August 29, 2018

A year after a once-in-a-century storm, Houston ‘is not significantly better prepared’ for another one

Just last week, a colleague told Nancy Barnes, editor of the Houston Chronicle, that her home repairs were finally done from Hurricane Harvey. This week is the anniversary, and the memory of Harvey's immense damage has played a big role in Congressional races and prompted Houston voters to pass a flood-control bond issue.

I asked Barnes a few questions on lessons learned from the mega-storm. One headline: "We really learned, as a newsroom, how to be all-in on our digital platforms."

Q. At one point did you think Harvey would be different — or worse — than what you and the staff had planned for?

On Saturday, Aug. 26, we thought we had avoided the worst of the hurricane, which came ashore near Rockport, miles from Houston. Meteorologists weren’t clear where the accompanying bands of rain were headed, but even into Saturday evening, we thought we would escape a disaster. That changed within hours. By early Sunday morning, Harvey had shifted and was stalled over Houston. The bayous were already overflowing, homes were flooding, people were in need of rescue, and a catastrophic event was unfolding. It’s still hard to comprehend the scope of the disaster. We have been covering the aftermath all year, in addition to anniversary coverage over the last week or so, which you can find here.

Q. Did you learn any workflow tricks or had staff surprises with the coverage?

We assigned both a digital lead and a print lead for each shift. The digital lead’s job was to work with producers to keep the primary web stories updated relentlessly with feeds from the staff.

This was staffed round-the-clock for the first week. The print lead was assigned to gather all the feeds into a coherent story later in the day. This was really critical to serving all of our platforms. In addition, since so many staffers couldn’t make it in, we needed to organize ourselves to take their feeds remotely from all across the metro region. (Related: How The Chronicle is covering a historic disaster)

Q. Was your home affected?

No. Luckily, my home was not affected, but several members of the staff were flooded. I just had an editor tell me yesterday, a year later, that her repairs were finally complete. (Related: Then-and-now photos of Harvey's damage)

Q. What lessons did Houston learn from Harvey? Or didn't learn?

Houston learned how many one-off development decisions (and a willingness to look the other way) added up to crippling impediments to flood control. We had homes built in reservoir flood pools! We learned how out-of-date much of our knowledge was about flood maps and flood zones. We learned how FEMA actually enables people to repeatedly rebuild in flood zones. In some cases, however, real estate vultures are buying up flooded homes, and flipping them, and another generation of homeowners are moving in, destined to learn similarly tough lessons down the road.

Rescuers pluck people from waters
Hilell Tayer and Alex Gonik try to beat the current pushing them down an overflowing bayou in Houston on August 27, 2017. (Photo: Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle)

Q. To what degree is Houston prepared now for rain like Harvey or a higher category hurricane?

We are not significantly better prepared for a flood like Harvey in my view, although an enormous amount of energy and money is being spent to make us more resilient. The county just passed a $2.5 billion bond, which will fund myriad projects to mitigate future flooding, and there will be federal matching grants, as well. Here’s a cool interactive our team created to help residents understand what work will be funded in their neighborhood.

Q. What lessons did The Chronicle learn from Harvey?

We really learned, as a newsroom, how to be all-in on our digital platforms. We also learned how critical basic information was to our readers especially during a time like this, even more so than traditional coverage. Some of the content that did the best in terms of digital traffic, for example, were interactive maps showing which roads were safe to drive on, what grocery stores were open, how to get emergency medical help, basic utility information.

Q. To what degree is the newsroom prepared for something like this again?

You are never, ready, of course. But we built instincts and reflexes that would help us know, more immediately, how to set up the newsroom, deploy resources, secure the supplies we needed to run for a week with every major store closed, and major roads impassable.

Quick hits

THE NEW FUNNEL: The website can lead readers to your newsletters. And your newsletters can lead them to membership or subscriptions. Those are the basics behind one company's strategy, Shan Wang writes in one of her final features for Nieman Lab. 

THE AP AND BLOCKCHAIN: The Associated Press and the journalism blockchain startup Civil announced that they’ll work together on a technology that will let Civil newsrooms track the flow of their content and enforce licensing rights, Digiday’s Lucia Moses reports. The AP also will license its content to the 14-newsroom Civil network, which includes Block Club Chicago, The Colorado Sun, ZigZag and the investigative site Sludge.

IN RELATED NEWS: Quartz is launching its first paid newsletter, focusing on cryptocurrency, The Wall Street Journal's Ben Mullin reports. “Despite surging interest in them, cryptocurrencies remain opaque to most potential investors,” says Quartz co-president and editor-in-chief Kevin J. Delaney. “It’s surprisingly difficult to find clear and useful information on the web.”

THE POWER OF JOURNALISM: He had a heart attack. He went to a Texas hospital. A Kaiser Health News and NPR story on the plight of a 44-year-old teacher, who said “they’re going to give me another heart attack stressing over this bill,” led to a major markdown in what he owed — from $108,951 to $782.

COURAGE IN EDITORIAL CARTOONING: Pedro X. Molina has won this annual award for his work on repression and killings in Nicaragua. The award is given by the Cartoon Rights Network International. Here's a terrific profile of Molina from Danielle Renwick for Roads & Kingdoms. (h/t Anup Kaphle)

RECIPE: How to build a Nothingburger, step by step. By Ann Telnaes. (h/t Rick Edmonds)


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