How we covered the biggest storylines of the year


American-Statesman editors and reporters have chosen these 10 the biggest storylines we covered this year. We asked reporters and editors closest to these stories to recount the stories and share some of their memories of covering the news that made 2017 so remarkable.

No. 1: Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast on Aug. 25, tearing apart idyllic beach towns like Port Aransas and Rockport and inundating large swaths of the country’s fourth-largest city.

Historic in strength and breadth of damage, Harvey’s rampage lasted five days. Winds topped 130 mph and parts of Houston received as much as 50 inches of rain. More than 80 people died from the storm, including six family members whose bodies were found in a van that had been swept into the rushing waters of a Harris County bayou. Two hundred thousand homes were damaged, including about 500 in La Grange after the Colorado River — bloated by heavy rainfall upstream — overflowed its banks.

The cost of Harvey’s damage statewide could be upwards of $200 billion.

Like many who watched from afar but have ties to the regions affected, I found it difficult to watch Houston, my hometown, and Beaumont, where I had landed my first reporting job, be battered by Harvey. The ceiling of my father’s home fell. My flooded high school was shuttered until further notice. Former co-workers were without running water.

returned to Beaumont to report on the damage a week after the storm. Familiar roads were still covered with water. Sleep-deprived first responders were still performing welfare checks while homeowners, drenched in sweat, combed through soaked belongings looking for anything salvageable.

One of them was 55-year-old Betty Martin, a math teacher from Mauriceville, a small town about 15 miles west of the Texas-Louisiana border. Taking a break from tearing out soaked wallboards from her home, she recounted how, as floodwaters rose rapidly, everyday people with boats descended on her small town, which prides itself on having one traffic light, to save people trapped in their homes.

It restores your faith in humanity, she said.

— Julie Chang

No. 2: Sutherland Springs church shooting

On Nov. 5, what would become the deadliest shooting in Texas history unfolded at a small country church – far out of the shadows of a major city.

Devin Patrick Kelley, a former member of the Air Force who authorities later said should have been prohibited from purchasing guns, opened fire at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, killing 26 people.

The shooting came as the nation was still recovering from a mass shooting at a concert in Las Vegas. The shooting at a small church in a small Texas town reverberated through the nation as well. This time, the victims included the 14-year-old daughter of the church’s pastor and eight members spanning three generations of a single family.

I was among the first reporters on the scene that Sunday, just hours after the attack as family members were showing up to try to learn the fate of their loved ones. By the next morning, the worldwide media had shown up and overtaken the town.

Covering Sutherland Springs was particularly haunting to me. I grew up in rural Mississippi in a town not unlike this community touched by violence. I spent every Sunday in a church similar to the one where 26 people died. In my mind, I could picture joyful churchgoers excited to see each other for Sunday fellowship, listening intently to the preacher, happy as they sang hymns — only to have that replaced by the sound of rapid gunfire.

— Tony Plohetski

No. 3: “Sanctuary cities” law, ICE raids, DACA

Fear, shock and sadness ran through the Central Texas immigrant community shortly after Inauguration Day. In early February, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 51 Austin-area residents suspected of living in the country illegally. Panic hit and community organizers found themselves making grocery runs for unauthorized immigrant families afraid to leave their homes, ensuring children had necessities such as diapers and milk.

Carmen Zuvieta, a volunteer with the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, described the time during ICE’s Operation Crosscheck as “madness.” Zuvieta answered endless calls and texts from distressed families. “My cellphone is working at 100 percent and my body at zero,” she told me at the time.

But the immigration backlash didn’t end there. Gov. Greg Abbott made banning “sanctuary cities” an emergency item for the Legislature, partly in response to newly elected Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s policy to end blanket cooperation with ICE agents at the county’s jail. When Abbott signed the new law in May, local advocacy groups pushed back with a summer of resistance that included joining lawsuits, launching know-your-rights training sessions and organizing protests, rallies and marches.

On Sept. 5, the Trump administration announced it was ending Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama administration-era program that allowed eligible young unauthorized immigrants to obtain a work permit and protection from deportation. President Donald Trump gave Congress a mid-March deadline to come up with a legislative replacement for it. In the meantime, DACA advocates are urging Congress to push for the DREAM Act, which could create a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.

— Nancy Flores

No. 4: Bathroom bills fail in Legislature

No issue dominated the 2017 Legislature like transgender bathroom limits, producing all-night hearings, almost-weekly rallies and a public spat between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus that required a special session to resolve.

On one side were social and religious conservatives who said transgender Texans must be limited to public bathrooms and locker rooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates as a matter of safety and privacy.

Opposition came from business — including Fortune 500 companies, global investors and top tech firms — as well as entertainers, religious leaders, pro sports officials, tourism officials, civil rights leaders and gay rights activists.

But some of the most poignant voices came from the parents of transgender children who said the proposed bills would single out their offspring, making make them even more susceptible to bullying, assault and self-harm. Their parental instincts aroused, they attacked the bills with passion, fear and anger.

It was 2 a.m. when Frank Gonzales of Dallas approached the microphone during an April hearing before the House State Affairs Committee. He explained that Libby, his 7-year-old transgender child who was draped over his shoulder, had wanted to testify but was too tired. So Gonzales spoke in her place.

“My daughter fits a segment of the population that is at high risk of being highly discriminated against. She’s a transgender girl of color,” he said. “If this bill were to be made law, my family would become a target for hate groups and lawful discrimination. Protecting a marginalized group of people does not take away from anyone, nor does it give any preferences to these at-risk populations. It keeps communities safe.”

Bills limiting transgender bathrooms failed, but advocates say they’re prepared to try again when the Legislature returns in 2019.

— Chuck Lindell

No. 5: Dawnna Dukes returns to the Legislature, wins dismissal of charges

She faced jail time, endured whispers of drug abuse and was roasted for not showing up to work enough, for not paying election fees on time, for misrepresenting her impact in the Legislature and for falling delinquent on attorney payments because she spent $51,000 on a psychic. Yet state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, always seemed to project confidence in 2017.

What would have been an embarrassing year for most was a success for Dukes, the resolute House District 46 representative who was indicted on charges of forging records to collect a $61 per diem from the state. She was more than two hours late when she stepped into a courtroom this summer, professed her “unequivocal” innocence to corruption charges, and looked like the smartest person at the Capitol a few months later when prosecutors had to fold their case because their star witness insisted there was no problem with her paperwork.

No, Dukes did not go to jail in 2017. She did go to the Legislature, though not often enough to stop complaints from her critics about whether Dukes, who has represented East Austin for 12 terms, is fit for 13.

But there she was the other day, dressed sharply as always, smiling for a photo that appeared on Facebook, as she filed for re-election.

— Ryan Autullo

No. 6: Amazon buys Austin-based Whole Foods

When a multibillion-dollar corporate merger between two of the country’s best-known brands is about to happen, the news usually leaks out ahead of time. But somehow, retail giant Amazon.com kept a lid on its plans to buy Austin-based Whole Foods Market.

So the news of the proposed $13.7 billion takeover of one of Austin’s most iconic companies exploded like a bomb in the Statesman’s newsroom early on the morning of June 16.

In the months since, Statesman reporters have written dozens of stories and hundreds of column inches about how the deal got done, what Austinites think about the sale, the potential long-term impact of the sale on the city — and on the grocery industry as a whole.

We’ve learned that at least one other company was competing against Amazon to take over Whole Foods. Securities filings identify the bidder only as “Company X,” but multiple media outlets have since reported that the competitor was the supermarket chain Albertsons LLC.

We’ve also learned that the deal was set in motion about six weeks before the bombshell announcement, during a meeting at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters between Amazon execs and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

Mackey later described the meeting as being set up on a “blind date” with the e-commerce giant — and then falling in love after conversing for hours.

During a meeting with Whole Foods employees, Mackey said that he’d had a dream that Whole Foods would merge with Amazon about 18 months before the deal happened.

“Today it’s coming true,” Mackey told his team. “So dreams are powerful things.”

—Barry Harrell

No. 7: Fatal stabbing on UT campus

On May 1, as students at the University of Texas studied for finals and prepared for the end of the semester, one of their peers pulled out a knife in a crowded area of campus and buried it in a man’s back.

I happened to be on campus that afternoon to cover a protest. I heard what sounded like a constant stream of emergency vehicles speeding around the area but couldn’t pinpoint exactly where they were going. My editor called me and said there had been a report of a stabbing, so I started running across campus.

As I approached Gregory Gym, waves of students went running past in a panic. I saw a man slumped over near a doorway, then another bleeding from the head.

The attacker, identified by police as 21-year-old Kendrex J. White, had killed one student and wounded three others before police stopped him, according to authorities.

Rachel Prichett was standing near the Chi’Lantro food truck by Gregory Gym when the attack happened.

Prichett told me she saw a man walking with what looked like a small machete, but she didn’t think much of it.

“At first I didn’t even think about it as an attack. I thought about it as a fake knife or whatever, and then he just grabbed this guy by the shoulder and stabbed him in the back with it. He was just walking around very calmly, like, with no major facial expression or running around,” Prichett said. “He was just walking around with a knife, so no one even noticed when he hit that first guy, I guess, because no one was screaming. Then everyone just screamed and ran away as fast as they could.”

The attack came during a year when lone wolf attacks on populated areas were common. No one knew what the attacker’s motivations were, or whether more violence was on the way.

He was indicted in July, but a trial date has not been set.

— Mark Wilson

No. 8: Uber and Lyft’s return to Austin

If at first you don’t succeed … go to the Legislature.

For about a year, Austin had a special status among sizable American cities: places where you could not catch a ride using Lyft or Uber. No doubt this meant some unhappy surprises for travelers arriving at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to see messages on their ride-hailing apps telling they were out of luck. But smaller companies rushed in or were created to fill a vacuum in Austin when both companies decided to turn off their apps here. After the companies had some early glitches, locals were getting around the city without the industry giants.

But that Austin-weird interregnum ended shortly after 10 a.m. May 29, when Gov. Abbott happily affixed his signature to House Bill 100 in a parking lot along South Congress Avenue, thereby abolishing municipal regulation of ride-hailing in Texas — meaning the 2015 Austin ordinance that had required ride-hailing drivers to clear a fingerprint-based criminal background check.

Uber and Lyft had found that Austin law so appalling that they spent more than $10 million of their money (well, mostly Uber’s) on a May 2016 referendum campaign to replace it. When that didn’t work – almost 56 percent of Austin voters rejected their do-it-yourself law – the companies spent at least an additional $1.2 million on a phalanx of lobbyists, who persuaded the Legislature that a “patchwork” of local ride-hailing laws was a policy pox.

Left in place, rather than all those local laws, is a silk glove regulatory scheme by the state that carries a very few requirements for the companies. Enforcement of what is in the law and the regulations approved this fall almost certainly will be feather light because the annual fee for each company — $10,500 initially, declining to $7,500 in subsequent years — will pay for just one new state employee and a part-timer for enforcement.

Compare that with what Austin alone was charging to oversee a half-dozen ride-hailing companies and thousands of drivers, based on a fee of 1 percent of revenue from Austin rides: About $600,000 a year.

— Ben Wear

No. 9: Greg Kelley is released from prison

The courtroom was packed. The Twitter followers hung on every word. The reporters jostled for interviews.

For three days in August, Central Texas was enthralled with the case of Greg Kelley, a 22-year-old former high school football star who had been convicted in 2014 of aggravated sexual assault of a child. After Kelley’s three years in prison, Williamson County District Attorney Sean Dick had named an alternative suspect in the case, suggesting that Kelley might be innocent.

So, Aug. 2-4, Kelley filed into the Williamson County Courthouse to argue that he was innocent or, at the very least, deserved a new trial.

The scene at the courthouse was controlled chaos.

Supporters arrived early to line up for a seat in in the courtroom. Reporters literally tripped over each other’s camera equipment while everyone took turns using the electrical outlets. The judge banned all courthouse interviews, a rule the media roundly ignored from day one. A documentary crew shadowed Kelley’s family and legal team.

Ultimately, state District Judge Donna King released Kelley on bond and later recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declare him innocent.

It was a scorching summer day when Kelley walked out of the Williamson County Jail. Sweat literally poured off onlookers, soaking through shirts and dripping onto the pavement. Reporters swarmed the free man, shoving microphones inches from his face. I stepped in a pile of fire ants.

Kelley’s story is nowhere near resolved, as the higher court is expected to make a decision next year.

— Andrea Ball

No. 10: Secretive search for Austin city manager search

Just when I thought Austin’s search for a new city manager couldn’t get wackier, I found myself leaping into my car to chase the City Council as it raced away in vans, trying to escape reporters during a public meeting.

The council voted in March to keep secret even the names of finalists for the city’s CEO position and refused my public information request this fall for candidate applications that are typically public by law. So fellow reporter Philip Jankowski and I staked out the interviews at the Austin-Bergstrom airport Hilton. Twitter users helped identify four of the five candidates on the first day of interviews as I tweeted their photos.

But on the second interview day, council members began the meeting and then jumped in vans headed to an undisclosed location, padlocking a gate to block Phil. I searched nearby and found they’d hidden behind federal security checkpoints at the airport.

The Statesman sued the city. And we persisted in reporting. I identified a fifth candidate. Phil found that city attorneys were not consulted over the location change, and that consultants had told candidates to dress in wigs to avoid us.

In Austin it is the city manager, not the mayor, who runs day-to-day operations at City Hall, overseeing all departments and $3.9 billion a year in taxpayer money. We will always fight for public’s right to vet that person.

Ultimately, council members changed course and released six finalists’ names. The public got to weigh in on the choice. And the council chose Spencer Cronk, city administrator in Minneapolis, who took media calls and didn’t mind being identified on Twitter.

— Elizabeth Findell



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