‘It Cost Me Everything’: In Texas, COVID-19 Takes a Devastating Toll on Hispanic Residents

Hispanic residents in the Houston region, including Valery Martinez and her family, have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: Brandon Thibodeaux for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica/NBC News

HOUSTON — Two weeks after Valery Martinez’s 41-year-old cousin was rushed to a hospital with severe symptoms of COVID-19, Martinez wrote a post on Facebook, thanking the doctors and nurses at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital in Houston who were working to save him.

“You are the real heroes putting your life on the line in this difficult time,” Martinez wrote. “May God continue to cover and protect you and your families.”

Afterward, she started getting messages from friends — nearly all of them Hispanic, like her — who said their loved ones were also sick with the coronavirus. One friend’s aunt was in intensive care at Memorial Hermann Southeast.

The friend’s family was planning a prayer vigil outside the hospital that weekend, so Martinez asked to join. Then members of another family they knew came forward, asking if they, too, could come pray for a loved one hospitalized there with COVID-19.

Martinez choked back tears that Sunday afternoon this month as she and 40 others stood in a parking lot outside Memorial Hermann Southeast, faces covered with masks, hands lifted in prayer for the three patients hospitalized in ICU rooms 2, 11 and 22 — all Hispanic, all connected to ventilators.

The moment made Martinez feel like she wasn’t alone, she said, and helped her realize just how rapidly the virus was spreading through her community.

“Pretty much everyone who I know has had coronavirus or has a family member who’s been sick or is in the hospital,” said Martinez, who by early this week could list 45 Hispanic friends, family members and acquaintances who’ve been sick with the virus in the Houston area — including four who’d died.

As the coronavirus tears disproportionately through Latino communities in Texas, data released this week by state health officials reveals that an outsized share of these residents are also suffering the worst outcomes. Hispanic Texans make up about 40% of the state’s population but 48% of the state’s 6,190 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, according to Department of State Health Services data.

In the Houston region, where COVID-19 hospitalizations surged in June before beginning to decline in recent days, data released by the Harris County health department showed a disproportionate share of those requiring hospital care — as high as 65% of newly hospitalized patients during some weeks in June — were Hispanic, despite the fact they are 44% of the population.

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A Privately Funded Border Wall Was Already at Risk of Collapsing if Not Fixed. Hurricane Hanna Made It Worse.

This private border wall was already at risk of falling down if not fixed. A hurricane made things worse. Engineering experts said photos of damage from last weekend’s storms reinforces the idea that building and maintaining a border fence so close to the river poses serious challenges. (James Hord/ProPublica-Texas Tribune)

Intense rain over the weekend from Hurricane Hanna left gaping holes and waist-deep cracks on the banks of the Rio Grande that threaten the long-term stability of a privately funded border fence that is already the focus of lawsuits over its proximity to the river in South Texas.

The damage comes at the start of what is projected to be an active hurricane season, which runs through Nov. 30.

Engineering experts who reviewed photos of the jagged cracks caused by the weekend’s storms said the damage reinforces what many have long said: Building and maintaining a border fence so close to the river poses serious challenges.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune previously reported that just months after completion, the private fence built by Fisher Industries, a North Dakota-based company, was showing signs of erosion that threatened its stability and could cause it to topple into the river if not fixed.

“It’s going to be a never-ending battle. You are always going to be fighting erosion when you are that close to the river,” said Adriana E. Martinez, a professor and geomorphologist at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who has studied the impact of the border barriers in South Texas.

The 3-mile stretch of bollards along the river south of Mission, Texas, was a showcase project by Fisher Industries’ CEO Tommy Fisher, who put up more than $40 million of his own money to prove to the Trump administration that the private industry could do what the government hadn’t been able to: build the border wall right along the river.

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Trump Says He “Disagreed” With Privately Funded Border Wall, So Why Did His Administration Award the Builder $1.7 Billion in Contracts to Erect More Walls?

President Donald Trump visiting the U.S.-Mexico border along the Rio Grande in January 2019, not far from where a builder backed by his supporters later erected a border wall. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

President Donald Trump complained via Twitter on Sunday that a privately constructed border wall in Texas was a bad idea and poorly done — not mentioning that his administration has awarded the builder a $1.7 billion contract to build more walls.

With the backing of Trump supporters, Tommy Fisher built a 3-mile border fence along the Rio Grande, calling it the “Lamborghini” of fences. But just months after completion of his showcase piece directly on the banks of the river, there are signs of erosion along and under the fence that threatens its stability and could cause it to topple into the river if not fixed, experts told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.

“I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads. It was only done to make me look bad, and perhsps it now doesn’t even work. Should have been built like rest of Wall, 500 plus miles,” Trump tweeted with a typo in reaction to the news organizations’ report about the wall.

Trump’s tweet, however, is belied by actions his administration has taken to support the wall’s builder.

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He Built a Privately Funded Border Wall. It’s Already at Risk of Falling Down if Not Fixed.

Erosion has made gashes underneath the wall just months after being built. (Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica)

Tommy Fisher billed his new privately funded border wall as the future of deterrence, a quick-to-build steel fortress that spans 3 miles in one of the busiest Border Patrol sectors.

Unlike a generation of wall builders before him, he said he figured out how to build a structure directly on the banks of the Rio Grande, a risky but potentially game-changing step when it came to the nation’s border wall system.

Fisher has leveraged his self-described “Lamborghini” of walls to win more than $1.7 billion worth of federal contracts in Arizona.

But his showcase piece is showing signs of runoff erosion and, if it’s not fixed, could be in danger of falling into the Rio Grande, according to engineers and hydrologists who reviewed photos of the wall for ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. It never should have been built so close to the river, they say.

Just months after going up, they said, photos reveal a series of gashes and gullies at various points along the structure where rainwater runoff has scoured the sandy loam beneath the foundation.

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