“Hell and High Water”

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune
March 03, 2016

To the judges,

Houston is America’s fourth-largest metropolitan area. It’s home to 6.5 million people, major seaports, as well as the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex. The area is critical to America’s energy industry and an irreplaceable component of the economy of Texas and of the entire country.

It is also a symbol of America’s inability to make tough economic choices and to take responsibility for prioritizing resiliency and recovery in an era when climate change is an urgent reality. More frequent and more potent storms are already hitting the area, bringing unprecedented floods. Every year, the likelihood increases that a Katrina-like storm could bring terrible, and almost certainly fatal, consequences.

If nothing is done to protect Houston, its current boom time may simply be the first chapter in a tragic story.

“Hell and High Water” is an innovative collaboration between ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, with local reporters and programmer-journalists working as peers to report and tell the story in a new way. It combines excellent science journalism with on-the-ground reporting and cutting edge technology with the stories of regular people who are hurt most and stand to lose the most.

Our project exposes the bureaucratic nightmare that leaves Texans in grave danger: a process plagued by politicians passing the buck, by university researchers more interested in winning arcane arguments than solving the problem, and by the strange psychology of large disasters, which are treated like academic problems until it’s far too late.

The project consists of two interactive stories. First, “Hell and High Water” reveals how Houston is failing to address the increasingly dire warnings of scientists that the region is at high risk of a devastating hurricane, which could cause widespread destruction and cost hundreds of billions of dollars to recover from. Despite this risk, efforts to protect the region have been glacially slow and marked by bitter infighting.

The second story, “Boomtown, Flood Town,” shows how Houston’s unchecked hyper-development is creating short-term economic gains for some while dramatically increasing flood risks for everyone. It looks at two potent rainstorms, the Tax Day Flood of 2016 and the Memorial Day Flood of 2015, which caused catastrophic flooding in Northwest Houston. Scientists warn that the loss of undeveloped prairie and wetlands is making areas that haven’t flooded in decades, and are outside the risk areas delineated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more prone to inundation.

Our immersive stories take full advantage of the medium. They include:

● Accurate, playable storm simulations, with and without proposed protections, based on enormous and complex storm models created by researchers.
● A lookup tool that lets Houstonians see how storm models predict their own homes will be affected.
● Arresting photography that captures the Houston Ship Channel in its industrial splendor.
● Rich, deeply reported stories that are fully integrated into the interactive experience.
● Maps that explain how the loss of undeveloped prairie endangers lower-lying, often older parts of the city.

The impact of this project has been considerable: Plans to protect the area seem finally to be moving forward. Texas Senator John Cornyn, who told the Houston Chronicle in 2014, “I don’t even know what that is,” when asked about one of the proposed protection plans, has now introduced legislation fast-tracking it. Parts of that legislation were included in a bill signed by President Obama this month. Though insufficient on its own to fix the problem, the law will help speed up a frustratingly slow federal process.

Those of us not in New Orleans in August of 2005 remember watching in horror as Hurricane Katrina demolished the city. The images are seared into our national memory. The lack of preparedness and poor response to the storm remain a national scar.

But despite our sense of shock, and despite President Bush’s claim that “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,” the storm and its effects were in fact foreseen. Three years before Katrina, New Orleans Times-Picayune reporters Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid wrote that it was “only a matter of time” before a major hurricane would hit the city, even predicting that a Category 3 storm could breach the city’s complex of levees. Scientists, too, had long issued similar warnings, to no avail.

“Hell and High Water” is a premonition to a disaster we can still prevent, a digital Cassandra at a time when climate change has created a new normal, with more potent and more frequent storms.

We’re enormously proud to nominate “Hell and High Water” for the Showcase Award.

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Submitted by Minhee Cho.