August 27, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

While Hurricane Laura was still 200 miles offshore, the National Hurricane Center warned that the storm carries a surge that the NHC said is “unsurvivable.” The Hurricane Center is not known for overstatements.

As the sun rises on Thursday, we realize the size of the relief effort that America will have to launch while managing wildfires in California, a pandemic that keeps us separated and rising racial tensions that will not be ignored.

Compassion fatigue is not a luxury we can afford.

Only yesterday, the humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corp sent me an email that said, “Yesterday in Afghanistan, flash floods killed over 100 people and destroyed hundreds of homes. Ongoing monsoons and landslides in India and Nepal have displaced millions. In Kenya, severe drought is disrupting food supplies.” In normal circumstances, images on the evening news and photos on social media of any of these emergencies would be enough to stir an outpouring. But now we are consumed by dueling emergencies coming from every direction.

That phrase, “compassion fatigue,” is a real thing. It is a set of symptoms, not a physical condition. People who train caregivers about compassion fatigue describe circumstances exactly like what journalists experience:

Unlike burnout, which is defined as workload stress, compassion fatigue is secondary stress from exposure to suffering, and it is unique to caring professions. If not addressed, compassion fatigue can lead to burnout.

FOX34 in Lubbock, Texas, talked with health care workers who said all of the overwhelming public support that labeled them “heroes” a couple of months ago is waning. It is as if the public, now consumed with sending kids back to school and trying to get back to a work routine, has moved on.

WTVF in Nashville recently explored how health care workers can become numb to the suffering of others. As I read the story, it occurred to me that maybe we all should pay attention:

Health care workers around the United States are treating COVID-19 for the sixth month straight.

Dr. Chelsia Harris, the executive director of Lipscomb University’s School of Nursing, teaches about the side effects of prolonged exposure to difficult situations.

“There is a devoted time that we spend on compassion fatigue and burnout,” Harris said. “A lot of times we tell ourselves that couldn’t happen to me, or I could never become fatigued of my compassion, that’s why I do what I do, or that’s how I got into this.”

Harris explained it is fairly common for hospital workers to experience a form of compassion fatigue. She defines it as the physical, emotional and spiritual result of chronic self-sacrifice or elongated exposure to tough situations that result in a person being unable to love, nurture, care for or empathize with another person’s suffering.

“It’s when you give and give of yourself until hypothetically there is nothing left to give,” she said.

One of my concerns is that journalists will experience compassion fatigue, if you are not already. It will be especially harmful when you no longer feel the range of human emotions that you would normally experience while covering tragedy and injustice. Like emergency room doctors, journalists operate with a layer of calloused protection to get the job done, but the danger is the callouses prevent you from feeling what ordinary people feel. It can make you insensitive to others, and conversely, you might underestimate your own stress level because you come in such regular contact with those who you think “have it worse.”

Compassion fatigue is made worse when we think we can’t do anything to help the situation. Clinical studies have found the best defense is to witness the good work that comes from relief work.

I urge you, in the days to come, to tone down your adjectives and let the facts speak for themselves. You won’t need to remind us that Hurricane Laura was deadly, devastating and horrific. A million scorched acres in California do not need hyperventilated descriptions.

In short, you journalists can play a part in keeping your viewers/readers/listeners involved in relief efforts by showing how the help that comes in both big and small ways matters. Don’t just focus on the devastation — and there will be a lot of devastation — but also focus on how people respond in the worse circumstances to help each other.

Reporting those very stories may be what you need to keep going, too.

RELATED TRAINING: Reporting in the Age of Social Justice

Charities are poorly positioned to respond to multiple emergencies

At just the time when relief charities are needed most to respond to Hurricane Laura’s devastation and give aid to people evacuating the path of wildfires, charities that are not related to COVID-19 or racial justice are struggling and may not be in a position to robustly respond to today’s unfolding emergencies.

“More than half of charitable organizations in the United States are expecting to raise less money in 2020 than they did in 2019, and an equal percentage believe the same will occur in 2021,” according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Coronavirus Response Survey. (They also have survey data for Canada here.)

That survey picked up on the compassion fatigue theme I mentioned. Charities say their best defense against compassion fatigue is personal contact with givers, something that is not possible right now.

“The coronavirus will significantly affect fundraising efforts for my organization, and most likely, we will miss our 2020 fundraising goal by tens of thousands of dollars,” said one respondent. Another reported that “Some giving will be up — individual donors, foundations, major gifts — and some down dramatically, like corporations and memberships. We are getting solid support right now, but fear donor fatigue will set in if we can’t reopen and engage with donors and visitors soon.”

Charities largely stopped fundraising during the early days of the pandemic so as not to appear tone-deaf to widespread job losses and COVID-19 fears. Some charities furloughed workers because social distancing kept them from delivering the services they were designed to deliver. They cannot use typical fundraising methods like charity balls or auctions to replenish their bank accounts.

Churches, which are the cornerstone of disaster relief, have largely been meeting virtually since March. Church income is way down, partly because attendance is closely linked to giving and partly because of the economic disruptions from the pandemic.

Recent surveys that try to forecast what is ahead for important autumn giving campaigns show that the biggest donors are still fairly confident they will give at least as much this year as last year, but they will closely focus on local charities. The Chronicle of Philanthropy said:

Among donors who gave less than $2,500 in 2019, 64% said they plan to give at least the same amount as in 2019, 11% said they expect to give more, and 25% less.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy explained that racial justice charities and COVID-19 related efforts including food banks have seen a rise in donor interest. But outside of that, it has been a tough year, and that foretells a big struggle for the groups that will be needed to clean up after the hurricane and fires:

Some social-service groups, racial justice organizations, and health charities have been able to raise a lot of money because of external factors like the pandemic, the economic downturn, and the charged atmosphere surrounding race. Others, like museums, performing arts organizations, and religious groups, have struggled because people cannot visit or attend performances or services. Then there are colleges and universities, whose reductions in enrollment have put more pressure on philanthropy at a time when donor interest is being pulled in directions that may feel more urgent.

The last quarter of the calendar isn’t the be-all and end-all for every charity, Javier says, but for human-service organizations and food banks, “the year end is typically huge.”

And, the Chronicle of Philanthropy said, some charities are increasingly concerned that their fall and winter mailings will be delayed in post offices that are awash in election ballots:

While direct-mail appeals are generally less tied to news events than digital appeals and as a result less time-sensitive, warnings that mail-in ballots might overwhelm the postal service this fall are complicating fundraisers’ plans. Some charities have seen delays in mail delivery and worry their investment in postal appeals won’t pay off.

Ronni Strongin is concerned. As chief marketing officer for American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which raises money for the Israeli university, she cites delays delivering three recent mailings to supporters. One, which included an annual report, was sent to 2,500 donors almost five weeks ago. Some people received it, but many still haven’t, she says.

Understanding surge

I find that even here in Florida, where I live, an awful lot of people do not understand storm surge. It is not just a crashing wave action; it is an actual rise in water levels.

Storm surge is caused by the wind and pressure “pushing” water onto the shore, often resulting in high waves and flooding.

As the National Hurricane Center pointed out, it is not just the intensity of a storm that determines how big the surge will be. Another factor is the slope of the earth below the water.

A shallow slope will potentially produce a greater storm surge than a steep shelf. For example, a Category 4 storm hitting the Louisiana coastline, which has a very wide and shallow continental shelf, may produce a 20-foot storm surge, while the same hurricane in a place like Miami Beach, Florida, where the continental shelf drops off very quickly, might see an 8 or 9-foot surge.

The surge causes so much damage partly because it allows waves to hit objects that are farther inland. Remember, water is really heavy — 1,700 pounds per cubic yard. Waves demolish stuff inland that may be able to withstand wind but have no chance of holding up to the weight and force of moving water. And because that water is moving, the currents also cause damage to whatever they come in contact with.

The National Weather Service produced what it calls SLOSH estimates, which are essentially forecasts of how big a surge might be. You can place those estimates on a map, and when you do, you see that the surge may reach miles inland Thursday.

(From The National Weather Service)

As the surge makes its way into other waterways, we will see record floods.  This is one of the last warnings from the Lake Charles Weather office before they evacuated it for higher ground:

Let me take you back through the last two decades — including Katrina, which landed 15 years ago this weekend — to show you the damages from storm surge in each.

Ike 2008 (SLOSH Historical Run)
Hurricane Ike made landfall near the north end of Galveston Island as a Category 2 hurricane. Storm surges of 15 to 20 feet above normal tide levels occurred along the Bolivar Peninsula of Texas and in much of the Galveston Bay area. Property damage from Ike is estimated at $24.9 billion. More.

Katrina 2005 (SLOSH Historical Run)
Katrina was one of the most devastating hurricanes in the history of the United States. It produced catastrophic damage — estimated at $75 billion in the New Orleans area and along the Mississippi coast — and is the costliest U.S. hurricane on record. Storm surge flooding of 25 to 28 feet above normal tide levels was associated with Katrina. More.

Dennis 2005 (SLOSH Historical Run)
Dennis affected much of Florida, and its effects extended well inland over portions of the southeastern United States with the maximum amount of rainfall of 12.80 inches occurring near Camden, Alabama. Storm surge flooding of 7 to 9 ft produced considerable storm surge-related damage near St. Marks, Florida, well to the east of the landfall location. The damage associated with Dennis in the United States is estimated at $2.23 billion. More.

Isabel 2003 (SLOSH Historical Run)
Isabel was the worst hurricane to affect the Chesapeake Bay region since 1933. Storm surge values of more than 8 feet flooded rivers that flowed into the bay across Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. Isabel was the most intense hurricane of the 2003 season and directly resulted in 17 deaths and more than $3 billion in damages. More.

We saw these storms and fires coming. More will follow.

This is not an “I told you so,” but instead a question: “Where is the tipping point?” Hurricane Laura is fueled by superheated ocean waters and the California fires are the product of shifting weather patterns — all closely linked to climate change. There, I said the phrase rarely mentioned in these two weeks of national political conventions, a phrase that newscasts and magazines splashed across headlines and candidates talked about nonstop only a matter of months ago.

As NatGeo explained:

Studies have shown that sea surface temperatures around the world are increasing on average, as a result of oceans absorbing about 90% of the excess heat created by greenhouse gas emissions.

In an average year, around 12 named storms form — with anything from a tropical storm to a full-fledged hurricane earning an official moniker. This year, forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict that anywhere from 13 to 19 large storms could spin up, with as many as six becoming major hurricanes.

Scientific American explained the climate change connection to the wildfires:

The racing flames show how climate change is affecting the nation’s most populous state, experts said. Hotter temperatures, less dependable precipitation and snowpack that melts sooner lead to drier soil and parched vegetation. Climate change also affects how much moisture is in the air.

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change) said:

Climate change causes forest fuels (the organic matter that burns and spreads wildfire) to be more dry, and has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western United States.

Research shows that changes in climate that create warmer, drier conditions, increased drought, and a longer fire season are boosting these increases in wildfire risk. For much of the U.S. West, projections show that an average annual 1 degree C temperature increase would increase the median burned area per year as much as 600% in some types of forests. In the Southeastern United States modeling suggests increased fire risk and a longer fire season, with at least a 30% increase from 2011 in the area burned by lightning-ignited wildfire by 2060.

Will Hurricane Laura affect oil prices?

It will all depend on how Gulf oil rigs fared. We will know more about this today or tomorrow.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said “personnel have been evacuated from a total of 299 production platforms, 46.5% of the 643 manned platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Production platforms are the structures located offshore from which oil and natural gas are produced. Unlike drilling rigs, which typically move from location to location, production facilities remain in the same location throughout a project’s duration.”

The bureau said most of the oil and gas production in the region has been “shut-in,” which means the operations are closed off below the water’s surface to prevent oil or gas leaks during a storm. The agency updates production reports at 1 p.m. Central Time every day after a storm.

The Gulf is vital to America’s energy supply. MarketWatch explained:

Over 45% of total U.S. petroleum refining capacity is located along the Gulf Coast, according to the Energy Information Administration. Reuters reported Tuesday that refiners that produce gasoline and diesel fuel planned to halt nine facilities that process almost 2.9 million barrels a day of oil, or 14.6% of U.S. total capacity.

The country’s crude oil supplies are pretty high right now. But if the storm causes significant damage to pumping or pipelines in the Gulf, it could be a big problem.

The times in which we live

The National Weather Service office in Lake Charles, Louisiana, completed a final briefing about the disaster ahead.

(Screengrab from @NWSLakeCharles)

Then, as Hurricane Laura approached, the Lake Charles NWS meteorologists rolled down the office’s steel storm door and evacuated.

(Twitter photo by @RobMarciano, ABC GMA meteorologist)

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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