Enterprising Stories Stand Out in Recent Disaster Coverage — From Japan to Texas

July 15, 2011

The Beat

By BILL DAWSON

 

Workers connect transmission lines to restore electric power to the tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. Photo: Tokyo Electric Power Company.

 

Disasters drive news coverage. Well, yes, that's not exactly an insightfully original observation. Dogs also chase cats. Night follows day. Editors cut stories.

Still, any examination or cataloging of environmental coverage has to deal with the central place of disasters on the environment beat.

The names of some iconic events — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez — echo down through the years in follow-up coverage, anniversary coverage, coverage of seemingly never-ending policy debates and lawsuits.

Disasters and extreme weather have once again had a prominent place in environmental reporting in recent months, so The Beat this time takes note of a sampling of that coverage.

In particular, we focus on a few of the many enterprise stories that emanated from four clusters of events — the tsunami-caused crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, drought and wildfires in Texas, death-dealing tornadoes in the Southeast and massive flooding in the Mississippi River system.

Fukushima

Possible safety lessons provided a major focus for coverage after a March 11 earthquake launched the tsunami that crippled emergency generators needed to cool the Japanese nuclear plant’s reactors.

Mike Soraghan of Greenwire reported on March 24, for instance, on the debate about whether backup power at most U.S. nuclear plants — batteries required to last four hours — is sufficient.

On April 9, Todd B. Bates of New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press reported that his investigation had revealed “millions of gallons of radioactive water have leaked from nuclear power plants throughout the U.S. since the 1970s, threatening water supplies in New Jersey and other states.”

Two months after the earthquake, the results of such journalistic inquiries were continuing to be unveiled.

On May 11, Susan Q. Stranahan reported for iWatch News (the newly rebranded website of the investigative Center for Public Integrity) that fires are “nuclear power’s more probable threat,” but typically bring only “slaps on the wrist” from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

In an article from Tokyo on May 2, AP staff writersYuri Kageyama and Justin Pritchard reported that their in-depth review of “Japan’s approach to nuclear plant safety shows how closely intertwined relationships between government regulators and industry have allowed a culture of complacency to prevail.”

Also with a Tokyo dateline, the New York TimesNorimitsu Onishi and James Glanz had reported on March 26 that “in the country that gave the world the word tsunami, the Japanese nuclear establishment largely disregarded the potentially destructive force of the walls of water.”

On April 12, Michail Hengtensberg, Gensche Sager and Philline Gebhardt, reporting for Spiegel Online, produced a detailed “survey of the world’s radioactive no-go zones,” observing that this “look at some of the worst incidents is enough to demonstrate just how high the price of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons truly is.”

Taking off from U.S. officials’ call for Americans within 50 miles of the Japanese reactors to evacuate, Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard on March 22 examined the NRC's current 10-mile evacuation zone around U.S. plants. A chart listed dozens of U.S.cities within a 50-mile radius of reactors.

Five days before Sheppard’s story was posted, Bill Dedman of MSNBC had reported that the NRC's new earthquake-risk calculations show the highest risk not at some California reactor near the San Andreas Fault.

It is, he reported, at the Indian Point Energy Center, 24 miles north of New York City — a 1-in-10,000 chance of damage to the reactor core each year, or “right on the verge of requiring ‘immediate concern regarding adequate protection’ of the public.”

Drought and Fire

Amarillo firefighters respond to a blaze in the parched Texas panhandle. Dry conditions throughout the fall and winter have created a wildfire danger in many parts of the state. Photo by Kay Ledbetter, Texas Agrilife Extension Service.

Did the spring’s drought-associated rash of Texas wildfires officially constitute a disaster? Texas and federal officials were still disagreeing at the time this column was written. (The feds said no.)

Were the drought and fires in Texas a symptom of manmade climate change? Journalists weighed in on that issue, just as they did in regard to the destructive tornadoes and flooding along the Mississippi.

Randy Lee Loftis of the Dallas Morning News addressed the question head-on in a story on April 16, asking whether, besides La Nina (“the immediate cause,” in scientists’ estimation), “the drought and fires [were] also linked to climate change.”

Loftis's answer: “Climate scientists say that question, though common whenever extreme weather arrives, is both unanswerable and misdirected.” He added: “Most climate models — projections of future conditions from supercomputers processing huge amounts of data — say Texas will get less rainfall as global temperatures keep rising.”

In an April 27 blog post that, like Loftis’s story, prominently quoted Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, the Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger jabbed a local environmentalist for “scare-mongering” because the advocate had written hisown blog post for the Chronicle, noting that “people starved to death during the Dust Bowl days” and that “Gaia creator James Lovelock has said that by 2100 there will be about 1 billion people on Earth, the other 6 billion or so having starved to death.”

Texas Tribune reporter Kate Galbraith had a story on April 21, co-published in the New York Times, about how the West Texas oil city Midland was grappling with its dwindling water supply. Discussion of climate change only appeared in a shorter, associated blog post in the Times the next day.

The blog item also quoted Nielsen-Gammon: “Certainly global warming has contributed to the rate at which the ground has dried out because of the warm temperatures, [but] the magnitude of the dryness is well beyond what global warming would be able to do so far.”

It also included comments by the Midland mayor, an“oilman,” who said, in Galbraith’s paraphrase, that “reducing carbon dioxide emissions seems like the right thing to do for the long term, taking into account future generations.”

Deadly Tornadoes

April’s record-setting number of tornadoes likewise drew attention to the possible link to global warming. Here are some examples of coverage that addressed the question with due caution about current scientific understanding.

A story on April 25 by the Times' A. G. Sulzberger: “Though scientists believe that climate change will contribute to increasingly severe weather phenomena, including hurricanes and thunderstorms, there is little consensus about how it may affect tornadoes.”

Similarly, in a longer article on April 28 by the same newspaper’s Kirk Johnson: “The prevalence of hurricanes, droughts and floods has been linked in many climate models to the impact of a warming planet. Such a connection is more tentative when it comes to twisters.”

Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience.com on the same day: “Some climate models suggest that a warming future could herald more intense storms like those that ripped through the Southeast on Wednesday night. But that doesn’t mean the southern storms and tornadoes were a manifestation of climate change, climate scientists say. That’s because teasing out the influence of climate on weather takes time.”

Also on April 28, the Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter: “While a raft of climate science points to a stormier future involving more frequent and possibly more severe hurricanes, researchers have yet to factor tornadoes into climate-change predictions with any certainty.”

The Los Angeles TimesEryn Brown on April 29, quoting Chris Weiss, an atmospheric science professor at Texas Tech University: “The role of global warming in the phenomenon is unclear,” he [said], noting that it’s hard to relate individual weather events to the long-term sweep of climate change, and that even if one could, there’s ‘significant debate’ in the scientific literature about whether warming will increase or decrease the number of tornadoes.

Ferris Jabr in New Scientist on May 3: “Climate change cannot be directly blamed for such outbreaks [like the Southeast’s thunderstorms and tornadoes]. And even as scientists’ climate models have improved, the question of whether increasing global temperatures will change the frequency and severity of dangerous weather in the future remains open.”

Editor’s Note: Not long after this column was submitted, even more deadly tornadoes hit Oklahoma and Missouri. Most notably, the Joplin, Mo., tornado leveled a third of the town of 50,000 residents, killing at least 140 persons. It prompted President Obama to visit the devastated city in late May and helped make 2011 the most deadly year for tornadoes on record. Check an upcoming SEJournal for more on the media’s tornado coverage.

Mississippi River

While Mississippi floodwaters coursing through the parking lot of a casino in Tunica, Miss. may have kept gamblers at bay, the high water was a real winner for wading birds like this egret, drawn to the nutrient-rich river by the prospect of a new food source. Photo by Lance Cheung, USDA.

Once again, the issue of climate change was placed in the spotlight by some journalists as the mammoth flood crest on the Mississippi moved southward toward the Gulf of Mexico.

In an installment broadcast the week of May 6, Public Radio International’s “Living on Earth” program interviewed Weather Underground co-founder Jeff Masters about the possible climate change connection to flooding on the Mississippi and its largest tributary the Ohio River, as well as the tornado outbreak.

Bruce Gellerman asked Masters “how bad [flooding in the area] could get, say, in 90 years — 2100.”

A projected 20 percent rainfall increase over the Mississippi Valley could mean even more flooding, he replied: “The thought is it would increase runoff by more like 50 percent. Because what happens when you start getting heavier rains is now you’ve got a saturated soil that can’t absorb rain anymore — so you tend to get more runoff.”

In an “explainer” posted May 11, Climate Central managinge ditor Andrew Freedman reported that climate change can’t be blamed for causing this year’s flooding. He added:

“Scientists are working to detect the ‘fingerprint’ of global warming in specific extreme weather events, and their methods are still in their infancy. It will take many months for studies to be completed on whether climate change may have made April’s heavy rains more likely. For now, though, we can look at studies that have already been completed that offer some clues about the relationship between climate change and heavy precipitation events.”

Ned Potter of ABC News, meanwhile, discussed the matter of flood-borne pollutants and contaminants in a piece that was web-posted on May 11:

“ABC News arranged some testing of its own, taking water samples from two places along the river to a laboratory near Memphis. E. coli and coliform — commonly found in untreated waste water — were 2,000 times acceptable limits. The lab did not find gasoline, oil or chemical toxins. There were trace levels of heavy metals, but no more than would be found ordinarily, the lab reported.”

The day before, on May 10, NPR's Scott Neuman related some pertinent historical context about the current floods in a piece entitled “Along the Mississippi, an old sense of dread arises.” He reported:

“The flooding has prompted comparisons to the Great Flood of 1927 — a catastrophe that riveted the nation’s attention, spurred demands for government action and ultimately changed howAmericans think about natural disasters.

“A year later, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928, which authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to design and construct a system of levees and spillways to control flooding on the Mississippi River and its tributaries.”

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2011 issue.