By Chris Adams
Just because the water is gone doesn’t mean the flood is over.
In fact, for three journalists who have reported and edited stories on the biggest floods and hurricanes of recent decades, the stories lasted for years – and covered the range of human drama and political infighting.
In a National Press Foundation video, the three journalists talked about their experiences covering storms.
Wendy Benjaminson, managing editor for government and politics at USA Today, worked as an editor for The Associated Press and Houston Chronicle in Texas during several storms. That included Tropical Storm Allison, a 2001 storm that inundated Houston in much the way Hurricane Harvey did in 2017, and Hurricanes Katrina (2005), Rita (2005) and Ike (2008).
Jonathan Salant, Washington correspondent for NJ Advance Media/The Star-Ledger, has spent the last few years covering the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of New Jersey and New York in 2012.
And Bryn Stole, Washington correspondent for The Advocate of Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Acadiana, was in the water covering the major Baton Rouge floods of 2016.
The journalists talked about concrete tips for covering the three major phases of a hurricane or flooding event: the storm itself, the immediate clean-up, and the recovery efforts. They spoke on a day Hurricane Irma was on track to slam Florida.
For the storm itself, the first command is safety – reporters should always make sure they aren’t putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of a story. (As a longtime Miami Herald editor, Martin Merzer, wrote in a memo posted by the Poynter Institute: “Don’t stand in standing water. Let the other idiots get electrocuted — we don’t need them anyway. You, we can’t replace because we’re in a hiring freeze.”)
Benjaminson talked about tips for reporters. Remember that the flood waters are likely a cesspool of hazards, filled with gas and oil, fire ants and snakes, as well as sewage. Before the storm, get cash from the ATM, which will likely be out after the storm. Bring sunblock, insect repellant, nutrition bars, water, and all the supplies you’ll need to make it through days of coverage. Stole, who slept in his car during the Baton Rouge flooding, reminded journalists to bring plastic sealable bags to keep notebooks and phones dry.
The clean-up can take weeks or months; Stole said people are still mucking their houses a year after the Baton Rouge floods ended. Those stories are about the rebuilding process, and what happens when people try to negotiate the red tape of getting recovering money from insurers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other government entities. Readers and viewers often need simple guides to understand how those programs work – and how the requirements of one agency can often trip up those of another.
It’s there that the story moves to Washington, where politicians begin to haggle over how much to spend on hurricane relief and how that money gets spent. Salant discussed the politics of disaster relief that can often pit one region of the country against another. And he shared tips for tracking the dollars once they are appropriated.
In the years since Sandy, for example, he has written several stories about FEMA mishandling relief money; those stories often arose from reports by FEMA’s inspector general.