EMS union prez describes harrowing week during storm

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In response to a newsletter from earlier this week, in which I referenced the blasé attitude expressed by some about last week’s disaster, Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, sent me an email detailing her experience as a medic during the storm.

Here are her words, verbatim:

Early Monday, power shut down for many Austinites. I jumped on an ambulance to start responding to emergency calls at around noon. While our shift started at 10 am, the ambulance had been t-boned by a vehicle that lost control. We had heard of crews holding over for over 4 hours working over 28 hours straight, with no rest.

Our first 911 call was someone who lost power. He was reliant on his oxygen concentrator to live. His oxygen levels started dropping without it. Our ambulance got stuck going up a hill that had snow deceptively covering ice. After two hours, one of ATCEMS’s 4x4s was able to extract us. By the time we reached the patient, his oxygen levels were half of what is normal. As we rode into the hospital, I tried every form of oxygen, trying to get his levels up to a place that would be safe (or safe for intubation if necessary).

Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie.

Our second patient was a bone cancer patient who couldn’t get his pain meds refilled due to the road conditions and he was in agonizing pain. Our third patient was on hospice and expected to die in a few days at home comfortably surrounded by loved ones. When his oxygen that was making him comfortable went out, he started making awful grunting sounds. It is not acceptable to die like that, in agony. We had no other options at the time than to take the person to the hospital to keep him comfortable, but not before we let his wife cry against his chest for 5 minutes, which was all we felt comfortable sparing at the time.

Then we ran an overdose, a young woman who was brought to her limit living in her freezing vehicle that had run out of gas. Then in the evening, the carbon monoxide calls started coming in. People choosing between freezing and burning furniture to keep their families warm causing carbon monoxide poisoning.

As the next days approached, we would see our infrastructure fall like dominos – a freeze meant no power. No power meant no water, no gas, no power or water meant different type of medical emergencies to follow. Our methadone clinics and dialysis clinics closed which meant people dying or critically ill while needing dialysis. Someone asked me for help to get dialysis and the response from the hospitals was, unless you’re close to dying, you’re not eligible for dialysis.

After my shift, I slept for the whole day. On Wednesday I started thinking about how to make sure EMS crews got food (many were stranded at work or asked to work 24 on 24 off).

While getting food to crews, I got a phone call. The person’s cousin had died and 911 said there were no resources to take the body away. He didn’t know what to do. I told him his options were to wait or put the body in his vehicle and drive it to a funeral home if it was safe. I cried in my car for an hour after that. I told someone to load their loved one’s body in a car and take it to a funeral home. And honestly, that wasn’t the best advice but that was the best I could do and I couldn’t believe those words came out of my mouth in this city, in this country.

It was only Wednesday, and we would continue to see people resort to illicit drugs to stave off withdrawals from methadone clinics closing, people dying from electrolyte imbalances from lack of dialysis, our only Level 2 trauma hospital evacuating patients and closing the doors to EMS, our only Level 1 hospital almost on the same verge. It was and continues to be a humanitarian crisis and it is horrifying that there exists so much privilege that people can be blind to it.

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What about next time?

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Well, that was something, wasn’t it? The gorgeous weather this weekend was surreal. Had the frigid chaos of the previous week just been a bad dream? I was certainly tempted to think so as I sipped a margarita in a friend’s yard yesterday afternoon.

Unfortunately, there remains plenty of evidence that it was not merely a dream. Empty grocery shelves. Broken water pipes. Dead bodies.

One reader who emailed me about the issue described the power and water outages as a “minor inconvenience” for most Texans. While he conceded that some had genuinely suffered, he described the outrage expressed by the rest of us as “too much whining.” After all, he pointed out, there are millions if not billions around the world who endure similar deprivation on a daily basis.

One part of that is obviously true. Hopefully experiencing that level of hardship will raise people’s awareness of the suffering that exists around the world, including in our own neighborhoods. And hopefully that awareness will inspire greater compassion. Just think: even when there aren’t extreme weather events, there are still people sleeping outdoors when it’s either far below or far above a reasonable indoor temperature. And there are families sleeping in cars or in homes where the power and water has been cut off because they can’t pay their bills.

As I saw one person aptly comment: After last week, how could it possibly be controversial for the city to provide housing to people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets?

But back to the “whining”: it was very much justified. And it should continue unabated until the state of Texas does what it needs to do to make sure this never happens again.

What happened last week is not what is supposed to occur in a developed country, let alone the richest country on Earth. Guaranteeing electricity and clean water are two of the most basic expectations people of all political stripes have of their government.

Unless state government makes changes, there is good reason to believe the next crisis will be worse. Officials at ERCOT say that we were within minutes of a complete grid collapse.

Just ponder that for a moment. Power would have gone out everywhere, including hospitals, police and fire stations, the warming centers where people were seeking refuge. Experts predict it would take weeks, perhaps months, to get the grid running again. Everything we depend on — food, water, telecommunications, gas — would suddenly disappear or become extremely scarce. During that time, Texas would become a giant refugee camp, likely prompting an unprecedented federal mobilization — FEMA, the National Guard, perhaps other branches of the military — to prevent starvation and chaos.

Apologists for the status quo — Rick Perry comes to mind — dismiss last week’s disaster as a fluke. It was a once-in-a-century storm, for God’s sake. What is a few days without power every 100 years?

There are two big problems with this logic. The first is that due to climate change, extreme weather events are going to become more frequent. The second is that, again, there’s no reason to assume the next time won’t be worse and the consequences of a grid collapse are so great that it warrants sacrifice in the good times — potentially in the form of higher electricity prices — to prevent it from occurring. Whatever good comes from the current system (and it’s not even that good) is a pretty weak justification for the misery inflicted upon millions last week, let alone the prospect of a grid collapse that could easily result in tens of thousands of deaths.

I will end this on a slightly more optimistic note. As shameful and embarrassing as it was that Greg Abbott’s initial response to the crisis was to go on Hannity to bash the Green New Deal — a bill that has zero chance of passing in the foreseeable future – it’s encouraging that he has since pivoted to requiring utilities to winterize. The cheap ideology that state leaders have used to paper over their other derelictions of duty — their refusal to expand Medicaid, for instance — isn’t going to work this time. This time, it wasn’t just poor people getting screwed. Even their campaign donors were freezing.

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A super-cheap way to improve transit

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Last week the Austin Transportation Dept announced plans to put in place “interim” transit priority lanes on a two-mile stretch of E. Riverside, between Summit St & Grove Blvd:

These aren’t full-fledged dedicated lanes, but rather painted lanes, similar to what exists currently on sections of Guad & Lavaca downtown, that are supposed to be reserved for buses and bikes. Cars should only enter to make right turns.

From ATD:

East Riverside Drive is a major transit corridor for Capital Metro, and the nine bus routes that will operate in these transit priority lanes carry almost 20% of Capital Metro’s riders. During pre-COVID normal traffic periods, the thousands of Austin residents on board these routes experienced persistent delays during peak hours while traveling to work, school, and other destinations…

…The installation of transit priority lanes on this corridor, we estimate the potential for transit travel time savings of up to 5.5 minutes during peak periods compared to pre-COVID travel times. General purpose traffic may see an increase in travel time during peak periods, but these impacts are anticipated to be minimal.

5.5 mins is huge! This is long overdue and hopefully indicates an appetite at City Hall for similar changes on other major transit corridors. One obvious example is the Drag, which is where the 803 and 801 MetroRapid buses end up getting stuck during rush-hour, resulting in major delays and “bunching,” where buses that are supposed to be 10 minutes apart end up right behind one another.

Unlike the ones on Guad & Lavaca, these lanes won’t be red. That’s because they’re “interim” and the red paint is apparently expensive. At least the good stuff is. When Cap Metro tried to use the cheap stuff it quickly faded to Aggie maroon. Sad. The project will cost an estimated $100k, ATD tells me.

This is only an “interim” project because E. Riverside will eventually be home to the Blue Line, one of Project Connect’s two light rail lines. There may still be a good argument for keeping bus priority lanes, but a big chunk of today’s bus riders will be on the train.

These types of projects are the result of an interlocal agreement between Cap Metro and the city. Cap Metro pays to build it and the city is responsible for maintaining it. The city owns the road, so it’s up to the city whether to allocate a portion of it to transit. Usually these decisions can be made administratively by city staff, but obviously City Council can intervene if it chooses.

If the city is serious about achieving the goals outlined in all of its lofty plans, such as reducing the percentage of commuters in single-occupancy vehicles to 50% by 2039, it needs to get much more aggressive in reallocating right-of-way from cars to other modes: transit, bikes, pedestrians.

Austin voters have made clear, through Prop A & Prop B, that they’re willing to pay for alternatives to cars. Those major investments are necessary, but there are also ways to significantly enhance transit service (thus making it more popular) at a fraction of the cost. All you have to do is take a little bit of space away from cars.

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Trying (and failing) to make sense of the death of Alexander Gonzales

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On Jan. 14 the Austin Police Dept submitted the “custodial death report” to the Texas Attorney General’s office about the death on Jan. 5 of Alexander Gonzales, who was killed after a bizarre, late-night confrontation with an off-duty officer.

Understandably, much of the scrutiny of this case by the media and activists has focused on the on-duty officer who showed up after the initial confrontation and fired the fatal shots. But I think it’s equally important to scrutinize the story told by the off-duty officer who admits to firing on Gonzales’ car –– apparently wounding Gonzales and his girlfriend –– before calling 911. There are many parts of the story that are hard to believe and there is one potentially significant difference between APD’s initial report and the one that it submitted to the AG yesterday.

Both the initial report and yesterday’s report say the unidentified off-duty officer was “driving in a neighborhood” and “noticed there was a car behind him” after turning onto the 2500 block of Wickersham Ln, where he was driving southbound. It doesn’t say what street he was turning from. That probably means he was turning off E. Oltorf:

Next, it says this:

“This car cut the officer off and once it pulled up along side his vehicle, the officer saw the driver point a gun at him. The officer fired at the suspect, and the vehicle continued to travel a short distance southbound on Wickersham Lane where it finally stopped against the curb. The officer stopped behind the suspect’s vehicle and called 911 to advise of the situation.”

Time out. He “cut the officer off”? Usually that expression refers to someone switching lanes in front of you. Wickersham has no marked lanes. Here’s what the street looks like:

Next, it says this:

“This car cut the officer off and once it pulled up along side his vehicle, the officer saw the driver point a gun at him. The officer fired at the suspect, and the vehicle continued to travel a short distance southbound on Wickersham Lane where it finally stopped against the curb. The officer stopped behind the suspect’s vehicle and called 911 to advise of the situation.”

Time out. He “cut the officer off”? Usually that expression refers to someone switching lanes in front of you. Wickersham has no marked lanes. Here’s what the street looks like:

If Gonzales did try to cut in front of the officer, it would almost certainly mean that he drove into the left side of the street to pass the officer on his left.

That means that if Gonzales, who was driving, was pointing a gun at the officer, he was pointing it over his girlfriend, who was in the passenger seat, and threatening to fire through the passenger window.

In the report submitted to the AG’s office, there is no longer any talk of “cutting off.” This time, it just says this:

“This car pulled up alongside his vehicle, the officer saw the driver point a gun at him.”

It’s important to note that this is taking place at 12:30 a.m. There are street lights on Wickersham; I don’t know how easy it would have been in that environment to discern a driver in another vehicle pointing a gun. It doesn’t state whether Gonzales was pointing through an open window.

Both reports follow with this description of what follows:

“The officer fired at the suspect, and the vehicle continued to travel a short distance southbound on Wickersham Lane where it finally stopped against the curb. The officer stopped behind the suspect’s vehicle and called 911 to advise of the situation.”

Neither report describes how the officer fired. Was he firing into Gonzales’ car when it was next to him? Or was he firing through the back of the car after it had pulled in front of him?

Another unanswered question: how long was Gonzales alongside the officer’s car? And how did the officer so quickly pull out his own gun and fire? Did he pull it out of a holster? The glove box?

Finally we get to the issue of motive. Why prompted Gonzales to point a gun at the off-duty officer with his girlfriend and child in the car? This was initially framed as a road rage incident, but nothing in either report hints at what might have provoked the rage. The only way I can understand the actions attributed to Gonzales is if he was having a severe mental health crisis, such as a schizophrenic episode. That’s certainly possible.

Another possible theory is that Gonzales knew who was driving the car and was intentionally threatening or attempting to kill the off-duty officer. Or that he mistook the off-duty officer for someone else who he wanted to threaten or kill. Both are possible.

If the incident actually took place the way it is presented in the reports, then there is substantial context missing for no good reason.

I am awaiting a response from APD about whether the off-duty officer was tested for drugs or alcohol after the incident. That’s one of many questions APD must answer about this story. Others include:

Did the off-duty officer know Gonzales, either personally or through prior interactions as an officer?

Where was the officer coming from that night? Was he coming from a restaurant or bar where he may have been drinking and if so, do credit card records indicate whether he had recently purchased drinks?

There is reason to believe that answers will emerge to these questions more quickly than in past officer-involved shootings. Travis County’s new district attorney, Jose Garza, has made it a priority to investigate police shootings — including the deaths of Mike Ramos and Javier Rambler — and both Gonzales’ parents and his girlfriend are being represented by experienced local attorneys.

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