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The Best Reporting on Hurricanes and Their Aftermaths

We’ve round up some of the best reporting on hurricanes and what happens after they’re over — from inept planning to police abuses to waste and misspending during the recovery.

Hospital workers evacuate a patient from NYU Langone Medical Center during Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012 in New York City. More than 200 patients were evacuated from the hospital after backup generators failed due to flooding following a power outage. (Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

Mid-August marks the start of peak hurricane season, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has warned that this year’s is likely to be worse than usual, with a forecast of 13 to 19 named storms. We’ve round up some of the best reporting on hurricanes and what happens after they’re over — from  inept planning to police abuses to waste and misspending during the recovery.

After the Flood, This American Life, September 2005

The week after Katrina struck New Orleans, This American Life devoted its show to giving “people who were in the storm more time than daily news shows could give, to tell their stories and talk about what happened.”

One of those people was Denise Moore, who took shelter at the New Orleans Convention Center after the levees failed. “What they kept doing the whole time was tell us to line up for the buses that never came” she told Ira Glass. “It was like they were doing drills every four hours. You all have to line up for the bus. And if you bum rush the bus, they're just going to take off without you, and nobody is going to get to go anywhere. You have to line up. You have to be in a straight line. We're talking about old people in wheelchairs and women with babies in lines, waiting for buses that you know God damn well aren't coming, like they were playing with us.”

The Deadly Choices at Memorial, ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine, August 2009

ProPublica reporter Sheri Fink spent two and a half years reconstructing what happened at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center during Hurricane Katrina. She found that the exhausted, overwhelmed doctors intentionally injected a number of patients with lethal doses of morphine and the sedative midazolam during the chaotic evacuation of the hospital. 

From Blue Tarps to Debris Removal, Layers of Contractors Drive Up the Cost of Recovery, Critics Say, The Times-Picayune, December 2005

The federal contractors hired using the $60 billion Congress earmarked for the Katrina recovery hired subcontractors, who hired sub-subcontractors — a process that sometimes produced sub-sub-sub-sub-subcontractors, or “fifth-tier subs,” and helped to drive up the cost of recovery. “In other words,” The Times-Picayune reported, “the guy spinning a Bobcat choked with tree limbs on a residential street may be earning as little as $1 per cubic yard of debris, although the prime contractor may be billing 20 times that amount for the service.”

After Katrina, New Orleans Cops Were Told They Could Shoot Looters, ProPublica, Frontline and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 2010

One commander told New Orleans police officers they had the “authority under martial law to shoot looters” in the days after Katrina, according to a videotape of his remarks. Two New Orleans cops said that the department’s second-in-command at the time, gave a similar order, even though police had no such authority under the law.

The story was part of a series on cop shootings after Katrina. Another story in the series looked at the case of Henry Glover, whose remains were found inside a burned-out car in the days after Katrina. Two witnesses said police had refused to help Glover after he had been shot and they drove him to a police command post. A cop later drove off with his body still in the car. After the stories, three officers were charged and convicted in connection with Glover’s death. An appeals court later overturned two of the convictions.  

Behind a Call That Kept Nursing Home Patients in Storm’s Path, The New York Times, December 2012

The day before Hurricane Sandy struck, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordered a mandatory evacuation of New York City’s low-lying neighborhoods. But the city recommended that residents of nursing and adult homes in the same areas ride out the storm. The decision led to difficult evacuations through sand and debris after the storm, which “severely flooded” least 29 such facilities in Queens and Brooklyn.

How New Jersey Transit Failed Sandy’s Test, WNYC and The Record, May 2013

Hurricane Sandy inundated 19 of the 8,000 rail cars operated by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. It engulfed hundreds of New Jersey Transit cars, more than a quarter of the fleet, thanks to the decision in yards that flooded. An investigation by WNYC and the New Jersey Bergen Record found that NJ Transit had used maps built inaccurate numbers that showed the yards wouldn’t flood.

Suffering on Long Island As Power Agency Shows Its Flaws, The New York Times, November 2012

Two weeks after Sandy hit, more than 10,000 Long Island Power Authority customers still didn’t have power. A Times investigation found that the government-run authority had “repeatedly failed to plan for extreme weather” and had fallen behind on trimming tree limbs near power lines. At the same time, the authority had become “a rich source” of high-paid patronage jobs for politicians’ friends and relatives.

Miami-Dade Cleans Up on FEMA Aid, The Sun Sentinel, November 2004

The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent $28 million worth of relief to Miami-Dade County in Florida after Hurricane Frances hit in 2004, even though the brunt of the storm struck 100 miles north of the county. The damage in Miami-Dade was limited to “a few fallen and power lines.” But FEMA shelled out for new cars, lawn mowers, thousands of appliances and even a funeral in Miami-Dade, even though no one in the county died in the storm. The story is part of a Sun Sentinel series investigating FEMA.

Weak Insurers Put Millions of Floridians at Risk, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, February 2010

Big insurance companies like State Farm and Allstate fled the Florida property insurance market after Katrina hammered the Gulf Coast in 2005. A Herald-Tribune investigation found that millions of Floridians had turned to tiny insurance companies that had taken their place, which had nowhere near enough money to cover the billions of dollars in property they insured. Lawmakers and regulators had “ignored warnings and encouraged private companies to stretch their limited cash further.”

Want more hurricane coverage? Check out our ongoing series on FEMA and the challenge of rebuilding after storms as the climate changes.

Other than the fact that “This American Life” entirely missed the cause of the flooding of New Orleans, yeah, it was a great story.

Missed point 1: Katrina was only a relatively minor storm when it hit New Orleans: a Category 1 or weak Category 2.

Missed point 2: The Army Corps of Engineers built palpably bad floodwalls and levees, as well as a storm surge funnel known as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO).

Missed point 3: One forensic engineering panel called the flooding “the worst man-made engineering disaster since Chernobyl.”

But, yeah, other than that, top notch journalism.

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