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Hypothermia, carbon monoxide and cold pets: Google searches underscore depth of crisis in Texas

Texans looking for answers routinely used such phrases as “how to stay warm” and “without electricity," data shows

City workers clear ice from a fountain this week in Richardson, Tex. Temperatures dropped into the single digits as snow shut down air travel and grocery stores. (LM Otero/AP)
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This story has been updated.

A series of devastating storms unleashed frigid Arctic temperatures on Texas, killing at least 20 people and leaving millions without heat or water — a life-threatening situation in a state unaccustomed to and unprepared for extreme cold.

Search data from Google reveals the scope of the unfolding humanitarian crisis and residents’ scramble to secure basic necessities.

When the heat went out this week, Texans scrambled for ways stay warm. The number of searches for “how to stay warm” in Texas were at least twice those recorded in every other state, peaking early Monday morning. Accompanying phrases included “without electricity,” “without power” and “inside.”

There also was a staggering increase in searches for “hotels near me” during the same period, as residents left their homes in search of warmth and water.

A note on the data: It comes from Google’s Trends tool, which reports relative search volume rather than absolute numbers. The darkest places on these state-level maps, for instance, are the states where searches for a given term represent the greatest share of that state’s total Google queries within a given time period.

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However, it’s also likely that many of these searches are popular in absolute terms. It’s possible to compare a query like “how to stay warm” against general topics that garner widespread interest. This past Saturday, for instance, “how to stay warm” accounted for more Google searches in Texas than either Major League Baseball or Kim Kardashian. Typically, “how to stay warm” accounts for anywhere from one-fifth to one-tenth of the total search volume for either other topic.

As the outages went on, Texans reported indoor temperatures of 32 degrees and lower. One consequence of those below-freezing temperatures: burst pipes.

Searches for burst and frozen water pipes are spiking in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. Other terms seeing elevated interest include “how to thaw frozen pipes,” “does insurance cover frozen pipes” and “how to insulate exposed water pipes.”

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Within Texas, these searches were highest around Houston, Dallas and Austin as millions faced orders to boil water before drinking it. While many residents followed the advice of plumbers to leave faucets on drip to prevent freezing, authorities in Houston pleaded with residents not to do so Wednesday because of the rapidly depleting water supply.

Desperate to keep warm, some Texans inadvertently put themselves in danger. Hospitals reported an alarming spike in carbon monoxide poisonings because of people running their cars in shut garages and lighting grills in their living rooms. According to the Houston Chronicle, a disproportionate number of those cases involved children.

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Searches for “carbon monoxide symptoms” spiked roughly 100-fold in the state between Sunday and Wednesday, although much of that probably can likely be attributed to widespread media coverage of the issue.

Search data also reveals the depth of Texans’ concerns for children and pets. The terms “baby” and “warm” spiked in Texas cities early Monday morning, including specific searches for “how to keep baby warm when power goes out” and “how to keep baby warm at night.”

Certain pet-care searches rose rapidly as well, including “how to keep your dog warm,” “how to keep cats warm during power outage” and “how cold can cats handle.” Animal rescue agencies took in dozens of dogs left outside, and at least one dog owner in Houston was arrested on allegations he kept eight severely malnourished dogs outside for days during the cold streak.

The searches also showcased moments of hope and levity. In places where the power stayed on, for instance, many people tried to make the most of the unusual weather. Texas and Arkansas led the nation in “how to make a snowman” searches in the past seven days, as well as “how to make a snowball.”

Searches for other wintry topics, like sledding and snow fort, also skyrocketed in the region.

One night in Cancun: Ted Cruz’s disastrous decision to go on vacation during Texas storm crisis

On Thursday, as news spread of Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s trip to Cancún in the midst of the crisis, Texas along with DC led the nation in searches for the senator. In Texas, some of the fastest-growing search topics related to Cruz included Cancún, the Ritz-Carlton in Cancún, and mullets — a nod to the odd haircut Cruz sported during the impeachment trial.