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Resources for covering floods

The Red River in Fargo, N.D., has reached record heights and is still rising. IRE has compiled a list of resources to help you cover this flood, localize the story for your area and assess whether your community is prepared for a similar disaster.

Flooding is nothing new to the Midwest. Last year Cedar Rapids, Iowa was left underwater as "the rain kept coming, upstream river gauges quit working just when they were needed most, and the predicted flooding was woefully wrong," said reporter Zack Kucharski of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Kucharski spoke about the role databases played in their coverage of the flooding at the CAR Conference last week in Indianapolis. Kucharski's tipsheet, number 3192, is now available at the IRE Resource Center.

Find a list of databases and tipsheets below that can help you improve your coverage before, during and after a disaster. Databases can help provide context and depth to stories about disasters. For more resources, including links to stories, publications and other sites, check out IRE's In the News resource page for flooding.


Storm Events - From deadline to enterprise, the database of storm events can provide punch to weather stories. Available through the IRE and NICAR Database Library, it's the official U.S. government database of storm events around the country, covering 1950 through December 2007. In addition to assisting coverage of disasters on deadline, the database can yield enterprise stories, such as determining the most costly weather events to have hit your area. Mapping some of the storms is also possible, since the data includes latitude and longitude coordinates. Some of the events tracked include tornadoes, hurricanes, tropical storms, droughts,snowstorms, flash floods, hail, wild/forest fires, temperature extremes,strong winds, fog and avalanches. Fields in the database include date and time the storm event began; event type; states and counties hit; property and crop damage;injuries and fatalities.

National Inventory of Dams - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' National Inventory of Dams, from 1993-2002, has information on dam inspection, ownership and age. The agency often classifies dams as "high hazard," meaning that if a dam fails, people are threatened downstream because of residential or commercial development. It also indicates whether the dam owner has an emergency action plan, in case disaster does occur. The data can trace the recent history of a dam and generate a starting point for a story that can impact public safety.

SBA disaster loans - The Small Business Administration is a big player in assisting the owners of homes and businesses after a declared disaster. The data include loans since 1980 and are current through through 2007. The database includes such information as the individuals' name or company name, the mailing address, a code for the type of disaster that occurred, the date the disaster loan was approved for an SBA guarantee, the amount of the loan, and, for businesses, whether the loan was fully paid or charged off (went bad). The main table contains more than 750,000 records.

National Bridge Inventory - The National Bridge Inventory database can help a journalist identify potentially problem bridges that might be especially prone to earthquake damage. This dataset includes structural evaluations and information for bridges throughout the United States. The inspection reports include important criteria necessary for evaluating the condition of bridges as well as specific details relating to the location, age and ownership or each bridge. (See more bridge safety resources.)

Tipsheets Tipsheet# 3040 Brad Heath lists and describes different federal programs that provide financial assistance after a natural disaster. He discusses where to get records of each program's spending, and how to best incorporate that information into a CAR story. Heath also describes the programs used by federal agencies to run simulations and assess potential damage; most of those programs are available for free and could be useful for reporters covering a recent disaster.

Tipsheet #2700 Sarah Okeson explains how she used mapping techniques to report on Peoria County's preparedness for tornadoes after one hit South Pekin, a small village near Peoria, IL. She explains how she used a GPS device, how to download waypoints, and also gives a list of helpful Web sites that were used for the story.

Tipsheet #2649 This tipsheet is comprised of slides from Nixon's power point presentation on covering natural disasters. The slides cover information about SBA disaster loans, federal contracts and other data. Nixon included examples of recent stories that used each type of data.

Tipsheet #2613 This tipsheet is a good guide to investigating the government aid that generally follows large natural disasters. Specifically, John Maines discusses his own experience investigating FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. He recommends various websites as a good starting point, and then offers advice for more detailed investigations. For example, Maines suggests comparing the FEMA database of funeral-related expenses to the number of deaths listed by the local medical examiner.

Tipsheet #2612 John Maines offers many suggestions for incorporating CAR into fast-paced disaster investigations. For instance, he suggests using mapping to show the extent of damage in certain areas or neighborhoods. Maines also discusses some of the surprises that reporters for the Sun Sentinel faced after Hurricane Wilma, and how in the future journalists can anticipate similar surprises and work around them.

Tipsheet #2433 This tipsheet describes how IRE Award finalist authors Sally Kestin and Megan O'Matz of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel gathered information for their story "Cashing in on Disaster." They give hints as to what questions to ask and what money to follow when sorting through information after a storm. For those ordering through snail-mail, this tipsheet includes the 55-page story it references.

Tipsheet #2284 The four hurricanes that battered Florida in 2004 made for one of the most remarkable, memorable, and costly hurricane seasons in history. John Maines of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has suggestions and resources for reporters covering emergency situations, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to private companies who provide images of destruction for free. Tipsheet #2235 Gil Gaul's tipsheet outlines approaches to analyzing Federal Emergency Management Administration records to show "how the breathless coverage of storms greases the skids for disaster declarations." Tips include tracking how, where and to whom FEMA dollars are allocated following a disaster, whether National Flood Insurance Program premiums are covering expenses, and who are receiving Small Business Administration loans following a disaster. Tipsheet #186 "Bibliography of Flood Sources" details the history of and sources used for a story on the failure of the National Flood Insurance Program and the Federal Emergency Management Agency; includes phone numbers for sources in Congress and in FEMA, as well as many non-governmental sources. Environment Tipsheet #1952 John McQuaid of the Times-Picayune offers many useful federal sources for reporters working on the environmental beat, specifically focusing on fishing, invasive species, environmental justice, hurricanes and other natural disasters, and chemicals. Charities Tipsheet #2348 This tipsheet specifically covers how to report on charities after a disaster. It offers tips such as making connections at local charities and checking in with churches. The tipsheet also offers some more general tips advice like what forms to request and resources to use as background information. Tipsheet #2264 Cheryl Phillips of The Seattle Times takes a look at how to best investigate nonprofit organizations, from various documents and researching background information. She also lists experts that may have insight and gives other reporting tips. Tipsheet #2182 This tipsheet offers various sources that could aid journalists in investigating nonprofit organizations. Laura Lorek of the San Antonio Express News specifically mentions Guidestar, the Better Business Bureau and several other Web sites. The tipsheet includes information about gaining access to the Web sites, as well as what journalists might expect to find at each one. She also explains some of the technical information about nonprofits, such as how they file for taxes. Tipsheet #1606 This tipsheet lists the most important documents reporters need to research when covering charities and nonprofits. Those include 990 forms, bond prospectuses, government contracts and audits by watchdog groups. Tipsheet #1398 Included in this tipsheet is the basics of nonprofit reporting, what's in an IRE 990 form, the difference between a public charity and a foundation, what forms different organizations file, a summary of the new disclosure rules and where to find the state charity offices. Also attached are the different IRS categories of nonprofits, and what kind of registration is required in each state. Mapping Tipsheet #2160 In this tipsheet, Matthew Waite of the St. Petersburg Times describes the function and details of a geodatabase - available in ArcGIS 8 or 9. Included are step-by-step instructions for creating a geodatabase. Tipsheet #1824 Learning to use GIS or mapping software can be intimidating at first. The initial difficulties are worth the effort though, as Jennifer LaFleur explains in this good beginner tipsheet. She offers story examples that used mapping and tips and hints on getting started.) Tipsheet #1376 Overlaying census with other kinds of data will yield stories, just as mapping software and maps will help reporters to better show trends and illustrate the stories. Included here are helpful Web sites, books, and what kinds of stories are aided by maps. Infrastructure Tipsheet #2424 Lee Davidson of the Deseret Morning News breaks this tipsheet into two sections: bridges and dams. For each part, he first suggests possible issues to investigate, and then makes some suggestions on how to proceed. For example, one of his suggestions for dams is an investigation of whether or not local dams have emergency action plans in place. The suggestions on how to proceed include various helpful Web sites, as well as tips on data analysis. Disaster Coverage Tipsheet #1232: The 10 best disaster Web sites — from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. The tipsheet also explains FEMA's various disaster aid programs. From the 2000 IRE Conference. Tipsheet #773: In "Covering disasters on the Internet," Nora Paul provides tips on how to find facts and cultivate sources on the Internet when covering a disaster. Tipsheet #586 This handout provides reporters with some of Josh Meyer's (Los Angeles Times) experiences with covering disasters, and tips for improving disaster coverage. Also included is on covering disasters. Tipsheet #244 "Covering the Aftermath of a Disaster" makes suggestions for disaster-coverage, particularly focusing on preparedness; tips are listed under the following categories: Preparing for disaster — the basics, a place to work, communications, other equipment, transportation, assignments and a final word. -Jaimi Dowdell, training director; Beth Kopine, Resource Center Director; Jeremy Milarsky, Database Library Director

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