Education reporting gets at the heart of catastrophe coverage


Schools are often at the center of communities’ responses to disaster, putting education reporters right in the mix – assuming they bring pencils and wading boots, that is.

Over the past couple of weeks, education reporters in Texas and South Florida have been among many journalists on the front lines covering the impact of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Many are living through the disaster themselves while they cover it. Some also have friends and family members who live in the areas affected.

Among those dealing with the recent hurricanes on multiple fronts is Shelby Webb, who covers education for the Houston Chronicle and also has family in Southwest Florida.

The experience has been physically and emotionally challenging, according to Webb.

“I ended up sleeping at the office. I was there for probably about 48 hours,” she said in a recent EWA Radio interview.

But it’s also been incredibly rewarding.

“You know, it’s like one of the first times in my career that people actually thanked me for what I’m doing.”


Recent Houston Chronicle story about teachers forced to relocate to new schools.

Education reporting might seem like a side issue when there’s a major catastrophe going on, but in the aftermath of disasters, schools and school systems often provide food and safety to students, as well as shelter to displaced persons – sometimes at the same time.

“Virtually every school district in the area volunteered campuses to use as shelters or staging areas, even as some in rising water had to be evacuated themselves,” reported the Houston Chronicle (In flood-ravaged #Houston, schools become sanctuaries). “Teachers, students and families left their own water-logged neighborhoods to help those showing up to campuses with nothing but the drenched clothes on their backs. Meals that normally would be reserved for student lunches fed many across the Houston area.”

“About 600 shelters opened across Florida ahead of Irma’s arrival, and about 500 of those were housed in schools,” reported Education Week.

Education reporting might seem like a side issue when there’s a major catastrophe going on, but in the aftermath of disasters, schools and school systems often provide food and safety to students, as well as shelter to displaced persons – sometimes at the same time.

Schools are also the public institution that everyday citizens probably encounter most often – either as parents, students, teachers, or grandparents.

So education writers have an important entryway to unearthing meaningful stories about a community experiencing a natural disaster. Their sources and familiarity lend unique advantages.

“Education reporters get into communities at a more intimate level than other beats,” says Dallas Morning News’ Eva-Marie Ayala, who has now reported two hurricanes. “Knowing those perspectives and having those relationships bring a more personal focus to what a storm means for a community.”

Webb has been at or near the thick of things, along with colleague Jacob Carpenter. Her many bylines include As students return to schools on Monday, the future of Houston ISD hangs in the balanceTeachers help parents with child care as schools remain outDamaged buildings only part of Houston’s struggle to reopen schoolsUncertainty delays school openings as districts sort through Harvey damage, and Houston ISD to delay start of school year until Sept. 11.

It’s impressive and exciting to see a hometown education reporter really going after her beat in ways that relate it to the biggest breaking news in the nation.

Houston Public Media’s Laura Isensee also has been on the scene, both in the field and from the newsroom. One example: Houston Schools Assess Harvey’s Damage; Students Due Back Next Week.

Reporter Ayala traveled down to Houston to find a very human story. “I spent much of one day with a teacher eager to get back to work even though she’s displaced because of the flooding,” writes Ayala. “She kept saying her kiddos needed her. Then while she was at school, I visited her home that had that overwhelming mold smell and sheetrock dust floating everywhere.”

Another Houston Chronicle reporter, Monica Rhor, produced a vivid story about teachers given just 45 minutes to pick through storm-damaged classrooms before beginning the year at another school.


Houston Chronicle: In flood-ravaged #Houston, schools become sanctuaries

In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, parents and teachers are desperate for basic information about schools damaged, reopening schedules, relocations, and child care.

The first and most important priorities in disaster situations are to provide timely, accurate information.

“You know, it’s like one of the first times in my career that people actually thanked me for what I’m doing.” — Shelby Webb

During past storms, coverage was sometimes troublingly inaccurate, including when reporters covering Hurricane Katrina passed along unsubstantiated rumors.

That hasn’t been the case so far with Harvey and Irma.

However, bad information can come from unexpected quarters. “Beware of what people tell you,” says WNYC’s Beth Fertig, who covered the aftermath of the 9/11 attack and of Hurricane Katrina. “Sadly, sometimes they like to exaggerate heroic deeds or other information.”

According to Fertig, a man in construction gear told her that he’d helped rescue people from the rubble a few days after the planes hit the towers. But it turned out there were no rescues that day.

“I was shocked. How could somebody do something like that? Was he a sociopath?” remembers Fertig, who has also covered politics and education. “Anyway, it taught me to doubt even good news.”


EdWeek story about schools and educators providing assistance

The delicate task of interviewing and quoting storm survivors is also a key part of the job, say disaster veterans.

“You have to be doubly sure you’re being clear and transparent with interview subjects, letting them know who you are and where you’re from,” says USA Today’s Greg Toppo. “Don’t be afraid to back off if they respond badly. But on the other hand, don’t be afraid to take them by the hand and persuade them that their story is important.”

Ayala also notes challenges of post-storm interviewing. “Immediately [during a natural disaster] you’re just reacting to the latest, up-to-the-minute chaotic happenings and trying to stay safe,” she says. “The following days is when storytelling gets particularly tricky.”

“They’re processing it as they’re talking,” says Ayala, now back in Dallas. “It’s all so raw and still kind of happening.” The challenge is to experience the intense emotions that survivors can display “and also tell the story that shows the impact of what this storm had.”

Interviewing disaster survivors is delicate, but do-able, says WNYC’s Beth Fertig, who reported the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. “Many people do want to share their harrowing stories, even if they seem freaked out at first,” says Fertig. “Just be humane and patient and recognize that they might need to vent for a while. You can ask for informational details in bits and pieces along the way as they talk.”

In such emotional times, however, even the most well-intentioned reporters can cause offense. “Be good to your New Orleans (and Mississippi and Gulf Coast) friends right now,” advises Texas education reporter Lauren McGaughy. “Be aware that the last thing many of them want is one more post that says, ’If you read ONE story about Katrina, it’s this one!’ Realize that hashtags might be viewed as trivializing their experience.”

webb ayala mcgaughy

Reporters Webb, Ayala, & McGaughy

There are also some common-sense warnings from disaster-seasoned education reporters.

Fertig had some practical pointers: Wading boots are an essential, and keep recorders dry in clear plastic bags, with a hole punched for a cord.

“Stay safe and be open to different kinds of stories, different kinds of narratives,” advises Toppo, who covered Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. (Concrete parking garages are his go-to form of shelter.) Toppo also advises: “Bring pencils! Pens stop working when paper gets wet! And keep your phone dry!” Read some of Toppo’s latest stories here and here.

For more catastrophe reporting advice, Poynter has you covered here.

There are also some new technologies that reporters are trying out. One of the most-discussed is an app called Zello that turns a smartphone into a walkie-talkie.

CJR has a rundown of social media tools being used during the recent storms you can find here.

fertig toppo

Catastrophe veterans Fertig (WNYC) and Toppo (USA Today).

So far, at least, Harvey and Irma haven’t generated the kinds of destruction and chaos that came after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. (The one major controversy has been in Miami, where the schools chief has accused the Red Cross of failing to show up at hurricane shelters ahead of Hurricane Irma – a charge the disaster relief organization has denied.)

But there are almost certainly new issues that will come up during the year. Some of the issues being raised in Texas include barriers to reopening schools, uncertainty from the state (on issues like accountability) and how schools plan to help traumatized students.

Another bit of good news: EdSEc DeVos hasn’t said anything offensive. Seven years ago, former Obama EdSec Arne Duncan infamously called Hurricane Katrina good for NOLA schools.

What’s Webb’s practical advice for colleagues who find themselves in her shoes? Keep a log of hours spent (for overtime or comp days). Write a list of ideas visible on your desk or wall (so you can remember them). Get back out of the office (to get good stories). Check in with sources in the weeks afterward (to see how things are going). Get over your reluctance to use Slack (so that you can coordinate better with colleagues).

Most of all, says Webb, “take care of yourself and force yourself to eat three meals a day. And plan a vacation, because, holy shit, it’s nice to have something to look forward to.”

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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