The Houston Chronicle covered Hurricane Harvey on adrenaline and instinct, mobilizing every journalist in its newsroom when record-breaking rains swamped the nation’s fourth largest city. The paper’s reporters, photographers, digital producers and editors helped Houstonians cope and, in some cases, survive.
But it was only after the flood waters receded that the Chronicle met its greatest test as a news organization. Readers wanted to know why the flooding had been so catastrophic, and what could be done to fortify the city’s defenses. To find answers, the Chronicle created a six-member investigative team that began work a week after the hurricane.
The reporters, on loan from various departments, were called on to share ideas, sources, documents and data. The result of that collaboration was “Developing Storm,” a seven-part series that gave readers the first comprehensive explanation for why Harvey wreaked such havoc on Houston.
No city could have survived 51 inches of rain undamaged. But in “Developing Storm,” the Chronicle explained how government action – and inaction – over many years had magnified the hurricane’s devastating effects. In short, the series explained, Harvey was both a natural and a manmade disaster.
“Developing Storm” showed how the National Flood Insurance Program, designed to reduce financial losses from natural disasters and discourage construction in flood zones, has had the opposite effect. With taxpayer-backed insurance to make good their losses, developers have built heavily in floodplains. Special interests in Washington – home builders, mortgage lenders, real estate agents and more – have repeatedly squashed efforts in Congress to fix the problem.
The series also showed that Houston has permitted extensive construction in floodways, the stream channels that lie in the heart of floodplains.
It showed how Houston developers and engineers who sat on public boards profited from development in flood-prone areas while keeping home buyers and the wider public in the dark about the dangers.
And it showed how the region’s elected leaders and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repeatedly ignored warnings that Addicks and Baker Dams in West Houston, the linchpin of the city’s flood control infrastructure, were overburdened and deteriorating. Again and again, public officials were confronted with evidence of the problem, and with options for addressing it. Again and again, they decided to do nothing. As a result, the Army Corps – in order to avoid a breach of either or both dams during Harvey – had to open their gates and release huge quantities of water into an already flooded city, wrecking thousands of additional homes.
The seven stories of “Developing Storm” provide a penetrating explanation for why Houston’s floods have grown more frequent and damaging – along with a detailed roadmap for remedial measures. The series is a superb example of investigative journalism in the public interest. We are proud to submit it for the Headliners Showcase award.
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Submitted by Mizanur Rahman.