Looking back at some of The Texas Tribune’s best reads of 2022

A view of the U.S. and Texas flags flown on the south side of the Texas Capitol from the Capitol Dome in Austin on Aug. 12, 2021. (Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune, Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune)

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The news was relentless again in 2022: a horrific school shooting, major statewide elections, a crisis at the border and the repeal of abortion rights. But we at The Texas Tribune are proud that our journalists found the time to dig up stories that stood out from the news cycles — stories that held the powerful accountable, shed light on the experiences of everyday Texans or taught us more about our neighbors.

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Here are some of the stories we’re proudest of that we hope you’ll read as a the year comes to an end.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Trump’s man in Texas, has quietly amassed influence — to the detriment of fellow Republicans by Patrick Svitek and James Barragán

He might be Texas’ second-highest-ranking official, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wields power like none other. This story is filled with revelations about how he uses the structure of state government and his relationship with former President Donald Trump to grow his influence.

At an event for a congressional candidate last October, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called Rick Perry “one of my best friends in life” and said the two “talk all the time about politics.”

The former governor gushed, “Put me in a foxhole with him any day.”

But earlier that year, the tone of their conversations was more serious. Patrick encouraged Perry, Texas’ governor from 2000 to 2015, to make a comeback and run again, according to multiple people who had direct knowledge of the conversations, even though fellow Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was already campaigning for election to a third term.

In Texas, where money has long dominated politics, Greg Abbott is in a league of his own by Patrick Svitek, Carla Astudillo, Zach Despart and Kate McGee

Greg Abbott ran as a small-government conservative. But the governor’s office now has more power than ever. By Perla Trevizo and Marilyn W. Thompson

Greg Abbott, meanwhile, has used his fundraising prowess and his lawyerly approach to governing to transform the governor’s office in Texas.

The governor used the pandemic to block judges from ordering the release of some prisoners who couldn’t post cash bail and unilaterally defunded the legislative branch because lawmakers had failed to approve some of his top priorities. He also used his disaster authority to push Texas further than any other state on immigration and was the first to send thousands of immigrants by bus to Democratic strongholds.

“If there’s kids in there, we need to go in”: Officers in Uvalde were ready with guns, shields and tools — but not clear orders by Terri Langford

Records reveal medical response further delayed care for Uvalde shooting victims by Zach Despart, Lomi Kriel, Alejandro Serrano, Joyce Sohyun Lee, Arelis R. Hernández, Sarah Cahlan, Imogen Piper and Uriel J. García

Using unreleased records and never-before-seen footage from the hallway of Uvalde’s Robb Elementary, we reported in new detail the halting police response to the deadliest school shooting in Texas history. The story showed how police had equipment to breach the classroom where the shooter holed up for more than an hour, but they didn’t engage — even as children were dying inside. Months later, we used records we obtained to highlight how the failures continued after the standoff ended as first responders tried desperately to provide medical care to the wounded.

The disjointed medical response frustrated medics while delaying efforts to get ambulances, air transport and other emergency services to victims. Medical helicopters with critical supplies of blood tried to land at the school, but an unidentified fire department official told them to wait at an airport 3 miles away. Dozens of parked police vehicles blocked the paths of ambulances trying to reach victims.

Multiple cameras worn by officers and one on the dashboard of a police car showed just two ambulances positioned outside the school when the shooter was killed. That was not nearly enough for the 10 or more gunshot victims then still alive, though additional ambulances began arriving 10 minutes later. Six students, including one who was seriously wounded, were taken to a hospital in a school bus with no trained medics on board, according to Texas EMS records.

Graduation in Uvalde gives tragedy-stricken town a night of normality by Ariana Perez-Castells and Kylie Cooper

We also sought to portray the pain and resiliency of a community in grieving. One month after the shooting, the seniors at Uvalde High School held their graduation. They called the 19 children who had died honorary members of the Class of 2022.

As the sun set and the lights clicked on to illuminate the football field, each senior’s name boomed over the loudspeakers. They filed onto the stage one by one to receive their diplomas. The ceremony closed with the farewell address by senior Lynd Danielle C. Diongzon, who began crying in the middle of her speech and continued to weep through the rest of it — a moment of release.

“We came in fall of 2018, as young freshmen, scared we would walk into the wrong class,” she started as she choked up. “We will never forget those who should be with us today. ... The class of 2022 sends our love, thoughts and prayers to everyone who may have been affected by the incident that happened exactly one month ago today. Our class also asks for change, change that would prevent any other tragedy whether it is at a school, grocery store or concert.”

How Texas’ abortion laws turned a heartbreaking fetal diagnosis into a cross-country journey by Eleanor Klibanoff

When the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Texas and other states to ban abortion, women began leaving the state to get the procedure. Lauren Hall’s baby had a condition her doctors told her was “incompatible with life,” so she flew to Seattle.

The protesters outside a Seattle-area abortion clinic waved pictures of bloody fetuses, shouting that she was a “baby killer” and begging her to choose life.

Lauren Hall, 27, fought the urge to scream back and tell them just how badly she wished life was a choice she could have made.

With Roe v. Wade on the line, some Texans look south of the border for abortion drugs by Eleanor Klibanoff, Mitchell Ferman and Uriel García

Volunteer networks in Mexico aid at-home abortions without involving doctors or clinics. They’re coming to Texas. by Alexa Ura and Greta Díaz González Vázquez

Other women traveled to Mexico, where abortion-inducing drugs are more easily obtained and there are already networks designed to help people subvert abortion bans.

Maria laid the pregnancy test facedown on the counter in her boyfriend’s bathroom in McAllen and set a timer for the longest three minutes of her life.

She watched the timer tick down, mentally running through her litany of reassurances: They’d used a condom; she’d taken the Plan B pill; maybe her missed period was just an anomaly.

“I was just praying, please don’t let this be the case,” she said. “I had no idea how I’d navigate the situation. But what can I do but flip this test over?”

It was positive.

“It’s destroying me”: Storm after storm, climate change increases strain on Texans’ mental health by Erin Douglas

When Dana Jones’ house was flooded during Hurricane Harvey, it was the first of four major storms that damaged the building. Each one compounded her trauma.

“It’s destroying me,” she says, to live in a wrongly contorted house, a house that she believes is going to flood again. She gives a few quick low exhales, a tactic she uses to try to stop herself from hyperventilating. She doesn’t know what the next storm will be named, only that it’s coming.

It’s not just the floor. The wood siding is deteriorating and has dark water stains from the floods. The mold is back — she thinks it reemerged in the walls after Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019, but she didn’t find it until her pipes burst during Winter Storm Uri in 2021. She tries to keep it at bay with bleach.

An Afghan soldier fleeing the Taliban spent months reaching the U.S. to request asylum. He was arrested at the Texas border. by Allison P. Erickson

Abdul Wasi Safi, a former officer in Afghanistan’s special forces, was arrested at the U.S. southern border after fleeing the Taliban. His story takes place at the intersection of two American failures: the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the nation’s immigration system.

On that August day in Kabul, Wasi wasn’t able to come close to the U.S. military plane — which prioritized U.S. military and civilians — because Hamid Karzai International Airport was packed with thousands trying desperately to catch the flight.

He went to the airport for days trying to get in — showing his military documents to the guards — but was turned away because he didn’t have the proper pass.

Wasi said he was 50 meters away when a suicide bomber associated with ISIS-K — an Islamic State affiliate — detonated at one of the gates on Aug. 26, killing 13 U.S. service members and 60 Afghans.

Even after that, he kept going back. But he was turned away and watched from outside the airport as the final military U.S. flight took off.

Twice accused of sexual assault, he was let go by Army commanders. He attacked again. by Vianna Davila, Lexi Churchill and Ren Larson

A ProPublica and Texas Tribune investigation into how commanders in the Army, the nation’s largest military branch, use pretrial confinement revealed a system that treats soldiers unevenly and draws little outside scrutiny.

When Alvarado was done with his written admission, the military investigator walked back in the room. He asked Alvarado why he continued to have sex with the woman after she passed out. “I was in the moment,” the 20-year-old soldier replied.

The investigator then asked Alvarado about another allegation against him. An Army chaplain’s assistant had accused him of sexually assaulting her in May 2020 after a house party. Sex with her was “wrong due to how intoxicated she was,” Alvarado said, but he would not agree to a sworn statement about the second allegation because it would just be “icing on the cake.”

Alvarado told the investigator that he’d had sex with 42 women in the past four years, about a quarter of whom were intoxicated at the time. His sexual experiences had become boring and they blurred together, he said, to the point that he struggled to remember specific details about his partners.

At the end of the daylong interrogation, Alvarado’s commanders didn’t place him in detention or under any restrictions beyond the orders he had already received to stay at least 100 feet away from the two women who had accused him of assault, according to records. He was free to leave.

A month later, he sexually assaulted another woman.

Pay raises alone won’t solve staffing shortages in “nightmare” Texas youth prisons, ex-workers say by Jolie McCullough

Texas’ Juvenile Justice Department has been in crisis this year. The experience of some of its low-paid employees highlights why.

As blood began seeping through her pants, Tiffany Jones helplessly watched the clock. She was the lone adult in a Texas juvenile prison dorm watching a dozen teenage boys, and her increasingly desperate radio calls for a bathroom break went unanswered.

Jones wasn’t supposed to be alone with the boys out of their cells in the first place on that August day, but chronic short-staffing at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department often forced this federal standard to be overlooked.

When she felt her period begin at around 9:30 a.m., she requested that someone stand in for her for a few minutes. When the clock neared 1 p.m. and she still hadn’t been relieved to go to the bathroom, it wasn’t a colleague who rescued her but the young detainees.

Either annoyed by their supervisor’s repeated radio calls, sympathetic to her growing distress or both, she said the boys volunteered to be locked in their cramped cells without supervision so Jones could run out and clean herself up as much as possible.

What brought down one Texas county’s entire elections department? It was something in the water. by Natalia Contreras

Aggrieved anti-fluoride activists, low pay and an understaffed office eventually drove away all of Gillespie County’s election staff.

“F—king Anissa! Go back to Mexico bitch! You are obstructing the election process and will be prosecuted!” wrote one emailer, the day after the KXAN segment aired. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The same week, a woman who said she was from California emailed Herrera, linking to the piece. “BITCH !! YOU GOT CAUGHT IN A LIE,” she wrote. “LEARN TO OBEY STATE AND FEDERAL LAW … OR GO TO JAIL!” Days later, the woman emailed again. “WE JUST TURNED YOUR NAME IN TO THE LT. GOVERNOR’S OFFICE FOR INVESTIGATION,” she wrote. The day before, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had offered a cash bounty for proof of voter fraud.

“AND BY THE WAY … YOU’RE IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA NOW. TRY TO REMEMBER THAT … OK?” she concluded. The emailer did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

“I guess I will be receiving these daily,” Herrera wrote, forwarding the woman’s complaints to county leadership. “Any idea who I report them to?”

A boil-water notice in Houston made national news. In rural Texas, it’s a way of life. by Pooja Salhotra and Jayme Lozano

Rural communities face compounding reasons they can’t improve their water infrastructure, including inflation and a lack of human resources.

On the same day that 2 million residents in the nation’s fourth-most-populous city faced a boil-water notice that garnered national attention, a water system near this tiny East Texas town issued similar warnings to customers, marking the 68th boil-water notice issued this calendar year.

And while Houstonians responded to the news by scrambling to stock up on bottled water, customers of the Consolidated Water Supply Corp. proceeded as usual.

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