Floodwaters from Harvey were still rising in the Houston area and AP’s responsibilities to thoroughly cover breaking news developments across the region hadn’t diminished, but already there was an appetite for investigative reporting on the disaster. An AP team from across the company quickly mobilized.
Among the early efforts was a package of stories, data, photos and an interactive revealing that fewer Americans, in the Houston area and nationally, were buying flood insurance than just five years ago, despite serious risks from flooding. Those decisions meant storm victims who chose not to pay premiums of about $500 per year but suffered tens of thousands in flood damage would have to draw on savings or go into debt – or perhaps be forced to sell their homes. Presciently, the piece examining the drop in flood insurance nationally focused on remarkable declines that AP discovered in south Florida, just as Hurricane Irma was starting to worry residents there. For example, a homeowner who reporter Terry Spencer interviewed in Plantation, Florida, paid to renew her flood insurance days after seeing the devastating images of flooding in Houston, after initially deciding to drop her flood insurance because no hurricanes had struck there lately.
The stories relied on federal data analyzed by Meghan Hoyer and reporting from Business writers Bernard Condon and Ken Sweet in New York as well as staff writers Spencer in south Florida, Michael Kunzelman in Baton Rouge and Jeff Donn in Boston, with an interactive national map of flood insurance policies by Maureen Linke in Washington. The stories were coordinated by Washington investigative editor Ted Bridis, working with Texas news editor Maud Beelman and Central regional editor Tom Berman.
The aggressive reporting helped AP land the first post-Harvey interview with the director of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.
Hoyer analyzed current data on flood insurance policies, combined with 2012 data AP had previously obtained by now-New York news editor David Caruso, who wrote extensively about the subject years ago after Hurricane Sandy. Caruso still had the older data and gave a copy to Hoyer for a five-year comparison.
A big challenge early in the project was quickly to find homeowners in the Houston area who could be reached by phone, were willing to talk about their flood insurance and also knew whether their home was flooded. Donn was working from his home office in Plymouth, Mass., but his daughter and her boyfriend have both lived in Houston. He asked them to round up potential sources through their phone and social-media networks. Within a couple hours, Donn had contact information for more hurricane-area homeowners than he had time to interview, including a flooded-out homeowner without insurance. One of the best interviews, in the end, was the cousin of a friend of a friend of Donn’s daughter.
Spencer found Floridians who had changed their minds about dropping flood insurance because of Harvey by posting a note on his city’s NextDoor.com page. He got several responses within minutes. Kunzelman asked a former city official in Central, Louisiana, to post a message on a Facebook group for residents affected by last summer’s historic flooding. Within two hours, he got calls from several people who didn’t have flood insurance when the storm hit last August.
Linke built an interactive map that allowed users to lookup their county and retrieve all the flood coverage information for their area.
The stories got significant use and play across all AP’s customers, print, radio and broadcast. MSNBC referenced our story directly in a segment on Wednesday. KCRW did a radio segment on the story, with an interview with Sweet.
With Hoyer’s work, AP was also able to localize the data so member customers could look at flood insurance trends in their communities. Our data distribution led to local stories in San Francisco and Jacksonville, among others, and a follow-up in USA TODAY. The Philadelphia Inquirer said it plans a story in coming weeks based on AP’s data.
The AP package was one of many high points of exceptional cross-format collaboration by AP’s on-the-ground staff working under difficult conditions in Houston, as well as by AP’s staff throughout Texas, on the Central Desk and beyond.
For their efforts that produced exclusive content with relevance to national and local media, Hoyer, Spencer, Kunzelman, Sweet, Condon, Donn and Linke will share this week’s $300 prize.