These journalists forecasted catastrophe in Houston. Now, they're reporting on its aftermath

When reporters for The Texas Tribune caught up with her for a story last year, Houston resident Virginia Hammond had already been through three floods.

This weekend, as Hurricane Harvey dumped catastrophic amounts of rain on Houston, Hammond didn't wait to watch her home get flooded again. She got out.

"She’s already evacuated," said Neena Satija, an investigative reporter for The Texas Tribune and Reveal. "She didn’t want what happened to her last time to happen again."

For Satija and her reporting partner, Kiah Collier, disastrous flooding in Houston is a familiar story. They got a thorough education in the subject while reporting "Boomtown, Floodtown," a 2016 story published in collaboration with ProPublica featuring interviews with weary Houston residents like Hammond.

The story, which showed that rapid development has made Houston vulnerable to flooding caused by rainstorms, seems oddly prescient in light of the chaos caused by Hurricane Harvey over the weekend. One professor interviewed for the story called residents of one Houston subdivision "sitting ducks." Now, as floodwaters ravage the city and stranded residents await rescue from the rooftops of water-logged homes, it's clear he was right.

But neither Satija nor Collier take satisfaction in nailing a story that foreshadowed disaster. Both are driving around the besieged city in a Nissan Titan this weekend surveying the flooding and catching up with the sources for their original story.

"Because we’ve written about the city’s vulnerability to exactly this kind of event, we’re here to provide context for people," she said. "We’re here to let them know that this may be unprecedented, but Houston officials knew this was going to happen."

Satija and Collier's "Boomtown, Floodtown" which was published in December, was part of a series of stories about Houston's vulnerability to natural disaster. "Hell and High Water," another partnership with ProPublica, was published in March 2016 and forecasted dire consequences for Houston if the city faced a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane. Fortunately, Hurricane Harvey was only a Category 4 storm when it hit Texas' East Coast, and it landed near the city of Corpus Christi some 200 miles away.

The city was spared the worst. But as Satija surveyed the flooding Sunday morning, she was reminded that it's not a matter of if such a storm occurs, but when.

"Public officials acknowledge that type of story will happen someday, and we are not prepared," she said on the phone from her hotel room in downtown Houston.

As Columbia Journalism Review noted on Friday, "Boomtown, Floodtown" didn't trigger any major reforms. The series earned Peabody and Edward R. Murrow awards. Sen. John Cornyn filed legislation to fast-track a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study to determine how to protect Houston from hurricanes. President Obama signed a version of that bill into law. But it was mostly talk, said Ayan Mittra, the editor of The Texas Tribune.

“We know from feedback that we got from sources that we talked to that it spurred a lot of conversation,” Mittra said. “Unfortunately, because of Harvey, there’s going to be a lot more talk and hopefully some concrete action.”

In the coming weeks and months, The Texas Tribune will examine Harvey's impact on Houston with an eye toward holding local officials accountable, Mittra said. Satija and Collier won't be competing with Houston journalists breaking news — they're not equipped for that, and The Texas Tribune doesn't replicate reporting from other news organizations. Instead, they'll be looking at the data, talking to sources and figuring out follow-up stories.

"This is a problem that’s not going away anytime soon, so we feel a responsibility to keep reporting on it," Mittra said.

As Satija and Collier interviewed sources Sunday, they had to skirt high standing water and tune out the incessant buzzing from their phones signaling flash flood warnings ("They've become meaningless at this point"). They consulted with the Army Corps of Engineers and tried to avoid becoming casualties of the very disaster they predicted.

But as rain continued to hammer Houston and engineers released small amounts water from the region's two major reservoirs, it was clear that the danger hadn't yet passed. Satija and Collier aren't leaving. They may still be covering the story months from now, after the water has dried.

"We’ve booked our hotel until Tuesday," Satija said. "We’ll probably have to extend it."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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