This year, Poynter oversaw a grant program for climate change reporting funded by the Joyce Foundation. We share results as projects reach completion.
Climate change is making flooding worse. This is not just an ocean or riparian problem. When the heavens open, any place is vulnerable.
In inner metro Detroit, far from the shores of Lake Erie, a 2014 flood wiped out research worth an estimated $300 million at a General Motors facility. Independent online news service Planet Detroit says its readers should know their region is ill-prepared for future flooding. And that’s ultimately what landed us in November in the middle of a 250-foot-wide drainage canal in Sterling Heights, about 25 miles north of downtown Detroit.
The release was the bonus event following a October 5-part series on water issues in metro Detroita joint effort of Planet Detroit and Michigan Radio.
Drainage channels can be grim, concrete affairs. This one is charming – meticulously designed, but charming all the same. The tall grass on the upper banks sways in the November breeze. There are oats, sedges and Indian grass. Deeper in the basin, some white asster flowers remain. Each plant has been picked for a particular quality: long, thick stems, deep roots, ability to hold soil in place.
Less bucolic, under the grasses and plants runs a concrete pipe 4 feet in diameter. Between the greenware and the hardware, this channel does serious work.
The pragmatic point of the tour was that this 5-mile canal — upgraded at a cost of about $2.1 million in recent years – treats approximately 160 million gallons per year of urban stormwater. When heavy rains hit, they capture and slow down millions of gallons that would otherwise overflow the land downstream.
Helping area residents understand the threat, gaps in the area’s flood control system and potential solutions has shaped the Planet Detroit series. The Sterling Canal works, but it’s far from enough in a region where taxpayers are wary of big projects and cooperation between municipalities can be difficult to forge.
“I don’t think anyone is really reporting on this major issue,” said Nina Ignaczak, founder of Planet Detroit. “We were one of the first to report that flooding could be a major public health problem on Detroit’s east side, but little is known about what will happen with climate change.”
The central theme of Poynter’s Beat Academy is to help journalists show local relevance to major national issues. Our 2023 sessions on climate change, supported by the Joyce Foundation and guided by Central Climatepointed Ignaczak to web tools that map the impacts of rising temperatures down to the county, even to the street level.
Critical point for Ignaczak, one of these sources, Première Rue Foundationhad just released a study finding that the Detroit area was particularly vulnerable to rain-induced flooding, something federal maps don’t fully account for.
“Those two things were kind of linked in my head and I’m like, oh, we should look at that,” Ignaczak said.
The final ingredient was money. This came from the Joyce Foundation, which provided the funds to pay four reporting projects outside the Beat Academy class.
Planet Detroit took readers through the history and data of the flooding that overwhelmed local systems. It’s not that local agencies haven’t acted; Some have done so, but what they have put in place is not enough to deal with the current threat, let alone the escalating one. The series visited projects that worked and those that failed. Reporters spent time with residents of a Detroit neighborhood caught in a bind: The neighborhood faces chronic flooding, but because of that it is largely barred from being part of a government-funded solution. federal government.
Michigan Radio has been a key partner, both in expanding the series’ reach and in giving Ignaczak the editing she often goes without. Ignaczak said Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio helped her bridge the gap between the data and the typical reader.
“Maybe because I knew the technical side of the system it was harder for me to simplify, or what I needed to simplify just wasn’t intuitive,” she said.
Ignaczak may have come to Poynter via the Beat Academy, but she’s not your typical beat reporter. A decade before turning to journalism, she was an environmental planner in a county just northwest of Detroit proper. She thought she could report on how governments manage the water issue.
“I went into this knowing a little bit about the subject and knowing who some of the players were,” she said.
Not only did she know them; she worked with several. She could speak the language of acre feet of water (enough to flood a football field a foot deep), retention ponds, and vegetative swales (ditches planted to slow stormwater runoff and absorb it into floor). For the most part, everyone shared the same concerns about the increasing frequency of powerful storms.
In this regard, Ignaczak noticed a fundamental change in his former colleagues.
“When I worked in county government, we couldn’t use the words ‘climate change’ in our communications,” she said. “It was like our gag rule. Everything is different now. »
Ignaczak launched Planet Detroit in 2019, not only to dig deeper into environmental stories, but to change the way those stories were covered.
“I thought it would be great if we had a publication that really highlighted some of the popular voices that I saw being systematically ignored,” she said. “We don’t give credit to local activists. They’re sort of, you know, the crazy people on the block, the people who complain about these things. So I wanted to just try and experiment. See if we can add anything else.
Planet Detroit grew slowly. It now has three paid staff and a long list of diverse writers. “It’s always bothered me that our area is so segregated,” Ignaczak said. Partnerships, like the one with Michigan Radio, have expanded its reach. They won awards. The company has achieved a certain stability, enough for Ignaczak to boast of a certain success.
“I think we’ve raised awareness of issues and brought up voices that weren’t heard before,” she said. “And I think we have influenced the way some media outlets approach these issues.”