Category Archives: ProPublica

“Half of the Family Just Disappeared Overnight”

HOUSTON — It was 9:08 p.m. when Michael Negussie’s phone rang. Twenty minutes had passed since he called 911 asking for emergency crews to check on his cousins and their two children, fearing that they had fainted from carbon monoxide poisoning in their Houston home during a massive winter storm.

A fire captain at the dispatch center told Negussie that an emergency crew had arrived at the two-story town house. But, he said, no one was answering the door.

“It’s one of those things, if they get there and they have to force entry, they’re going to break the door, displace the lock,” the captain said, according to a recording of the 911 call.

Negussie was baffled. Why would emergency responders expect someone to come to the door if the reason for the call was that the family was unconscious?

“Yeah, that’s fine. Do that as soon as possible,” Negussie, 21, responded, trying to convey the urgency. “We think that they might have inhaled carbon monoxide in the garage.”

At any other time, Negussie would have driven the 24 miles from his home in Pearland, Texas, to his cousins’ southwest Houston neighborhood. But local government officials had urged Texans not to travel the ice-coated roads on this frigid Feb. 15 evening, concerned that they would endanger themselves and first responders.

So Negussie and his parents put their faith in the emergency responders who had arrived at their cousins’ home. As the fire crew waited for more information about why the family was not answering the door, the captain at the dispatch center asked Negussie what made him believe his relatives had inhaled carbon monoxide.

The power was out, Negussie explained. Their car, he had learned from someone who had spoken with the family earlier in the day, was running in the attached garage so they could charge their phones.

“All right, well, we have units out there. I’ll let them know. I’ll make a tactical decision on that incident, and I’ll get HPD out there,” the captain said, referring to the Houston Police Department, which often assists when emergency responders must force entry into a home.

“And you’ll keep us updated?” Negussie started to ask. The fire captain hung up before he could finish.

Less than five minutes later, the fire crew was gone

Texas Enabled the Worst Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Catastrophe in Recent U.S. History

Leland Foster for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune/NBC

HOUSTON — When Shalemu Bekele awoke on the morning of Feb. 15, the town house he shared with his wife and two children was so cold, his fingers felt numb.

After bundling up in extra layers, Bekele looked out a frosted window: A winter storm had swept across Texas, knocking out power to millions of homes, including his own, and blanketing Houston in a thin layer of icy snow.

“It was beautiful,” Bekele, 51, recalled thinking as he headed outside to snap photos of his two children, ages 7 and 8, playing in their first snow. After a few minutes, he sent them back inside to warm up under blankets as he cleared ice off his car, unsure if he would be expected to drive into work.

Bekele’s wife, Etenesh Mersha, 46, meanwhile, made a fateful decision, one repeated by scores of Texas residents who lost electricity that week. Desperate to warm up, she went into their attached garage and turned the key to start her car. As the engine hummed, it provided power to run the car’s heater and charge her phone while she talked to a friend in Colorado — at the same time, filling her garage and home with a poisonous gas.

There was no carbon monoxide alarm in place to warn the family of the invisible danger. None was required under local or state law.

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Texans Recovering From COVID-19 Needed Oxygen. Then the Power Went Out.

After three days with little power, no heat and inadequate oxygen that left him gasping for air, Mauricio Marin told his wife, “Honey, at least I’m going to die with you and my kids and not alone at the hospital.” Credit:Brandon Thibodeaux for NBC News

HOUSTON — Mauricio Marin felt his heart tighten when the power flicked off at his Richmond, Texas, home on the evening of Feb. 14, shutting down his plug-in breathing machine. Gasping, he rushed to connect himself to one of the portable oxygen tanks his doctors had sent home with him weeks earlier to help his lungs recover after his three-week stay in a COVID-19 intensive care unit.

Between the two portable tanks, he calculated, he had six hours of air.

Marin, 44, and his wife had heard there might be brief, rolling power outages — 45 minutes or an hour, at most — as a massive winter storm swept across Texas last month, overwhelming the state’s electric grid. After more than two hours without electricity, he started to worry.

Marin tried to slow his breathing, hoping to ration his limited oxygen supply as he lay awake all night, watching the needle on each tank’s gauge slowly turn toward zero. The next morning, his wife, Daysi, made frantic calls to the power company and Marin’s doctor’s office, but nobody was answering in the midst of the storm.

For the next two days, Marin struggled for air and shivered under a pile of blankets. On the morning of Feb. 17, as they were still without power, his wife begged him to return to the hospital. But they feared driving on icy roads, and by then neither of them could get a consistent signal to call for help, as the widespread outages had knocked cellphone towers offline. And Marin didn’t want to go. He was terrified by the prospect of another hospital stay without visitors.

Marin’s skin was slowly turning purple, and he began to cry.

“Honey,” he later remembered telling his wife, straining with each word, “at least I’m going to die with you and my kids and not alone at the hospital.”

Marin said his life was spared when a neighbor showed up at the door with an oxygen tank a few hours later, sustaining him until the power returned. But he said his doctors fear that the weeklong ordeal inflicted additional damage on his lungs and jeopardized his already tenuous recovery.

Medical experts say Marin is part of a particularly vulnerable group who suffered significant hardships and potentially lasting harm as a result of the outages: those recovering at home from COVID-19.

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The Trump Administration Keeps Awarding Border Wall Contracts but Doesn’t Own the Land to Build On

Recent construction of the border wall near La Grulla, Texas, on Dec. 17. (Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica)

LA GRULLA, Texas — The federal government said it needed Ociel Mendoza’s land on the outskirts of this tiny Texas town — and it couldn’t wait any longer.

Each additional day of delay was costing the government $15,000 as contractors waited to begin construction on the border fence slated to go through Mendoza’s ranch, the Department of Justice argued in court filings. By Nov. 24, the tab for the delay had reached nearly $1.6 million, the land acquisition manager for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in an affidavit.

More than a year earlier, CBP had awarded a contract then worth $33 million to a New Mexico-based company to build 4 miles of fencing in Starr County. The county is one of the top targets of President Donald Trump’s administration for a border wall and a place agents have called the most volatile stretch in the nation. Construction was slated to begin in November 2019, the agency announced.

There was one problem: The government had awarded the contract before obtaining the land it needed, including Mendoza’s. This September, after more than a year without getting that land, CBP had to suspend the contract to Southwest Valley Constructors, accruing “substantial” charges along the way, according to court documents.

An investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune has found that the government’s strategy of awarding contracts before acquiring titles to the land in Texas has led to millions of dollars in costs for delays, according to calculations based on statements made by CBP officials in court filings. On at least two dozen occasions, the agency has used the argument, often successfully, to convince even dubious federal judges to immediately seize land from property owners fighting their eminent domain cases.

The situation could become even more complicated if President-elect Joe Biden makes good on his promise to stop border wall construction.

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Records show Trump’s border wall is costing taxpayers billions more than initial contracts

A border wall construction site near Donna, Texas, on Dec. 8, 2019. (Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters)

On the same day in May 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a pair of contracts worth $788 million to replace 83 miles of fence along the southwest border.

The projects were slated to be completed in January 2020, the Corps said then. Four months into this year, however, the government increased the value of the contracts by more than $1 billion, without the benefit of competitive bidding designed to keep costs low to taxpayers.

Within a year of the initial award, the value of the two contracts had more than tripled, to over $3 billion, even though the length of the fence the companies were building had only grown by 62%, to 135 miles. The money is coming from military counter-narcotics funding.

Those contract spikes were dramatic, but not isolated. A ProPublica/Texas Tribune review of federal spending data shows more than 200 contract modifications, at times awarded within just weeks or months after the original contracts, have increased the cost of the border wall project by billions of dollars since late 2017. This is particularly true this year, in the run-up to next week’s election. The cost of supplemental agreements and change orders alone — at least $2.9 billion — represents about a quarter of all the money awarded and more than what Congress originally appropriated for wall construction in each of the last three years.

President Donald Trump made construction of the border wall a signature issue during his 2016 campaign, claiming that his skills as a builder and businessman would allow his administration to build the wall in a more cost-efficient way than his predecessors. “You know the wall is almost finished,” he told a crowd of supporters in Arizona recently, and they weren’t paying a “damn cent” for the border wall. It was “compliments of the federal government.”

Yet an accounting of border wall contracts awarded during his presidency shows that his administration has failed to protect taxpayer interests or contain costs and stifled competition among would-be builders, experts say. In all, Trump’s wall costs about five times more per mile than fencing built under the Bush and Obama administrations.

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