|Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain in the Houston area in 2017, causing severe flooding and killing dozens. Above, a mailbox on a flooded suburban Houston street in the aftermath of the hurricane. Photo: Glenn Fawcett/U.S. Customs and Border Protection via Flickr.
TipSheet: Extreme Rainfall Offers Journalists a Deluge of Environment, Climate Stories
By Joseph A. Davis
Weather — it’s one story that easily makes it onto the front page. But it doesn’t have to be just about whether to bring an umbrella. These days, that story often follows extreme rainfall and the resulting flooding and human misery. And often, as precipitation gets more extreme, behind that story is climate change.
For environmental journalists, when such big storms do happen, they are often a way of localizing their climate change reporting, or their infrastructure story, or their sprawl story.
But extreme weather doesn’t have to be a story of human tragedy and ruined lives — especially if you write about it before it happens.
Why it matters
Extreme rainfall isn’t just a shower. When a rain-producing storm parks over an area, the water can accumulate quickly and rise to levels that may destroy life and property.
And, unfortunately, flood insurance does not always cover this contingency — or people can’t afford insurance that does. Equally problematic is that emergency aid often just encourages people to rebuild amid the same hazards.
Meanwhile, the news media are implicated. Not just for the stereotyped, weepy, these-heroes-will-rebuild stories. But for the lack of stories about how the planning board enabled and encouraged it.
You don’t have to go back farther than Hurricane Harvey. That storm, in 2017, inundated places near Houston with an unheard-of 50-plus inches of rain. The devastation was awful. The Cajun Navy rescue stories pretty much overshadowed the stories about how dams built to prevent flooding downstream ended up causing flooding upstream and down.
TipSheet notes for the record that Houston has for the most part avoided planning, or at least zoning, on the grounds that it is burdensome and unnecessary government regulation and deprives Americans of their constitutional rights.
It is a story that can be found in lots of U.S. cities.
Many were located where they are because waterside
location gives them access to water transportation.
Houston aside, it is a story that can be found in lots of U.S. cities. Many were located where they are — decades or centuries ago — because waterside location gives them access to water transportation, which was even more important 200 years ago than it is today.
Some of those cities have adapted to extreme rains to a certain extent. For New Orleans, with its levee system, for example, it has been a learning process. But more recently, to cite another example, the extreme rains of late July 2022 (may require subscription) that severely flooded areas of Eastern Kentucky were simply unprecedented.
Meanwhile, efforts to insure against flood loss have been chronically failing. Historic experiences like the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 pointed up the failures of insurance.
Hurricane Betsy in 1965 was America’s first billion-dollar hurricane — and led to Congress in 1968 setting up the National Flood Insurance Program, which offered federally backed flood insurance from private insurers on the condition that the receiving communities take measures to exclude building in the flood plain.
But that program has been failing too, scraping by on emergency money bailouts from Congress. It is due for reform, but the political pain of charging people what flood insurance is worth is just too much for a divided, distracted Congress to manage.
- When was the last extreme rainfall or precipitation event in your area? How much flooding was there? How much damage? How many casualties?
- What are the longer-term trends in rainstorm frequency and intensity in your area? Does your local weather office point out when records are broken?
- What conditions could worsen the impact of extreme rainfall in your area? Poor combined sewer drainage? Burned areas? Saturated soil? Mud- and landslides? Frozen ground?
- How many people in your area are eligible for flood insurance and how many actually have it? What does it cost? Who can afford it? Where is it available?
- National Centers for Environmental Information: NCEI is where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration keeps its climate and weather data.
- National Weather Service: Find your local office via this 50-state map or via this list of forecast offices.
- U.S. Geological Survey: Through its water data network, the USGS keeps track of stream-level gauges that track rainfall events.
- State Water Agencies: Start with this list of health and environmental agencies.
- Association of State Floodplain Managers: A professional group of state officials who deal with floods.
[Editor’s Note: For more extreme rainfall, check out this recent Reporter’s Toolbox on rainfall data, and reports on environmental concerns with extreme rain and combined sewer overflows, on how extreme rain creates worrying dam safety issues and rain-driven floods at Superfund sites, as well as a Backgrounder on covering hurricane-related rains. Read an interview with a journalist who wrote a book on rain, a TipSheet on staying safe while covering extreme rainfall in the field and a special report on covering climate and rain in the southern United States. Get extreme rain headlines from EJToday. Plus, find more on climate attribution science and predicting extreme weather, as well as a Toolbox on resources to help improve climate coverage. And be sure to check out our evolving Climate Change Resource Guide.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 41. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.