His Private Border Wall Enraged Neighbors. Then He Got $2B To Build Walls For Trump The privately built border wall in Texas teeters on the banks of the Rio Grande with serious erosion problems. The contractor was awarded more than $2 billion in official wall contracts.

His Private Border Wall Enraged Neighbors. Then He Got $2B To Build Walls For Trump

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A border wall built in Texas by a private citizen, a citizen who supports Trump and says he wants to keep out trouble from Mexico, has created its own set of troubles. Engineers warn the structure will wash away in a flood. Neighbors want it dismantled. The builder is embroiled in lawsuits. And now, as NPR's John Burnett reports, that citizen has landed more than $2 billion in contracts to build Trump's official wall.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It sits like a white elephant on the sandy banks of the Rio Grande, baking in the South Texas sun. That a North Dakota contractor and Trump favorite named Tommy Fisher could erect an iron barrier 18-feet high and three-miles long on the river as his personal project has dumbfounded locals.

ROY SNIPES: I didn't know you could disrespect the river bank like that.

BURNETT: Father Roy Snipes is an oblate priest who celebrates mass at a historic mission church not far from the private wall.

SNIPES: I thought if you tried to do something like that, the Texas Rangers or the Texas Parks and Wildlife would come in here and say, hell, you can't do that. You don't own the river. But evidently - well, and I think the judge pretty much told them, you do own the river. You're rich and powerful. You can do whatever the hell you damn well please. And they did. They sure did (laughter).

BURNETT: A federal judge did allow Fisher to finish his border wall, despite grave reservations from the International Boundary and Water Commission. The problem is the private wall is right next to the winding river, not on top of the levee outside of the flood plain where the Trump administration is building its own controversial barrier. Ron Vitello is a retired chief of the Border Patrol who oversaw some of that construction.

RON VITELLO: This thing that the Fisher group did - I mean, it's way too close to the water. And it's in an area we would never be allowed to build at the federal government level.

BURNETT: And now there's the whiff of scandal. In August, federal prosecutors charged former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and three others with defrauding donors out of millions of dollars. The money was supposed to go toward constructing private border walls like Fisher's. Instead, the indictment alleges, it funded lavish lifestyles. The defendants say they're innocent, and Fisher is not charged. Very little of the donated money actually went to his wall. He paid for most of the $40 million cost himself.

The big question now is, what happens the next time the Rio Grande has a big flood? Marianna Trevino-Wright, who runs the nearby National Butterfly Center, is also suing Fisher.

MARIANNA TREVINO-WRIGHT: The experts and the scientists, even the IBWC, attest to the fact that in a flood event, that fence will block and clog. It will cause a redirection of water flow and ultimately result in damage to property adjacent and upstream.

BURNETT: Wright, as well as the IBWC and its Mexican counterpart, are alarmed that the bollard wall is a potential obstruction that could deflect floodwaters or even get pushed over by the force of the water. Over the summer, heavy rains revealed just how precarious the wall is. Water erosion scoured deep trenches underneath the foundation. Wright's lawyer, Javier Pena, describes what they found during an inspection of the wall after the rains passed.

JAVIER PENA: People could actually fit and just crawl under the foundation of the wall, and it's months old. And this thing was supposed to last a hundred years, and it can't even last a year.

BURNETT: Fisher says he built the wall as a demonstration project to show the government he could do it faster, cheaper and better than federal contractors. It worked. Fisher, who promoted himself on Fox News, has so far received four wall construction contracts from the Homeland Security Department valued at $2.25 billion. Democrats in Congress suspect favoritism, and now the Pentagon inspector general is auditing a $400 million contract to his company, Fisher Sand & Gravel.


BURNETT: These days, Fisher is busy in Arizona with his mega-contracts building the official border wall, but he did return to Texas to answer complaints about his prototype wall.

TOMMY FISHER: No matter what we do, if there's a huge storm, there's erosion. And we have the ability to fix that here, and then we have the ability to make it stronger, or it happens a lot less.

BURNETT: Fisher says the fixes are simple - fill in the eroded gullies with more dirt, pile gravel on and seed the area with grass. That, he claims, will stand up to Mother Nature.

FISHER: We're built structurally strong that we can handle whatever, you know - pretty much whatever God throws at us.

BURNETT: Experts remain deeply dubious. A forensic report prepared by engineers hired by the Butterfly Center warns the private wall is in danger of toppling over due to a poor foundation and continuing erosion. Jude Benavides, a professor of hydrology at the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, has studied Rio Grande flooding. He says it looks deceptively placid, but it can become fierce, as in El Rio Bravo, the Mexican name for the river.

JUDE BENAVIDES: And so to build right not only in the floodplain but essentially in the floodway, it's going to have repercussions when it decides to wake up and rage again.

BURNETT: But for critics, the greatest puzzlement about the private wall is its pointlessness. Trump's massive border barrier that's under construction just a mile north utterly negates the need for Tommy Fisher's riverside wall.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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