Case Studies in Earth & Environmental Science Journalism

Hurricane Katrina: Understanding and Conveying the Risk from Natural Disaster


Session 1:  Background articles,  Science papers,  and Public Education & Preparedness materials

Session 2:  Popular articles: 

Session 3:  Guest scientist:   Art Lerner-Lam,  L-DEO

Questions to Ponder and Discuss

• The background section of the reading book contains an article on hurricanes from the Wikipedia.  What is the Wikipedia?  Of what use can it be to use as a journalist trying to come up to speed on a new topic? 

• Interpret the data sets given at  in terms of what you know about hurricane processes.

• We have a section in this reading book we haven’t had in other cases:  “Materials for Public Education & Preparedness.” This is a kind of technical writing,  but different from most of what we have read this year.   What is different about these kinds of materials from most science or technical writing?

• The  science section of the reading book contains a section from on the possible relationship between  climate change and hurricanes.   How could you use as a journalist?   Are the comments (303 comments in response to the hurricanes/climate change article)  useful to you, and if so, how?  What are the advantages  and disadvantages of such a blog article relative to a peer-reviewed article?

• Adger et al, 2005, “Social-ecological resilience to coastal disasters,” was published in Science two weeks before Katrina struck.   Evaluate New Orleans according to Adger et al’s criteria for resilience.

• Spell out what has to happen (in terms of understanding, communications and action) to get society from an understanding of hurricane processes to a society with a relatively low risk of hurricane-caused destruction.    Can your model be generalized to cover other natural disasters?

• Compare and contrast the coverage of Hurricane Katrina with what you remember about the coverage of the 2004 Sumatran earthquake and tsunami.

• Geoscientists of my (Kim’s) generation were trained to think about the past.  Today, and throughout your career,  geoscientists are being asked to think about the future.  What tensions and opportunities does this present for the geoscience community?  For journalists who cover the earth and environment?

• The Times-Picayune of New Orleans covered the hurricane threat extensively,  most notably in their award winning 5-part series “Washing Away.”  Can you think of anything else they might have done to increase the awareness of the New Orleans population about the risk of hurricanes?

• Do you think that the media overplays risk (of natural disaster and other catastrophe)?   Why or why not?

• How did different journalists and publications handle the question of whether or not anthropogenic climate change is changing the abundance or intensity of hurricanes?   What strategies did journalists use to convey uncertainty about this question?   Can you think of any other way to get across this uncertainty?

• What roles did the media play in the Katrina aftermath?  Consider print,  television,  radio, and new media (of all kinds).    Consider the breaking-news coverage you saw during and after Katrina,  not just the articles in the reading book.

• What kinds of natural disasters is your home town vulnerable to?    Imagine that you cover science & environment for your home town newspaper.   What could you do now to prepare for covering an upcoming natural  disaster?

• A natural disaster focuses the publics minds temporarily but intensively on natural earth processes.  While you have their attention,  what larger message or messages would you want to get across to them,  and how would you do so?


Background information:

Braun, Josh, Cybu Richli, John Beven, James Franklin and Kerry Emanuel, Cribsheet #6: Hurricanes, Seed

Wikipedia, Tropical Cyclone, page last modified 10/17/05,

Louisiana Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness Pages:

Williams, Jack. 9/15/05, Storm surges: How hurricanes create killer surges.  USA Today.

Hurricane categories: Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale. related/HURRICANECATEGORIES.htm

Williams, Jack. Accessed 10/18/05.  Weather: Understanding air density and its effects.  USA Today.

Williams, Jack. Accessed 10/18/05.  Weather: Pressure differences get the wind going.  USA Today.

Williams, Jack. Accessed 10/18/05.  Weather: Understanding air density and its effects.  USA Today.

Williams, Jack. Accessed 10/18/05.  Weather: Understanding the Coriolis force.  USA Today.

Accessed 10/18/05. Weather: Atmospheric science resources.  USA Today. .

Updated 7/23/04.  Hurricane Pam exercise concludes.  FEMA: Region VI.

Laska, Shirley.  November 2004.  What if Hurricane Ivan had not missed New Orleans?  Natural Hazards Observer: XXIX (2).

Pinter, Nicholas.  4/8/05.  Policy Forum: One step forward, two steps back on U.S. floodplains.  Science, 308: 207-208.

Scientific & Engineering Information.

Updated 10/18/05.  Tides Online: Hurricane Katrina storm tide quick look. NOAA.

Burkett, Virginia R., David B. Zilkoski and David Hart.  2003.  Sea-level rise and subsidence: Implications for flooding in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Conference Proceedings 2003: Proceedings of Technical Meeting USGS Subsidence Interest Group Conference, Nov. 27, 2001, Galveston,  TX.  USGS Open File Report 10-308.

Bouwer, Greg.  2003.  The creeping storm.  Civil Engineering Magazine. June 2003.

Adger, W. Neil, Terry P. Hughes, Carl Folke, Stephen R. Carpenter, Johan Rockstrom.  2005.  Social-ecological resilience to coastal disasters.  Science, 309: 1036-1039.

Materials for Public Education & Preparedness.

American Red Cross and FEMA. August 1992.  After the flood: The first steps.  America Red Cross (ARC 4476) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA L-198).

FEMA.  October 1998.  Taking shelter from the storm: Building a safe room inside your house, First Edition.  Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA 320).

Hurricane information and database information.  9/23/05.  Horseman’s guide of south central region.

FEMA and American Red Cross. October 1993.  Disaster preparedness coloring book. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA 243E).

Popular Stories: Predictions of Disaster & Risk

Bourne, Joe.  9/15/00.  Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands: Going, Going… Science: 289 (5486): 1860-1863.

Fischetti, Mark.  2001.  Drowning New Orleans.  Scientific American, October 2001, 76-85.

Nordheimer, Jon.  2002.  Nothing’s easy for New Orleans flood control.  NYT.  April 30, 2002.

Special Report.  2002.  Washing Away: Special Report from the Times-Picayune.  Five Part Series June 23- June 27, 2002.  Reprinted on the nola website:

Cohen, Adam.  2002.  If the big one hits, New Orleans could disappear.  The New York Times.  August 11, 2002. 

Schleifstein, Mark.  2004.  Corps sees its resources siphoned off; Wetlands restoration officials sent to Iraq.  Times-Picayune.  April 24, 2004.

2004.  In case of emergency. Times-Picayune.  July 20, 2004.  Reprinted on Louisiana Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness website:

Bourne, Joel K. Jr.  2004.  Gone with the water.  National Geographic. October 2004

Penland, Shea.  2005.  Taming the river to let in the sea.  Natural History. February 2005, 42-47.

Gilgoff, Dan. 2005.  Big blow in the big easy.  US News.  July 18, 2005.

Froomkin, Dan.  2005.  A dearth of answers.  Washington Post.  September 1, 2005.

Assorted Cartoonist.  2005.  Display of political cartoons.  USA Today.  September 2, 2005.

Editorial.  2005.  City’s defenses weakened, ignored.  USA Today.  September 2, 2005.

Fischetti, Mark.  2005.  They saw it coming.  NYT Op Ed.  September 2, 2005.

Travis, John and Carolyn Gramling. 2005. Scientists’ fears come true as hurricane floods New Orleans.  Science. September 9, 2005.  309: 1656-1659.

Calame, Byron.  2005.  Covering New Orleans: The decade before the storm.  NYT.  September 11, 2005.

Lemann, Nicholas.  2005.  The talk of the town: Comment on the ruins.  The New Yorker.  September 12, 2005.  p. 33-36.

Gilgoff, Dan.  2005.  Understanding Katrina: Everyone knew it was coming.  So why couldn’t disaster have been avoided?  US News & World Report.  September 12, 2005.  p. 27-32.

Science & Technology Articles: Link Between Hurricanes & Climage Change

Emanuel, Kerry.  8/4/05.  Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years.  Nature: 436: doi:10.1038/nature03906

Webster, P. J., G. J. Holland, J. A. Curry, H.-R. Chang.  9/16/05.  Changes in tropical cyclone number, duration, and intensity in a warming environment.  Science.  309: 1844-1846.

Trenberth, K.E., P. D. Jones, P. Ambenje, R. Bojariu, D. Easterling, A. Klein Tank, D. Parker, F. Rahimzadeh, J. A. Renwick, M. Rusticucci, B. Sodden and P. Zhai, 2007: Observations: Surface and Atmospheric Climate Change.  In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)].  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Popular Stories: Link Between Hurricanes & Climage Change

Gelbspan, Ross.  2005.  Katrina’s real name.  The Boston Globe.  August 30, 2005. 

Chang, Kenneth.  2005.  Storms vary with cycles, experts say.  NYT.  August 30, 2005. 

Glassman, James K.  2005.  Katrina and disgusting exploitation.  Tech Central Station.  August 31, 2005.

Milloy, Steven.  2005.  Katrina kicks up storm of global warming debate.  Fox News.  September 1, 2005. 

Emanuel, Kerry.  2005.  Hurricanes and climate change.  Living on Earth (NPR).  September 2, 2005.

Monastersky, Richard.  2005.  Stronger Hurricanes?  Researchers debate whether global warming will make storms more destructive.  Chronicles of Higher Education.  September 8, 2005.

Kristof, Nicholas D. 2005.  The storm next time.  NYT Op Ed.  September 11, 2005.

Kerr, Richard, A.  2005.  Is Katrina a harbinger of still more powerful hurricanes.  Science. 309: 1807.

Anon.  2005.  Science and technology: Storm surge.  Economist.  September 17, 2005.  p. 81.

Spotts, Peter N.  2005. Hurricanes are packing more punch. September 23, 2005.

Hayden. Thomas. 2006. Super Storms: No end in sight. National Geographic Magazine. August 2006, pgs. 66-77.

Rogers, Teri Karush. 2007. How safe is my home? The New York Times: Real Estate Desk March 11, 2007, pg. 1, Section 11, Column 1.

Anonymous.  2007.  Row Rages Over Climate Change Hurricane Link. The Financial Times Limited, Irish Independent.  August 21, 2007.

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