As record cold recedes, there's no real idea in Georgia of its human toll
In the hope of stemming deaths from exposure to extreme temperatures, cities across Georgia either set up or expanded warming shelters heading into the record setting holiday cold snap. But now as the weather heats up again, the human toll of the cold is still unclear.
Macon-Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones believes two chronically homeless men, John Ragin and James Leon Burch Jr., found dead in the days before Christmas, were killed by the cold. He believes it, but doesn’t know.
“Autopsies are going to be done, but we don't know when the autopsies are going to be done on those gentlemen,” Jones said Wednesday.
Jones asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to perform those autopsies because he isn’t a medical examiner himself. Via email, the GBI told GPB they have received a total of four such requests for potentially hypothermia-related deaths statewide.
That’s where state-level knowledge of who died in the cold stops.
When asked via email, spokespeople for neither the Georgia Emergency Management Agency nor the Department of Public Health said they had any recent records of cold deaths from around the state. They also pointed to each other’s agencies as the likely source of such numbers.
Many Georgia counties have their own medical examiners, though, and therefore have a sense of what happened in their own communities. That’s true of the four most populous counties in the state: Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb.
Investigators in Cobb and Gwinnett said they saw no cold-related deaths in the lead-up to Christmas.
But in Fulton County, an investigator called deaths from exposure within that same time frame “very likely.” In the DeKalb County medical examiner’s office, there are an unspecified number of deaths that could be related to the record cold, but as in the case of the Bibb County deaths, the final determination will wait on autopsies that could take months to return.
Bibb County coroner Leon Jones says being absolutely sure about hypothermia or any other cause of death matters.
“These people have family members, and surely they want to know the exact cause of death — regardless of their underlying medical history,” Jones said. “People have loved ones. You know, they want to know what their loved one died of.”
That sense of urgency is also what leads Jones, even in spite of pushback he’s received from other local leaders, to publicly blame the cold in the deaths of John Ragin and James Leon Burch, Jr.
“His buddy was inside the tool shed and woke up to find him outside, wrapped in a blanket on the ground,” Jones said of Burch.
“So autopsy or not, he's been out there in the cold all night long.”