August 29, 2017 / 4:14 PM / a year ago

Community and commerce: Reporting on a disaster

As flooding in Houston reached catastrophic levels from the relentless rains of Hurricane Harvey, Reuters photographer Rick Wilking watched Sterling Broughton, an 82-year-old woman, fall out of a kayak perched on the bow of a crowded rescue boat that had become swamped with water. The woman fell face down on the deck, her head submerged in the water, near Dickinson. Wilking pulled her back to safety.

Sterling Broughton is moved from a rescue boat onto a kayak in Dickinson, Texas August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

“There were too many people on the boat,” said Wilking, who chronicled the impact of Hurricane Katrina on stranded evacuees for Reuters in 2005. “I felt like I was put there to help this lady.”

Harvey leaves in its wake a massive human toll and damages estimated at more than $20 billion. Journalists covering disasters must be prepared to cover stories of people’s pain and loss, and even, at times, to step in and help. Harvey is also a crucial business story: the storm struck at the heart of the U.S. energy sector.

Reuters depended on correspondents at the scene to bring readers details of the storm and, often, harrowing accounts of survival. We used data to decipher the economic impact.

First, the people. Journalists are trained to keep themselves safe in disaster situations. In dire conditions, like what Wilking saw, they can and do get involved.

Reporter Brian Thevenot, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, picked up two men in Corpus Christi as winds from Harvey snatched the camper they called home from the truck on which it was mounted. Thevenot took them to safety and wrote a story about the impact of a natural disaster on those living on society’s margins.

To read the story click: here

Then there was the work of covering the storm when your own home was affected. Reporter Ruthy Munoz filed information on Coast Guard rescues from the bathroom of her apartment, where she was sheltering after receiving a tornado alert – and that was after her building was already surrounded by floodwater.

Reporter Marianna Parraga and her family evacuated their residence as floodwaters seeped in. But Parraga continued to file stories about the storm’s impact on airports and pipelines.

Houston Bureau Chief Gary McWilliams edited these and other breaking stories as water from flash flooding rose more than 2-1/2 feet around his home in Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood.

The economic side of the story was covered from New York and locally. The storm and its massive flooding knocked out 11 percent of U.S. refining capacity and a quarter of oil production from the Gulf of Mexico. It closed ports all along the Texas coast.

Two days before Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25, our reporters and editors were planning coverage using an interactive map that showed the refineries, platforms, pipelines and oil fields in the storm’s path. That high-tech cheat sheet helped our team determine reporters should be sent to Corpus Christi because the facilities there were most likely to be shuttered.

That data-driven reporting helps to shape our coverage of the changing situation. On Monday Reuters reporter Erwin Seba broke news that Motiva Enterprises’ Port Arthur refinery, which is the largest in the United States and situated east of the affected area, was considering shutting down. The news helped push gas prices to a two-year high. To read the story click: here

With floodwaters still rising and the economic impact unclear, Reuters reporting will remain critical to delivering fast, accurate news from the region.

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