Home / News and Events / News / News21 Journalism Students From 19 Universities Investigate Disaster Recovery

News21 Journalism Students From 19 Universities Investigate Disaster Recovery

August 13, 2019
New Orleans

McKenzie Pavacich records b-roll at a memorial for victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans on Friday, June 14, 2019. (Ellen O'Brien/News21

The Carnegie-Knight News21 program, a national multi-university reporting initiative headquartered at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, released a major multimedia investigation today about disaster recovery in the United States.

Thirty-seven journalism students from 19 universities traveled to 25 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, conducting hundreds of interviews and reviewing thousands of pages of government documents, data and state and federal statutes for “State of Emergency.”

“This deeply reported project brought to the forefront the lasting and troubling consequences of natural disasters and recovery, particularly for people living in remote, impoverished and storm-prone communities,” said News21 Executive Editor Jacquee Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist. “What we found were thousands of people still coping with the aftermath, months and even years after the fact.”

While Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey and Maria each was a disaster of shattering magnitude, there are hundreds of smaller disasters that garner only a fraction of the national attention and billions of federal dollars. A News21 analysis of Federal Emergency Management Agency data over the past two decades shows that small disasters accounted for more than 60 percent of all federally declared disasters between 2003 and 2018. Yet they received at least $57.8 billion less in public assistance from FEMA.

The federal government also provided less individual assistance to survivors in communities with smaller disasters. Since 1999, 651 declared disasters did not receive individual assistance.

In addition, the investigation found that even though federal fire suppression costs quadrupled since 1989, damage caused by wildfires has increased fivefold.

Wildfires over the past decade also have resulted in more than $52 billion in insured losses across the country. Nearly 49,000 structures have burned across the U.S. since 2014, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s more lost structures than in the previous 14 years combined.

The News21 “State of Emergency” project includes 16 digital stories, portraits of more than 50 survivors, and four half-hour documentaries on hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes and flooding. The fellows also produced a five-episode podcast following a disaster from the moment a storm hit through the long recovery process.

The project can be found at stateofemergency.news21.com.

“The News21 student journalists produced a well-documented word, audio and visual portrait of the current state emergency in America,” Petchel said. “They traveled thousands of miles, capturing the stories, voices and faces of victims of disasters, first responders and everyday citizens who stepped up and handled whatever nature threw their way.”


Jordan Elder looks at an image on her video camera’s screen of an area burned by the Woodbury Fire June 26, 2019, while in the desert outside of Roosevelt, Arizona. (Photo by Brigette Waltermire/News21)

The investigation will be published by major media organizations across the country. Previous News21 stories have been published by USA Today, The Washington Post, ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity, in addition to dozens of regional and local news outlets.

Work on the project started in January 2019 with a seminar on issues surrounding natural disasters taught by Petchel. Students heard from experts on the topic, analyzed data, researched topics and conducted interviews across the country.

Molly Duerig, one of 14 Cronkite students who were part of the project, reported on this year’s historic Midwest floods and then traveled to Puerto Rico for a story about Hurricane Maria’s lasting impact on young people. She also co-wrote an investigative story on the electric power grid in the U.S. and storms that cause power outages.

“We heard so many stories about people who were able to adapt and rebuild after facing loss and destruction in their communities,” Duerig said. “News21 has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

The spike in natural disasters, coupled with concerns that they’re getting worse, makes it the perfect time to ask: “Is what we’re doing working?” said Jacob Steinberg, a student from the University of Minnesota who traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, and San Diego County in California, to interview government officials and residents of areas that regularly face flooding or wildfires.

“I was guided by the question: Why do we build homes in places that are risky? The answer, as is usually the case, is nuanced and complex,” he said. “News21 gave me the time, resources and training to document that complexity. It is rare that journalists get to ask big questions, and rarer that we get the support to answer them.”

Anton Delgado, a student at Elon University in North Carolina, reported in California and Arizona on how fire-vulnerable communities are searching for ways to live with wildfires.

“News21 encouraged reporters to spend time in disaster-impacted communities and really get to know the people whose stories we were trying to tell, which brought out the best in our journalists,” Delgado said.

Lynn Haven

Natalie Anderson and Jake Goodrick talk to Morgan “Ted” Mahoney of Lynn Haven, Florida, who is in the midst of legal trouble with his contractor while recovering his home eight months after Hurricane Michael. (Peter Nicieja/News21)

In addition to Petchel, Cronkite faculty and staff who worked with students on the project were: assistant editor Maureen West, editor-in-residence at the Cronkite School; Sarah Cohen, former New York Times data editor who serves at the Knight Chair in Data Journalism; multimedia and design editor Alex Lancial; photo and multimedia editor Jim Tuttle; web administrator Nic Lindh; web application developer Adnan Alam; data visualization developer Hari Subramaniam; and copy editor Marty Dolan.

News21 was established in 2005 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to demonstrate that top journalism students can produce groundbreaking reporting on major national topics and present their findings in innovative ways.

Over the past decade, Carnegie-Knight News21 projects have included investigations into hate in America, voting rights, post-9/11 veterans, marijuana laws, drinking water quality and guns in America, among other topics. Projects have won numerous awards, including two Robert F. Kennedy Awards, four EPPY Awards from Editor & Publisher magazine, four Student Edward R. Murrow Awards, and a host of honors from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Hearst Journalism Awards Program, considered the Pulitzer Prizes of college journalism.

Universities participating in the 2019 Carnegie-Knight News21 program were ASU, DePauw University, Dublin City University, Elon University, George Washington University, Indiana University, Kent State University, Louisiana State University, Morgan State University, St. Bonaventure University, Syracuse University, University of British Columbia, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Iowa, University of Mississippi, University of North Texas, University of Oklahoma, University of Tennessee and University of Texas at Austin.

Carnegie-Knight News21 fellows are supported by their universities as well as a variety of foundations, news organizations and philanthropists, including The Arizona Republic, The Dallas Morning News, Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Hearst Foundations, Knight Foundation, Murray Endowment, Myrta J. Pulliam, and John and Patty Williams. Fellows also are supported by gifts honoring the legacies of photographer Charles Cushman and Irish crime reporter Veronica Guerin.

News21 Fellowships:

  • Dallas Morning News Fellow: Briana Castañón, University of North Texas
  • Diane Laney Fitzpatrick Fellow: Anna Huntsman, Kent State University, Ohio
  • Don Bolles/Arizona Republic News21 Fellow: Isaac Windes, ASU
  • Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellows: Yael Grauer, Harrison Mantas, Ellen O’Brien of ASU, and Sarah Beth Guevara, Drew Hutchinson, Bailey Lewis and Brigette Waltermire of the University of Oklahoma
  • Hearst Foundations Fellows: Allie Barton, Molly Duerig, Jordan Elder, Jake Goodrick, Carly Henry, Anya Magnuson, McKenzie Pavacich and Ariel Salk, all of ASU
  • Independent News & Media Fellow: Rachel Farrell, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland
  • John and Patty Williams Fellow: Sophie Grosserode, University of Tennessee
  • Knight Foundation Fellow: Priscilla Malavet, University of Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Murray Endowment Fellow: Becca Scadden, University of Iowa
  • Myrta J. Pulliam Fellows: Katlyn Hunger and Peter Nicieja, DePauw University, Illinois.
  • Reynolds Foundation Fellows: Kailey Broussard and Alex Simon of ASU

Fellows supported by their universities:

  • Appalachian State University, North Carolina: Ben Sessoms
  • Elon University, North Carolina: Anton Delgado
  • George Washington University, Washington, D.C.: Justine Coleman
  • Hofstra University, New York: Jordan Laird
  • Louisiana State University: Natalie Anderson
  • St. Bonaventure University, New York: Christian Gravius
  • Syracuse University, New York: Stacy Fernández
  • University of British Columbia, Canada: Dustin Patar
  • University of Colorado Boulder: Natalie Wadas
  • University of Minnesota: Miguel Octavio and Jacob Steinberg

Past investigations and information on the Carnegie-Knight News21 program can be found on the News21 website.