When natural disaster affects your community, be prepared to cover it — and save lives — with the help of public records.
Before catastrophe strikes
Some of the best reporting exposes vulnerabilities before disaster hits.
•Look at single-family-home building permits issued by your county government for areas prone to flooding or wildfires.
•Examine city or county inspection records of buildings to see if they are earthquake-ready.
•Request to see tornado siren testing inspections to identify failing sirens, or plot them on a map to see if areas of your community won’t hear the sirens.
•Tap into dam inspection records to see if there are dams that won’t survive the next big flood. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers no longer provides the national inventory of dams, but you can usually get the same information from a state agency.
During the disaster
Public records can be useful on deadline as well.
•Provide context by comparing your current disaster to previous catastrophes. The National Weather Service maintains a database of “storm events,” such as tornadoes, hurricanes, snowstorms, flash floods and hail. The database includes latitude and longitude, so you can plot disasters on an online map using free Google Fusion Tables or Socrata. You can buy the database, covering 1950 through 2009, from Investigative Reporters and Editors for as little as $75.
•Get lists of volunteers, damage inspectors and other people hired by the government to assist victims, go into homes, and supervise equipment and property. Run those names through court records to see how many convicted felons are put in positions of trust.
•Many emergency management agencies submit daily reports summarizing the extent of the damage and resources committed to dealing with the disaster. For example, the U.S. Forest Service issues daily 209 reports when fighting wildfires.
Covering the aftermath
Examine how government dollars are spent — or misspent — cleaning up after disasters.
•The Small Business Administration keeps a database recording disaster loans, including the company name, date of loan, type of disaster, amount and whether it was paid off.
•The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides aid to local governments through its Public Assistance Grant Program and aid to people through its Individuals and Households Program. Examining those records, the South Florida Sun Sentinel found that FEMA wasted $530 million in aid following a 2004 hurricane.
•Request the National Emergency Management Information System database that includes assistance to individuals.
•Look at contracts government agencies issue to companies to clean up after disasters. For example, in 2008, the San Diego Union-Tribune exposed fraud in a city program intended to help homeowners recover after a wildfire.
David Cuillier is the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, a former newspaper reporter and editor, and an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism. Check out the FOI FYI blog at blogs.spjnetwork.org/foi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.