News after a disaster

A hillside covered in burned trees with a fence and gate in the foreground, after the Glass Fire occurred in Sonoma County.
Glass Fire burn zone in Sonoma County/Sarah Stierch

The role of local news

One of the most important roles that local journalists play is covering the aftermath of a disaster, which often includes recovery and rebuilding processes that can last months or years. Just as resources and support from outside of the area can take days to arrive once a disaster occurs, there are also significant delays in the arrival and implementation of recovery aid, disaster clean-up, and grant funds. 

For communities that are facing seasonal or ongoing disasters, these impacts can be compounded over time, particularly if survivors are facing related disasters within a short time frame, such as a long wildfire season followed by heavy rains, which can result in flooding and landslides in burn scars. Secondary impacts, such as businesses relocating or increased insurance rates, are also important consequences of disasters that can have a lasting impact on communities. 

At the same time, there can be innovative community solutions that arise following an emergency, that can address what went wrong and improve emergency response in the future. When possible, try to incorporate a mix of reporting that includes both coverage of what isn’t working, as well as a more solutions-based framework, which can help your audience engage with constructive ways to build community resiliency. You may also want to look for commonalities with other regions facing similar disasters, or a larger structural context that will help inform your community.

Local journalists are best positioned to follow these developments over time, and hold officials accountable — but may also be facing the internal challenges of recovery and rebuilding themselves, and within your news outlet. When possible, it is important to take time to reflect honestly on how you responded during the emergency itself, and how you might better prepare and respond in the future. You should do this internally, but also identify ways you can survey your audience to see how you can better provide information in the next disaster.

Hotwash and the investigation 

A “hot wash” is an exercise intended to help you reflect on your emergency response and identify actionable ways to improve in the future. This worksheet is designed as an internal guide for your outlet to reflect as soon as possible after an emergency about the strengths and weaknesses of your internal emergency response. You can also use it as a method to assess the official emergency response as it occurred during a specific event, such as mapping out when and how local agencies responded — or didn’t — compared to the official emergency plan.

“Hot wash” emergency exercise

Types of coverage after a disaster 

If an official emergency is declared, a variety of different funding and recovery processes on a local, state, and federal level can become a part of your reporting after a disaster. Most immediately, this may include a process of inspections, clean-up, and emergency funding for individuals, businesses, utilities and other essential services, and governments — although many people may not be eligible, or may not receive timely services or reimbursements. Particularly if multiple disasters are occurring simultaneously or if the emergency area is hard to reach, it may take significant time for relief and rebuilding resources to arrive, and many of these processes are not subjected to the same timelines or public scrutiny as typical government grant processes.

Local reporting can play a valuable role in tracking the implementation of funding and rebuilding processes, such as letting people know how they can access recovery funding and mental health resources and clean up their homes, or highlighting when or how officials are not following through. You may want to file public records requests to examine how officials responded to emergency calls, or to learn more about how decisions were implemented or funds allocated to private contractors. 

There may be important data sets being collected that you can access and share with your audience to track the recovery process or data that your newsroom may want to independently collect. Long term, your community may seek to revise or review its official emergency response plan following a disaster, or there may be other opportunities for residents to engage in both the rebuilding process and future preparation and response efforts.

Often, existing non-profits or informal community groups will work to fill gaps in the recovery process, providing important insight into possible solutions or broader patterns in emergency response across regions. There are also insights to be gained from the data collected by different recovery and scientific organizations after an emergency event that you may want to consider reporting on or taking a look at how likely this kind of event is to occur again by talking with local experts.

Since a disaster can impact all parts of community life, it can be difficult to know how to focus your resources as the recovery process unfolds. Some of your audience may want to continue receiving specific information about rebuilding, while other groups may want to return to regular coverage; it’s also possible your community may experience a series of disasters, complicating rebuilding. 

Continue to engage with your audience to assess their ongoing information needs so you can best allocate your time and resources while tracking important parts of the recovery process. This may look like dedicating staff to specific recovery coverage, or having ongoing coverage through relevant beats, such as housing or health, or sharing stories from community members about their experiences and the recovery process. You may want to consider organizing events with local leaders or experts, establishing collaborations with other outlets for more in-depth reporting or investigations, or sharing related coverage from other news outlets to supplement your work and continue to engage community members.

This may also be a time when you want to consider your strategy for future emergency coverage as a newsroom, identify additional training or policies you may want to implement, or assess whether you want to include coverage to help your audience prepare for and mitigate future disasters. 

Grant and data tracker

Tracking funding and data related to disasters can be complex and come from multiple different agencies and organizations, on the local, state, and federal levels. This is a template of a tracker you can copy and customize to keep track of different grants and funding related to specific emergencies or disasters, and specific data sets that might be relevant to your work. This spreadsheet can be copied and customized to fit your individual reporting needs or be shared by your newsroom. 

Funding and data