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Covering disaster? NICAR has you covered

By Karim Lahlou

When calamity strikes and you’re sent out to investigate, knowing where to begin is half the battle. Fortunately, journalists Matt Jacob, The Dallas Morning News, and Alex Richards, Chicago Tribune, have compiled a thorough list of disaster-related data resources ranging from flooding to chemical spills.

Collapsed bridges and dam failures

In 2013, following the collapse of the I-5 Skagit River Bridge in Washington, reporters discovered that the bridge had been designated as functionally obsolete, meaning that its design was not suitable for its current use. Reporters covering the collapse used the National Bridge Inventory, which lists inspection data for bridges through 2012. The National Dam Inventory has more restricted access due to post-9/11 legislation, however inventory data through 2002 can be found at NICAR, and Stanford University’s National Performance of Dams Program has additional information, including incidence rates.

Chemical safety

The 2013 West Fertilizer Company explosion in Texas was found to be caused by a fire that ignited a vast quantity of ammonium nitrate. The Dallas Morning News was able to use of Tier 2 reports, which are federally mandated but typically locally maintained records that require chemical companies to report their evacuation plans and how much of each chemical type they have, to compile a map of chemical companies in Texas. Though it may vary by state, The Dallas Morning News was able to request the Tier 2 reports by contacting The Department of Social and Health Services. Though no single database exists for chemical accidents, the following are useful to get started: National Response Center, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, National Fire Incident Reporting System, and The Chemical Safety Board.

Aircraft information

The Federal Aviation Administration provides a trove of data that can be accessed through a simple tail number query, which allows you to access a plane’s registration and documentation data, a history of its repairs, and even the number of times it has struck wildlife. Further, the FAA provides additional databases related to incident and traffic statistics.

Weather disasters

In addition to the National Weather Service, National Hurricane Center, and National Climatic Data Center, you may also want to check out NICAR’s database, which includes data going back as far as 1950. For flooding, you may want to look at FEMA’s Flood Maps and its corresponding Preliminary Flood Result Data. For data on Earthquakes, you want to head over to the U.S. Geological Survey’s site, which includes data types such as location, magnitude, and real-time feeds. For forecasts, look to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Service.

Clean-up and Prevention

Although there are no direct ways to gauge clean-up efforts, it is possible to get rough data by requesting employee-level county and city payrolls and cross-referencing them with weather and accident events to calculate how much overtime was spent. Further, looking at data on SBA Disaster loans allows you to calculate damages related to disasters as does payments from established charities to those affected.

While covering the human element is crucial to any disaster story, figuring out the how and why allows us to prevent and mitigate the impact future incidents. Adding these resources to your tool-kit helps us get there, one disaster at a time.


Karim Lahlou is a Columbia University journalism student from Finland and Morocco. His coverage includes competitive cybergaming, technology, and online media. His interest in computer-assisted reporting was sparked by the growing importance of big data.

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