Community Impact’s Houston Managing Editor Marie Leonard helped drive more than 250 hurricane stories across their 10 Houston monthly papers.
Q: We understand you stayed in Houston while your colleagues left for Austin and Dallas. Why did you stay and what was the experience like?
A: Leaving town was never really a consideration for me since Houstonians aren’t typically asked to evacuate during hurricanes, except for potentially those residents living closer to the coast. I prepared like most others did: filling up my car with gas, buying water bottles and enough food to last for several days, charging all electronics, etc., but not really knowing what to fully expect as I had only been through Hurricane Ike almost a decade ago.
The first day the storm really began to affect the Houston area was on Saturday; there were tornados and damage reported in some of the western suburbs like Katy and Missouri City, but the unprecedented flooding hadn’t become the main problem yet. Overnight on Saturday and into Sunday morning the heavy rain started to fall—some areas of town receiving 17 inches of rain—which would grow to 30 or even 50 inches in some places by Tuesday. I woke up to a barrage of texts early on Sunday from friends and family asking if I was still OK due to the news reports and posts online they had seen already; after a quick check of my email, I saw information saying there had been 1,000 water rescues overnight across Houston and hundreds of high water spots on roadways.
So many of the major highways and thoroughfares we all know in Houston were underwater and would only continue to get worse over the next several days. Although we are a monthly newspaper, from that moment on our coverage for the next week would be updated online constantly almost 24/7 as our team worked to get out news to help residents become aware of dangers on flooded roadways and other safety issues related to the storm in various parts of town.
Q: Do you regret staying or was the experience personally and journalistically, something you’ll never forget?
A: I don’t regret staying, and I believe this experience helped me grow immensely as a journalist and had a big impact on my personal life. Although I was blessed in that my home did not flood, I knew of half a dozen friends and coworkers who had to evacuate or were affected by the storm in some way.
I think everyone who lives in Houston knows multiple people who were negatively affected by Harvey since the storm hit such a large geographical area. But I also think the volunteerism efforts seen in the aftermath of Harvey and the heroism by everyday people from Houston and beyond during the rescue efforts touched a lot of Houstonians. I don’t think anyone in the Houston area will ever forget the personal impact Harvey made on them.
Q: What kind of coverage did you do and how did readers react?
A: Starting on Saturday, we had one main Harvey story for all 10 of our Houston markets that was being updated throughout the day by one editor before the heavy rainfall began. However, by early Sunday morning it was clear we needed to kick things into overdrive in a way we never have before.
During previous floods in the Houston area, only certain parts of towns or neighborhoods were hit badly, but Harvey affected every single part of the Greater Houston area, causing a greater need for increased and continuous coverage. We continued general reaction stories and updates on the storm, but we also began hyperlocal coverage for each one of our 10 newspapers online, writing about local evacuation orders that began due to rising rivers and issues that arose from two reservoirs on the west side of town.
Our staff wrote more than 250 stories to cover the storm across Houston. We had record levels of traffic on our site during Harvey, many of them newcomers who were desperate for information relevant to their specific neighborhood and part of town. And the coverage didn’t stop after the rainfall did, as many areas across Houston were still dealing with flooding from reservoirs and rising river levels. Our staff continued to report on those issues for days after the storm; even nearly two weeks later we are still reporting on the damage caused to highways in Houston by Harvey.
Q: Do you develop any best practices you and CI will take into consideration for future storms?
A: Yes, our editorial management team quickly began taking a look at what worked well for us and what could have been improved for future events like this. Although every natural disaster is different, we will now be even more prepared in the future to deliver relevant coverage to residents.
Social media has changed so much since the last hurricane hit the Texas coast 9 years ago. Being able to reach out to residents via Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor and other avenues in the various cities we cover is one important aspect we were able to take part in as I’m sure other newsrooms did as well.
Q: Did any staff experience any hardships during the storm or after?
A: Yes, several of our staff members were under mandatory evacuation orders during the storm and had to leave their homes.
Fortunately, their homes were OK days later when they were allowed to return, but a couple of our other staffers have been dealing with flooded cars as well.
Regardless of the evacuations and car issues, our entire Houston editorial team still kept working diligently during the storm and the days after to help get out important and potentially life-saving information to residents. I know this was the case for most newsrooms across Houston and the Texas coast during the storm as it affected so many people, homes, and roadways.