Strategies for Investigating Disaster

At the 2016 Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference in New Orleans, the Dart Center sponsored a panel on investigating the aftermath of disasters featuring Jason Berry, Propublica's Justin Elliott, NPR's Laura Sullivan, PBS Frontline's Rick Young and the Dart Center's Bruce Shapiro.

“The idea of covering aftermath is a doubly relevant issue here and today,” said Bruce Shapiro at the start of the Dart-sponsored "Covering Recovery" panel at the 2016 Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference. "It’s relevant here because we’re in New Orleans, because even without Hurricane Katrina it’s a city that knows something about disaster and about recovery."

"And obviously we also all have in mind - though it’s a human inflicted event and not a natural disaster - this weekend’s terrible events in Orlando," said Shapiro, four days after an attacker opened fire at a gay nightclub in Florida, killing 49 people. "These events have something in common: Large natural disasters, mass shootings and other catastrophic events attract lots and lots of press coverage when they're happening. Much less attention in the long aftermath."

Author Jason Berry, ProPublica's Justin Elliott, NPR's Laura Sullivan and PBS Frontline's Rick Young joined Shapiro in discussing the challenges journalists face in covering the aftermath of large-scale disasters, sharing untapped reporting sources and suggesting avenues for collaboration between news outlets.

Before kicking off the conversation, Shapiro shared some remarks from Irwin Redlener, Director of the Center for Disaster Preparedeness at Columbia's Earth Institute, who could not be in attendance:

The essence of my message is straightforward. It's this: America has been and remains disconcertingly unprepared to prevent, respond to and recover from large scale disasters. It’s not the large emergencies or the small contained disasters that I’m worried about. It’s what we call the megadisasters, catastrophic events that overwhelm local resources and require substantial and continuous external help that the nation still doesn’t have down.

As for “recovery”, we have no clue how to manage large-scale disaster recovery in ways that minimize the stress and trauma still being experienced by communities and families. Some $48 billion was appropriated for Superstorm Sandy recovery. It was initially distributed to some 18 different federal agencies, then state and local counterparts. But people are still struggling. What happened? Who’s accountable?

And things are getting worse. Budget cuts for preparedness and response have been on a downhill ride that has been unrelenting for the past 12 years. Now, for instance, hospital preparedness appropriations have dropped by more than 50%. Even counterterrorism support is on the chopping block. Even in these days of Paris, San Bernardino, and Orlando, our Congress can’t get it together to do what we need to make sure America is as prepared as it should be or could be.

If ever there was a greater need for high level, intense, analytic investigative reporting about a critical issue for a country, I don’t know when else that would be. Many of you are already engaged and helping the public and policy makers account for their actions, lack of actions necessary to make America more resilient. You have begun to investigate the big agencies, like the Red Cross. You are trying to untangle the dysfunctional morass to see where we are and why we are there.

You are America’s first and last best hope.

Click here for a tip sheet on covering disaster, including story tips and ideas, from Redlener and his team at the Center for Disaster Preparedness, and click below to watch a video message from Redlener:

Jason Berry, an investigative reporter based in New Orleans best known for his incisive reporting on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, has been covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for more than a decade. He said it took him "about five years to figure out what happened."

Berry said in the story's first act, after the Hurricane hit, the levees broke and the city flooded, "everybody watched this disaster day after day, week after week. And of course the villain was the Federal government." But, he says, "when you follow the money, the story that is still unfolding here is actually how the state milked the city."

He recounted a conversation he had with Ed Blakely, former Director of Recovery Management for the City of New Orleans, about what should have happened in New Orleans after the Hurricane. Berry says Blakely gave him a "brilliant answer" that he believes might have worked: "The state should have fronted $500 million to the city to begin immediate rebuilding" and gone to court to immediately sue FEMA to get the money back.

Instead, months turned into years, and very little money hit the ground. 

When asked where he would look if he had to cover another big hurricane somewhere else, Berry said reporters should look past the immediate disaster and toward "recovery and repair and how the [state government] plans on doing it."

Rick Young, a producer at PBS Frontline, teamed up with NPR to investigate the aftermath of another massive natural disaster: Hurricane Sandy.

Young and his team set out to answer two simple questions: "How much is FEMA paying the insurance companies? And how much of that money is profit?"

He says two things were particularly helpful to him: 1) Contacting victims on the ground through longterm recovery groups; and 2) Finding the "folks with the 30,000 foot view" who can provide context to your story, including veterans of disaster management and former FEMA employees. 

The resulting multi-platform investigation, Business of Disaster, found that insurance companies made upwards of $400 million in profit in the three years following Sandy.

Young calls this project his "introduction to reporting on disaster." He says the first people he spoke with were project collaborator Laura Sullivan of NPR and her collaborator on another disaster story, ProPublica's Justin Elliott, who were also on the panel.

Sullivan and Elliott discussed their investigation into how the Red Cross dispersed funds to rebuild homes following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. At the outset of their collaboration, Sullivan agreed to partner with ProPublica for a three-day story, but "here we are, two years later, still covering the Red Cross."

The two found that after the Red Cross received close to $500 million in donations following the earthquake, "the charity has broken promises, squandered donations, and made dubious claims of success. The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people, but the actual number of permanent homes the group has built in all of Haiti: six."

Elliott said ProPublica initially published a series of stories about the Red Cross which raised more questions than they answered, but that getting the work out was still helpful: It encouraged readers to email him with questions and tips.

He says today, reporters conducting any kind of investigation should put a line at the bottom of their story soliciting tips via email. He and Sullivan have taken this a step further in creating the Red Cross Reporting Network, which encourages other reporters to dive into their own Red Cross investigations and provides them with potential sources, documents and step-by-step guidance.

But the facts aren't always enough to sustain readers interest. As Sullivan said, you have to "find out why this is happening and who is responsible, otherwise you just have a sad story."

Click here to listen to the full discussion.