By Paula Hendrickson
The Weather Channel, which has long run documentaries and reality shows when there’s no breaking weather news, is entering uncharted territory with The Real Death Valley, a new documentary airing Tuesday, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m. Central.
Instead of focusing on a weather event, this special shows the role weather — in this case, extreme heat — has played in the deaths of hundreds of undocumented immigrants in just one Texas county.
“The Weather Films section of the Weather Channel is fairly new, and innovative, and they’re looking for projects that most other people wouldn’t consider,” said John Carols Frey, the Emmy-winning investigative journalist the Weather Channel approached about the project. “They asked me, ‘Is there anything you have or are working on that is A) weather related, and B) deals with the subject matter of immigration?’”
Frey had already done preliminary work on what he calls “the Brooks County phenomenon,” — hundreds of heat-related deaths per year in remote areas of the county, with most of the dead believed to be undocumented migrants or political refugees.
“It appears to me, having worked on this subject matter for a while, that there’s a crisis going on there,” Frey said. “Any time you come up with 100-plus bodies in a fairly small geographical region year after year, there’s a serious issue. The problem I saw most vividly is that there’s not much of an emergency response. I’d imagine in Illinois if 100 people died in one county because of the heat, the following year there would be cooling stations and water fountains, or places where people could get ample water. I’m not sure exactly what most local governments would do to ameliorate the problem, but it would seem to me that most counties or municipalities would deal with it in an emergency-type fashion.”
(As Chicago did after more than 700 people died of heat-related causes during a five-day heat wave in 1995.)
With just four sheriff’s deputies on rotating shifts, Brooks County doesn’t have the manpower to respond to this many emergency situations. Because it’s not on the U.S.-Mexico border, the county doesn’t receive federal funds for immigration-related services, so the Border Patrol has assumed the responsibility of being first responders. “They said to me specifically, and I think it’s in the piece, that they’re not concerned about a person’s immigrations status [during an emergency situation],” Frey said. “They respond as if it’s an emergency for a U.S. citizen, then deal with the person’s immigration status after they’ve gotten them medically stabilized.”
Yet, Frey uncovered 9-1-1 response times of nearly two-and-a-half hours.
The Real Death Valley tracks the story of two Central American brothers fleeing for their lives — and as such, are legally considered refugees — only to be separated from their group and left to live or die.
In one segment, Frey and a colleague hiked the same four-day, 40-mile trek that’s killed so many people. “Take the hottest day of the year. Strap on a 45-pound backpack, and be fully clothed because you’re going to go through brush and thorns, then crank the humidity up to about 100 percent and walk 40 miles in sand. That’s what it is,” Frey said. “And it doesn’t cool off at night, so there’s no relief. You cannot carry enough water. You cannot carry enough provisions.”
The Real Death Valley is about more than extreme heat and immigration policies. It documents the “perfect storm” when those things collide with geography, bureaucracy and desperation.
Frey said he’s pleased the Weather Channel commissioned the program, but acknowledges, “I know they’re up against a lot of possible controversy and backlash — and also trying to get people to watch an hour of television that’s painful,” he said. “It’s a risk. We’re so used to being entertained by television, but this one makes you think.”
Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Nov. 5-11, 2014, issue