Outfit Your News Kit With Disaster Resilience Resources

September 28, 2022

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Reporter’s Toolbox: Outfit Your News Kit With Disaster Resilience Resources

By Joseph A. Davis

Some communities never quite recover from a disaster. Some do. That “resilience” — whether from human-made or human-worsened wildfires, droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides and other “natural” disasters — is something environmental journalists will end up writing about if they follow the beat long enough. 

Hurricane Fiona rescue
Families aided during flooding from Hurricane Fiona. Photo: Puerto Rico National Guard, Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

To help with your coverage, Toolbox offers gizmos, apps, tools and some data about resilience.

For instance, check out Climate Mapping for Resilience and Adaptation (CMRA), which is developed by multiple federal agencies. Bureaucratically, it is located at the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which is a White House-attached interagency clearinghouse for all kinds of climate information (but kind of affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

A companion gizmo comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; it is called the Environmental Resilience Tools Wizard (or ERTW for bureaucrats). Find it here. It goes beyond just climate-related disasters to other environmental issues.


Where the data comes from

The data and other information in these tools come from almost everywhere — but especially federal agencies. The feds, you may already know, often get their data from state and local government agencies, research institutions and even satellites.

It would be impractical to try to list here all the sources of information going into the CMRA and ERTW. Still, we have high confidence in the relative quality of the data because federal data is pretty good most of the time.

If you drill down deep enough, you will find that both tools are fairly well documented. Very often you can download raw data or search results.

And it’s not just data. You may also find simulation models, mapping tools, search tools, etc.


How to use the data smartly

Pause to consider what “resilience” actually means. A lot of things. But the environmental beat covers all kinds of infrastructure that make modern life liveable: e.g., water purification plants and power lines. We also cover the many ways uncontrolled pollution can harm the health of people and ecosystems.

When disasters strike these systems, the problem is sometimes that system failures cascade like a row of dominoes. A freeze may cause a power failure, which causes pipes to freeze and burst, which causes the water system to fail.

Real resilience comes from anticipating this. And these tools (CMRA and ERTW) may help you zoom out and broaden your view.


If you are trying to help your

community through hard times, it

helps to know where help comes from.


If you are trying to help your community through hard times, it helps to know where help comes from. Like the Federal Emergency Management Agency — and many other agencies. These tools sometimes try to point you in the direction of certain kinds of help. There is a lot of it, even though there never seems enough of it soon enough.

Without being too overtly political, the CMRA reminds you of some new aid sources available to localities under recently passed legislation like the so-called Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. For even more perspective, these tools may sometimes help in making dollar estimates of possible damage.

Ultimately, the disaster and resilience story will vary with circumstances — and with the unique vulnerabilities of the communities you are reporting on. Its Achilles’ heel may be agriculture … or rivers … or concentrations of people … or roads … or something else. It’s for you to imagine and explore. Start by asking: Is evacuation even possible?

These are not the only tools available. Look, for example, at the EPA’s page on Communities and Utilities Partnering for Water Resilience. Or the Inventory of EPA's Tools for Enhancing Community Resilience to Disasters. Or the EPA’s Regional Resilience Toolkit.

[Editor’s Note: For more on climate change resilience, see our Backgrounders on cascading climate disasters, infrastructure vulnerability and resilient grids, a TipSheet on flood resiliency and special regional coverage of climate adaptation in the Pacific Northwest and the South. For more on climate change generally, be sure to check out our extensive Climate Change Resource Guide.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 34. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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