“Predicting Hurricane Harvey’s wrath, and investigating its aftermath”

The Texas Tribune 
August 30, 2017


In late August, a ferocious category 4 hurricane bore down on the Texas coast. Harvey was the biggest storm to strike the state since the 1960s, and it spawned the heaviest single rain event in U.S. history — right on top of the nation’s fourth-largest city, Houston.

The Texas Tribune and ProPublica came to Harvey with an almost unbelievable edge over other publications. A few months earlier, our reporters had effectively predicted the storm: We published an incredibly innovative 2016 investigation, one part focused on the Houston area’s vulnerability to a major hurricane storm surge, and the other on how the city’s unchecked development had made it more susceptible to catastrophic flooding.

When our storm simulations turned tragic reality, we sent our expert reporters into the belly of the beast. They were there before Harvey made landfall and have stayed with the story ever since, producing more than 150 stories, data visualizations, podcasts and video packages.

And we used our initial investigative projects as a launching pad for fresh investigative work after the floodwaters subsided, including:

• How Houston-area leaders allowed developers to build 14,000 homes inside two reservoirs’ flood pools
• Why government buyouts aren’t likely to happen for residents living in reservoir pools and other flood-prone areas
• Why the Houston suburb of Cypress has become a sitting duck for flooding
• How local environmentalists did what the EPA wouldn’t: measure Harvey-related air pollution
• Why Houston’s housing authority evicted a building full of senior citizens without having alternative housing for them
• How Harvey’s floodwaters were pushing two local dams beyond their designed function
• Why Texas leaders still haven’t spent $500 million in federal aid from Hurricane Ike — nearly a decade after the storm

At great — and unexpected — expense, the Austin-based Tribune embedded a reporter in Houston for more than three months to cover all aspects of Harvey’s aftermath, and regularly sent several other staff members across coastal Texas to write in-depth stories about the slow pace of debris removal and the deepening plight of displaced families. We remain on the ground there today, even as many of our own relatives in Houston are still digging out.

Along the way, we’ve confronted local officials about their culpability in decisions — and lack of action — that made flooding worse and put people in harm’s way. We’ve caught them in contradictions and exposed their doubletalk around climate science. And we’ve explained to our audience what should have been done years or even decades ago to better protect coastal Texans.

This determination and approach has made us the go-to source nationally for news and investigations around Hurricane Harvey; we’ve partnered with everyone from ProPublica to The Daily Beast to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. But our regional impact has been even more widely felt; our coverage has routinely led the local nightly news and populated countless front pages of dozens of Texas newspapers — many of them in heavily battered communities on the coast.

The Tribune and ProPublica’s Harvey coverage hasn’t stopped at the newsroom. It has been a staff-wide initiative:

Our audience team used social media and engagement tools like Hearken to connect our journalists with Harvey victims — and to help victims find the relief they needed. One of our most-read stories was a frequently updated post providing resources to help.

Our multimedia journalists produced slideshows, videos and interactive maps showing the extent of Harvey’s damage and the challenges of ensuing recovery efforts. And our data visuals team compiled records on federal, state and charitable relief money and launched a regular feature tallying the pledged aid and how much had been spent.

Our events staff held live, in-person recovery forums on the ground in Houston and along the Texas coast to put elected officials on the spot with their constituents, events that were attended by hundreds of local residents.

Even our business team got in on the action, aggressively pursuing grants, housing and travel expenses so we could keep our journalists safe and sound — and on the ground — for months at a time.

We think The Texas Tribune and ProPublica’s continuing coverage of Hurricane Harvey — from near-prescient investigations to public-serving breaking news to watchdogging the storm’s aftermath — is a prime example of how newsrooms should operate in the midst of a local, and national, crisis. We hope you do too.

To watch an interview with The Texas Tribune’s Neena Satija, click here.

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Submitted by Emily Ramshaw.

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