September 3, 2021

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 journalists are great at covering emergencies, we do not spend as much effort investigating floods, wildfires and massive power outages and what we should do to minimize the harm.

Will we rebuild homes that flooded? Will we replace snapped utility poles with infrastructure just as vulnerable? Or will we look at evidence that flood zones are expanding and storms are growing more severe and plan accordingly with stronger building codes and zoning laws?

A year ago, the First Street Foundation — a group of academics and experts based in New York City — warned that the current flood maps that cities depend on are badly outdated. The current maps show 8.7 million properties are at risk of a 100-year flood, which means those properties has a 1% chance of being flooded in any given year. But The First Street Foundation says the real number is 14.6 million properties. And researchers say climate change is increasing the number of buildings that will flood.

It probably does not surprise you that the areas hardest hit in the last week are the same ones that will be hit even harder in the next few decades.

(First Street Foundation)

First Street also says 4.3 million residential homes are at substantial flood risk and, if they enroll in the national program that insures against flood damage, the risk that they pose would significantly raise insurance rates for everyone. To create the map below, First Street used National Flood Insurance Program data to show which parts of the country are likely to subsidize more flood-prone areas. The redder the county on the map, the more that county collects from flood insurance compared to how much it contributes to the fund.

(First Street Foundation)

Federal law requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to review its flood maps at least once every five years and, if needed, update them.

Last month, floods killed 20 people in Waverly, Tennessee. The community flood map had not been updated since 2009. Remember, they are supposed to be updated every five years. As a result, The New York Times said, the FEMA maps around Waverly showed 781 properties in that county were at a risk from a so-called 100-year flood event. First Street said at least three times more properties were at risk.

A Times story looked back at the Waverly flood and found the town could have taken basic flood abatement steps that would have allowed locals to participate in the federal flood insurance program. But sometimes cities, towns and counties do not participate because doing so would place restrictions on building codes.

Those codes govern the way houses must be built, to make them more likely to withstand natural disasters and other dangers. For example, Nashville, where catastrophic flooding in 2010 displaced thousands of people, requires the ground floor of new houses be constructed at least four feet above the expected height of a major flood, one of the toughest requirements in the country.

The New York Times built a graphic using First Street’s data to show the difference between FEMA’s estimated flood risk and First Street’s estimate for several cities.

(The New York Times)

A few weeks ago, NY1 reported that in 2024, New York City will get its new FEMA flood maps and the new maps will show thousands of New York homes are more flood-prone than they were when the last maps came out in 2015. Just look at the projections for NYC’s boroughs from the Institute for Sustainable Cities. The gray areas are the current 100-year flood zones. But look at predictions for the decades ahead, when today’s college students are not even retirement age:

(The Institute for Sustainable Cities at Hunter College)

Real estate developers in New York are deeply concerned that the new maps will significantly add costs to new construction.

Dig deeper into this story by going to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine website. That organization has been calling FEMA’s flood maps inaccurate and outdated for years. They also have a library of resources about infrastructure resilience.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill includes $3.5 billion (over five years) for FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance program, which triples the usual funding to fix flood problems that happen year after year, or so-called repetitive flood risks. Journalists probably know exactly where those problems are in their communities since they cover the floods and losses year after year. Instead of fixing the same flooded properties, the new infrastructure bill would provide enough money for governments to buy out flood-prone properties and replace them with green space.

Hundreds of mayors and other community leaders signed an agreement supporting the plan to strengthen everything from bridges to power lines to stopping the nonstop flooding in their communities. There are leaders from every state and city and town big and small on the list. You can also see this video they produced:

The FEMA Flood Map Service Center is the official online location to find all flood hazard mapping products created under the National Flood Insurance Program, including your community’s flood map.

The federal government’s FloodSmart.gov website helps you learn about your flood zone and find your local expert. Updates to flood maps are a collaboration between your community and FEMA. Every community that participates in the National Flood Insurance Program has a floodplain administrator who works with FEMA during the mapping process.

15 million doses of COVID vaccine were trashed since March

While countries around the world plead for COVID-19 vaccines, pharmacies and state governments in the United States have tossed out at least 15 million doses since March. NBC News filed an open records request to get the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The network reported:

  • Walgreens reported the most waste of any pharmacy, state or other vaccine provider, with nearly 2.6 million wasted doses.KXAN-TV reported thousands of those doses were lost in a power outage.
  • CVS reported 2.3 million wasted doses
  • Walmart reported 1.6 million and Rite Aid reported 1.1 million.
  • Texas led in reports of vaccine waste by states, with 517,746 wasted doses
  • North Carolina reported 285,126 wasted vaccines
  • Pennsylvania reported 244,214 wasted doses
  • Oklahoma reported 226,163

The data released by the CDC is self-reported by pharmacies, states and other vaccine providers. It is not comprehensive — missing some states and federal providers — and it does not include the reason doses had to be thrown away. In one example of missing data, the CDC lists just 12 wasted doses for Michigan since March, but Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services said on Wednesday that the state has thrown away 257,673 doses since December.

(NBC/CDC)

Put those 5 million doses in perspective. The U.S. has administered 438 million doses in the last year. But as you can see from NBC’s chart, the rate of vaccines being wasted is rising. The August data is not yet complete.

Some of the doses were wasted because the vial was cracked. Sometimes a vial is not completely filled or overfilled, so the amount of vaccine needed for a shot does not come out evenly in each vial.

Americans go to National Parks in record numbers

Visitors are seen at Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming on May 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Iris Samuels)

With Labor Day crowds still to come, the National Park Service says it seems clear that we will set new records for national park visitors this year. Some have been so busy they have closed their gates to additional visitors. The service has managed crowds by creating selfie-stations, which help people to quickly find a perfect spot to capture a memory and move along.

The selfie stations might also prevent people from falling to their deaths while capturing selfies — as has happened at Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

The recreation.gov program can also make real-time recommendations of other parks near wherever you are that are less crowded. The next generation of park tech is to include predictive data to tell you how crowded a park will be and whether it would pay to wait an hour or two to launch on a trail.

The fires still burning

This Labor Day weekend, some of the nation is still burning.

The National Interagency Fire Center says, “Eighty-six large fires have burned 2,678,196 acres in 11 states. The Caldor Fire continues to burn actively and thousands of residents have been evacuated. The Dixie Fire displayed extreme fire behavior and made a 42,000-acre run.”

(NIFC)

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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,…
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