WHEN I BEGAN MY SEARCH FOR THE STATE’S deadliest place about a year ago, I assumed I’d discover it among our biggest cities, with their violent crime and resurgent incidences of AIDS; or along the border, with its unsanitary air and water and old nemeses like tuberculosis; or someplace in the Golden Triangle (Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange), with its notorious high cancer rates. I never dreamed I’d find it in Potter County (population: 113,546), an unremarkable quadrant of the Panhandle that is home to half of the city of Amarillo, the Alibates Flint Quarries, and the infamous if-you-can-eat-it-all-it’s-free steak.
But as the epidemiologist’s favorite mantra goes, the numbers don’t lie. Using the average of 1997, 1998, and 1999 Texas Department of Health vital statistics, which reveals a true trend rather than just a snapshot, I found that people die at a faster rate out here on the High Plains than in any of Texas’ 34 counties with populations of more than 100,000. No one has died of anthrax recently in these parts, but people are dying of everything else. Potter County ranked first in deaths from all causes per 100,000 (1,206, compared with the state average of 897). It was first in infant mortality, heart disease, lower respiratory disease, and accidents; second in deaths from cancer. Potter was also among the state’s leaders in such varied health “indicators” as violent crime, sexually transmitted diseases, and low birth weights. Just as confounding as Potter’s deadliness was the fact that its sister county, Randall, which sits just across Interstate 40, ranked near the bottom of those same 34 counties, with an overall mortality rate of just 701 deaths per 100,000.
When you drive Potter’s narrow, generally treeless and chuckholed residential streets, the first thing you notice is its poverty. The houses are mostly small, slab-foundation, wood-frame structures, and many of them are boarded up and surrounded by empty lots. There is also a conspicuous lack of the accoutrements of modern middle-class civilization—condo developments and shopping malls and a Starbucks on every other corner. But you’d never think of the word “deadly” to describe this place. It’s too quiet.
In determining the death-rate capital of Texas, I excluded counties with fewer than 100,000 people. That’s because small numbers are anathema to good epidemiology. To qualify as a truly sick, deadly place, a county needed to have many generations, ethnicities, social classes, and the basic dangers of urban life (crime, traffic accidents, AIDS) represented. It also had to have