Media Moves

Tales of hurricane coverage from the Houston Chronicle biz editor

September 8, 2017

Posted by Al Lewis

Al Lewis
Al Lewis

Whatever we write about Hurricane Harvey at the Houston Chronicle, our story already is upstaged by Hurricane Irma.

Houston did not evacuate 6 million people as Harvey approached, nor did it face the raging winds that Irma may slam on Miami.

We have deaths, casualties, all manner of human misery, business disruptions, untold billions in damages, and yet, even as we continue to find bodies in the floodwaters and count souls in our shelters, Irma threatens to be a much bigger story. Oh, and then there are two other storms spinning around the Gulf and the Atlantic after Irma.

This week we have hurricanes, a cyber attack, an earthquake and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. If these sorts of events continue happening at the same frequency, they will all be news briefs.

I have worked as the business editor of the Houston Chronicle for only 17 months, and in that time, the city has flooded three times: We had a Tax Day Flood, a Memorial Day Flood, and the now receding Harvey Flood.

Before moving to Houston, I was editor of the South Florida Business Journal in Miami. It flooded there, too. A full moon, for instance, brought tides rolling into the streets of Miami Beach.

Low-lying cities, like New Orleans, will continue to be fodder for named storms. They’ll be knocked down. Governments and insurance companies will spend hundreds of billions building them back up. And then the cycle will repeat until one day when it no longer makes sense.

Business journalists have an enormous role to play in this ongoing story. Part of the human tragedy here is the tremendous depletion of capital and resources.

We have a 20-person business news department at the Houston Chronicle and we could still use many more to cover this story. Briefly, here’s how it’s gone so far:

Hurricane Harvey did exactly what the worst-case forecasts said it would do: Destroy coastal cities where it first hit, and then hang over Houston for days, spawning tornadoes and dumping rain. We expected the worst, and we were not surprised when it came.

We did not have to cover a mass evacuation or serious shortages of food, supplies or gasoline. Shelves in the stores were thinning and some gasoline stations were pumped dry before the storm hit, but it was overall, an orderly shelter-in-place strategy for Houstonians.

Reporters also sheltered in place, with full tanks of gasoline, food supplies and fully charged devices. Even if folks could find a way to drive to the Houston Chronicle, its parking lots were under about two feet of water. We asked everyone to begin reporting the storm from their neighborhoods, which gave us a cross-town reporting base.

Houston Chronicle Hurricane HarveyThere were plenty of stories right in our own backyards. The home of one business team member was almost completely submerged. Another had a tornado rip through his neighborhood. Others suffered storm damage to their homes and cars as well. But most folks were still able to work and there was plenty of devastation within walking distance of us all.

My stuff stayed dry. The worst of it for me was having to trudge through flood waters to get to the newsroom. I made a Facebook Live video out of the journey. It was just as a goof for my Facebook friends who kept messaging me and asking if I was OK, as if I’d just been pulled out of a helicopter basket. The video ended up with more than 5,500 page views. I wish I had taken it more seriously.

I appear remarkably calm throughout the narration, but I was truly frightened about whether I might step into an open manhole (the force floodwaters can push them open from below), whether I’d run into snakes or a floating ball of fire ants or waterborne diseases or toxic chemicals (it is, after all, an industrial city).

The rest of the ordeal I mostly observed in the air-conditioned comfort of our newsroom where we never lost power, and are still being treated to all manner of delights as newspapers from all over the country send us care packages and order us huge takeout meals. (Thank you!)

Since the storm hit on a Saturday, there weren’t many business disruption stories to chase in the first hours. Many business reporters were immediately drafted to other stories, including those involving shelters and rescue operations. But we still had to keep watch over things like airports, utilities, refineries, chemical plants, mounting casualty losses, and potential shortages of food and gasoline.

We will be paying out lots of overtime, and many of us worked through the weekends and the Labor Day Holiday. Sixteen-hour days swept by like the floodwaters.

As the story evolved, of course I called on Kim Quillen for advice. She was assistant business editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans when Katrina hit and is now at the Chicago Tribune.

It seems the basic pattern of these stories is always the same. Tragedy strikes, survivors adapt. Then begins the long, slow process of rebuilding their lives with varying degrees of success. What makes the reporting unique is being on the ground and getting to know the people. We try to tell the stories through those voices of those who are living this nightmare. We try to do this at least as much as from the official sources, especially in the beginning when the officials sources can only make guesses.

For the next year or so, we’ll be tallying the economic impact, keeping watch over the insurance industry, ferreting out all the predictable frauds that emerge in a disaster area, chronicling all business recovery efforts from small businesses to the global energy industry, scouting the storm-ravaged real estate market … the list goes on. I can’t even imagine it all at the moment.

The old saw is that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger — for when the next one hits.

Al Lewis is the business editor of the Houston Chronicle

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