, allow them to take water breaks on hot days and begin their work day earlier in the morning to reduce their exposure to high temperatures.
The Postal Service did not respond to a request for comment.
Carla Gates called the proposed fine “a slap on the face.” In the months following her husband’s death, she said she leaned on her faith and began speaking out about the dangers of extreme heat, sharing her husband’s story at church, with news reporters and with state representatives — a story of a man who had delivered mail outdoors for 36 years and knew how to prepare for extreme weather but still died because of a changing climate.
“I don’t wish this on anyone,” she said, as she raised her hand to her heart while sitting in her living room. “To lose a loved one that way. In the heat, when it could have been prevented.”
A beautiful day
In Freeport, at Don Green’s celebration of life, Sherrie Lovejoy, 55, clung to the small box of her father’s ashes on a brisk December day.
As she greeted her neighbors and siblings, tears welled in her eyes. “Say hi to dad,” she said, gesturing to the box.
His widow, Barker Green, and his friends traded stories: How he loved his grandkids. How he spent his afternoons out on the deck, beer in hand.
“It’s a beautiful day, it’s a happy day for me to see all the people [he knew] and to have him put where he wanted to go,” Barker Green said. “He would’ve loved to have seen it again.”
They spread Green’s ashes in the yard where they’d spent so many years tending to the plants that he loved.
It would have been his 87th birthday.
Barker Green is trying to find peace. “He’s in a better place,” she said.
But sometimes, in the depths of the night, she swears she can still see him peeking around the corner — checking on her one last time to make sure she’s OK.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/12/texas-heat-deaths-2023-record-climate-change/.
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