The Backstory: Alex Lubben and Olga Loginova

Reporting on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis

For the past year, a team of journalists from Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity has worked with Type to look into the growing need for climate relocation around the U.S.. Through data analysis and on-the-ground reporting, the series investigates how hurricanes, floods, and wildfires are affecting vulnerable communities, and how the federal government isn’t prepared for the challenge of moving a growing number of people out of harm’s way.

In this conversation, we talk to two members of the “Harm’s Way” reporting team, Alex Lubben and Olga Loginova, about how they obtained the data necessary for the investigation, how they developed sources in affected communities, and the challenges of working on a large project with multiple stories.

Paco Alvarez: Climate change and the problems it’s causing around the country and the world is one of the most important issues of our time. But it’s also a vast topic that’s been reported on extensively. How did you come to focus on the issue of climate relocation and what the government is doing, or not doing, to move people out of harm’s way? What was the reporting process like in the beginning stages? 

Alex Lubben: Well, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, I think I started thinking about it around Sandy. There was some relocation happening in New York, particularly on Staten Island. There was a buyout process that I was following closely, and I’d actually pitched the story and I didn’t land it anywhere. But I’d done a bunch of reporting. I’d been following what had been happening in Isle de Jean Charles for years and years. I think one of the fundamental questions about climate change is here are we to live in a climate change world? And I think I just kept going on that thread, and that led us to this series of stories. 

Olga Loginova:What could I even add to that? It landed on my plate a bit because I got the fellowship. But also as I started to dig deeper and I focused on the stories of communities in Louisiana, in Alaska, and the idea of  climate displacement was kind of touching a chord with me. And even personally. And so the deeper I went the more interested I got into the topic. 

Alex and I started at the same time And there was a lot of reading and there was a lot of reading of Alex’s notes. Alex attended a conference on managed retreat, so basically I had to plunge into it and learn as much as I could in a very short amount of time. I think that was the time when we spoke to dozens of researchers on managed retreat and we tried to kind of use the broad strokes to paint a picture of what’s going on. And the more detailed the picture got, the more we understood that there’s just not enough funding in some communities. And those communities had a lot in common. 

Lubben: I think there’s also a real market failure to like flooded homes. I mean, this is something that strikes me that might require a certain degree of government intervention. There’s no way you can sell a home that’s flooded repeatedly. Poor people can’t afford to move on their own. And I think the idea of people being stranded in place is what we sort of honed in on with this series. People who are in places that are under increasing threat because of climate change hazards. They’re flooded repeatedly. Their houses are burned down several times. You can’t sell a home that’s burned down and you can’t sell a home that’s flooded a bunch. The only recourse for these folks seemed to be to go to the government to ask for some kind of assistance. The same government that would have allowed building in the area in the first place. And what we found was that people weren’t getting the assistance that they pretty desperately needed. 

Alvarez:  So one of the unique things about this project is that the reporting team analyzed three decades of federal disaster declaration data to identify communities repeatedly hit by major hurricanes, floods or wildfires. And you also looked at government spending data to see which communities are receiving assistance to help residents relocate or prepare for future disasters. Did you face any challenges in obtaining the data? Was the process of analyzing the data difficult? 

Lubben: The short answer to that is yes. Every step in this was difficult. The first idea that we had in terms of the data that we really wanted to look at was we wanted to get our hands on essentially rejected applications to the programs that we were interested in. So we wanted the applications from communities who had applied for help to relocate and hadn’t been able to secure funding for whatever project they were seeking. So to that end, we filed a FOIA in August of like basically exactly a year ago. I think it might have been a year ago today [August 11], actually. We filed a FOIA with FEMA asking for four applications that they had not approved for a slew of programs. Olga filed a FOIA for us to HUD. Neither of those came back. We did get some documents back from FEMA in the end about a week before we published. So basically a full year later. HUD did not send us anything. So what we ended up doing was analyzing, mostly publicly available data. The one other dataset that we got was on address level data on complete a team of buyouts, where FEMA had purchased property and demolished the house, returned the land to open space. Focus of the second story, really. 

Loginova: Just one note for the spirit of fairness: HUD did get back to us with one portion of the requested documents, but again, that portion was pretty much available online. That’s probably not the appropriate platform to compare, but I had this relationship with HUD FOIA officers, as if they were boyfriends who would ghost me or gaslight me. They’re either passive aggressive or just hostile or just disappear for months. And this has just been a very strange experience considering that you are working with a federal agency. 

Lubben: I had forgotten about that HUD response. But so yeah, we ended up working with mostly publicly available data and this buy outdata to basically look at places that were highly impacted by climate related disasters. And experts told us that those were really, you know, there are other types of disasters that are likely climate impacted. But in the interest of being conservative, in terms of just looking at disasters that were certainly going to increase with climate change, the hurricanes, floods and wildfires, places that were highly impacted by those three types of disasters, places that hadn’t gotten much federal funding or had gotten a lot of federal funding through the programs that we were interested in. And then we looked at the demographics of those places to see are places that are getting a lot of funding through these programs, more white or less white? Are they more rich or more poor? Are there other demographic factors that sort of, you know, correlate with the amount of funding that a community might get? And that was really yeah, that’s what we ended up doing. We also worked with a researcher at Columbia who created a – Olga, what’s the word I’m looking for? 

Loginova: Ballistic model.

Lubben: There you go. She pooled our data into a model that basically allows us to say communities in this state that have experienced more disasters are more likely to have a higher proportion of residents of color. So for me, one of the nice things about this fellowship is that we were given time to sort of learn new skills. I didn’t really know how to do any of this before I started. This was my first big data project. I learned how to map with GIS. I have spent more hours staring at Excel than I ever had before. It was a lot of work. A lot of work. And Zak, my co-reporter on the data section, really did a lot of the heavy lifting too. 

Alvarez: How did the data analysis help you and the rest of the reporting team decide where to do on the ground reporting? 

Lubben: We used to it in two ways. One was to take a nationwide look at how these programs were operating and the other way, you know, to be able to say things like in counties with more Black residents, you know, there tends to be less FEMA through these programs. I’m not sure that that’s exactly true across the country. Take a look at the stories because we put that statement very clearly. 

But the other thing that we did with the data was: these are defined communities to go report on further. There wasn’t in the end a like, super formulaic way that we identified communities that we wanted to report on. We wanted a mix of different types of communities, we wanted very rural communities. We had a community in Alaska which didn’t appear in the dataset at all. We had communities in the Midwest that have experienced multiple floods and were predominantly poor and black. I think we also wanted to be focused on communities that were representative of the problems like nationwide. So if a community that was highly impacted by hurricanes across the country, those communities tend are Gulf communities. They tend to have a higher proportion of black residents. We wanted to feature a community that was highly impacted by hurricanes that had a higher proportion of black residents. Same went for fires and floods. 

We were looking across like all of the different, you know, whether they had a lot of FEMA spending with it, whether they were highly impacted by disasters and what the demographics were like. You plug this all into a map so we could see it and zoom in. And yeah, it really informed it was sort of like in the early process of reporting these stories, we really tried to allow ourselves to be guided by the data. Olga, you went through all of this with us. Like even though I was manipulating the data, you were looking for these communities and trying to decide what to focus on. 

Loginova: I think we were going step instep because of course. Both Alex and I were trained in science reporting. We come from the same program. So some things seem very intuitive and natural. You would expect hurricanes somewhere in the Gulf, in Louisiana, Texas. You’re also always kind of inundated with the news about disasters. I think we felt strongly that there was supposed to be a system and then some sort of order, even if it was not rigid. So we would get back and talk and we talked a lot. What shows up in the data and what stories are there and what’s being untold . 

Sometimes you could see how data is very helpful, but also sometimes you see how imperfect it can be. Because like for instance, and Alex, correct me if I’m wrong, if we look at our first day story, or our first story in the series kind of plunges into the snapshot of the community in Louisiana, in the Ironton community. Plaquemines Parish. And if you look at the FEMA spending there, there’s a lot of money. Right. But does it end up where it is needed? And what we found out through our reporting and field reporting is that, no, there is no money there. And what kind of a community is this? And we understand that this is a historical Black community. And then they have been struggling with getting funding for decades, if not hundreds of years. Well, it’s 200 years old. I think the communication between us was very important. And yeah, we tried to kind of build a path and support our data with what we see from talking to people and just also kind of making our on the ground, or on the phone initially, reporting richer and deeper, but looking at the numbers. 

And also, I think Alaska was a great example. And I’m going to wrap this portion up. It’s not in the data. And this also is a story like the maps, FEMA maps like flat flood, plain flat flood maps. They’re not there. They’re imperfect. You don’t see the numbers in all the other datasets. So what do we do? Do we exclude Alaska or do we just try to actually put it on the map or on the mind map for all of us? Telling that this is the problem. This is a story. And there are hundreds of Alaska native villages that are kind of right now struggling. So that’s what we did. 

Alvarez: Olga for the third article in the series, you and your co-author Zak Cassel spent a lot of time in Louisiana reporting on the Isle de Jean Charles project, which is the test case for how the government could voluntarily resettle communities threatened by climate change. As you detail in your reporting, this was a messy, complicated project with multiple stakeholders: the federal government, state agencies, a nonprofit group and two local tribes. How did you go about developing sources in these communities? 

Loginova: Very slowly and very carefully. Alex just mentioned that he’s been hearing and kind of keeping track of the story for years. Right. So the fact that Isle de Jean Charles is kind of crumbling or losing land. It’s not news. People have known about it for decades. And of course, this is the community that experiences some of the most extreme effects of climate change. They have lost 98% of the landmass. And they got the money for resettling, at least like on the surface. This is what you hear. Like when I was doing the research of news clips and what’s been told and all the numerous documentaries, what struck me or what caught my attention is that they’re like two different narratives. There is the first, the overwhelming, positive, optimistic narrative that these people are the first climate refugees, climate pioneers. This is the preferred term that the state uses to describe people who live on the island. 

But then the more we read about it, the more we understood that this optimistic story is so simplistic. And when I started – first of all, the first people who I could get a hold of were the researchers who worked on the project, who supported one or both tribes, and somehow a very different narrative emerged. And just through trying to pull the threads together, I realized that the reality on the ground is one thing and the media narrative is a very different thing and it’s not helping in some ways. For months, I personally was not sure that I could tell the story because I could not reach the tribal citizens. And also I’m not indigenous. You know, as you can hear, I’m not even from around here, so it was never a given that I would be that this door would open. 

Of course, we could report around that. And we filed for a public record surrounding the whole process, the six year old project that the state of Louisiana was administering to resettle people from the island. This is very like on the surface, again, very simple. There is this island that’s crumbling. There are people who live on the island. There are not too many people. Not too many. So basically you need to kind of pick them up and put them in a different location, which is also not so far away. 40 miles away. But not so simple, of course. Of course, we could see the papers and what people were saying to each other, but that was not telling the whole story. So I just kept calling and emailing and really reading the same documents over and over again. Over and over again. 

Then I just kind of found personal phone numbers for chiefs of several tribes and then just started calling them and leaving voicemails. And all of a sudden, I don’t know. I don’t know who helped me. And I’m pretty sure that I had a lot of help. I would not be able to tell the story without the help from – well, stakeholder, I don’t know how I feel about it because those are all people who have been and are involved. And the tribes, the researchers, the NGO that l still works for the tribe and helps the tribe, another tribe, the United Houma Nation, and then the OCD, the Louisiana Office of Community Development, they, like many people, have burned out on this project. They work so hard. And those are not just abstract people. And those were people who also felt that the story needed to be told. Without them, this would not be possible. It’s only because I have pretty decent relationships with members of each community and who somehow miraculously trust me, or maybe they don’t trust me, but they tolerate me enough. I think that’s probably the fair way to put it. because again, I’m a stranger to them. But I think every single person there understands how important it is and how important what has been happening is. And they all kind of all parties feel that this story has not been told or has not been told correctly. And so somehow I was in the right place in the right time. And maybe the fact that I am kind of a foreigner, maybe it made it easier in a way. The only party I couldn’t talk to was HUD. I hoped they would.

Alvarez: What do you think journalists should keep in mind when reporting on communities that are socially and economically vulnerable? 

Loginova: First thing, don’t call them vulnerable. I think that’s the key thing. They’re not vulnerable. Like very often these communities are really resilient. Very smart. They know how to lead their lives. It’s very often people of different color with different incomes, with different amounts of power who kind of put them in conditions that make them vulnerable. So I think that’s the first thing, don’t consider or call them vulnerable. 

And also you need to be self-aware, who you are, where you come from. On the one hand, I have no relation to anyone, but also I have no relation to either of you. Who am I to tell anyone’s story? But if I start over thinking that, I’m like, what am I going to do? Right? We’re still humans and we all have had our lives. And there is a part that can connect. So be empathetic because those are human beings who sometimes have to solve dilemmas and problems that probably would not be solvable by a nuclear physicist because they have to navigate systems that have been built to make everything difficult or just impossible. For instance, like I talked to a lawyer who tries to help a few families in Louisiana. a few  Black families to get individual aid from FEMA. And this is a lawyer who has a Ph.D. and she. You know, has tried to understand the system for decades, and she doesn’t know how to answer the questions in the application. Why is that? Why is the system like why do you need a peace deal to get help after a disaster? So I think that’s also very important to keep in mind. And again, just to be a human being like. You’re a human being. Yeah, you tell stories, but. . . I think as humans we have a lot in common. More in common that, you know, with other species. But also be aware of your differences and just be genuine, humble and grateful, really, because they don’t have to talk to them. 

Lubben: I think I really learned to allow communities not to trust you at first through this reporting project. Olga’s put this well already but this came up for me in Freeport, which was in a day story. There were a lot of folks, you know, who really just didn’t want to talk. I was a white reporter coming into a predominantly Black community. But I think giving folks the space not to trust you allowed them to eventually sort of come back around and be willing to talk to me. Interestingly enough, like after the first story published ten days ago or whatever, I got calls from folks in Freeport who are like, Oh, this is the kind of reporting that you’re doing? Like, we want to talk to you now. It took. For some people, it took a while. But I think, you know, the feedback that I’m getting after publication from them is good, I think. This is the luxury of this kind of reporting is that you get to give people time to consider whether or not they want to engage with you. And the longer you stick around, the more likely and the more understanding you are of why people might not want to talk to you. I think the more likely they are to eventually come around. 

Alvarez: What were some of the challenges of working on a project with multiple stories and multiple reporters? 

Lubben: I think it took us a really long time to figure out how we were going to structure the series. We spent like the first, like five months of this project, like gathering reporting from everywhere. Like I did a bunch of reporting in Washington state that didn’t make it into the series or get it reporting along that Texas-Mexico border that didn’t make it in. But, you know, we were just really like fanning out, looking for communities that we thought might make compelling case studies for the problems with the programs that we were trying to illustrate. But it wasn’t until like, I don’t know, maybe February. We’ve been working on reporting on these stories for several months before we decided to do a three story series. The first one is ultimately about places that tried to get help to relocate but didn’t get it. Second story is about places that actually got the grant, but still, things weren’t going so well. And then the third story was focused on Isle de Jean Charles specifically. That didn’t come until way later. And it took a lot of back and forth to figure out how to do that. 

Loginova: I think we decided earlier because I went to Louisiana in January. 

Lubben I think we knew that the Jean Charles story was going to be a standalone. Because then, you know, we were thinking about doing just like five case studies. And we were like, we can’t do that too much. Three stories ended up being a lot. I can’t imagine what five would have been like. 

But yeah, in terms of working with multiple reporters and multiple editors, this was like the biggest team project that I’ve personally ever worked on. We had four reporters and three editors and then like a data editor and other folks involved. I mean, Jamie did a great tweet thread last week thanking everybody who was involved in the list is like enormous. There was just a lot of communication that had to happen. We were constantly talking. Olga’s already mentioned that she and I were constantly talking, but we were all talking. Zak and I were talking. Julie and I were talking. And then we were all talking to the editors, like, constantly. I was actually talking to an old boss of mine about this project a couple of weeks ago, and I was like, I mean, there were a lot of people involved. There were three editors. And he was surprised when I told him that I thought that that had made the story better. He was like, usually having so many people involved, like things just get bogged down, really at the end of the day, like, everyone brought a lot to these stories. I think having three sets of editing eyes on it in particular was crucial. And these stories are big and complicated. A lot of cuts had to be made and the stories and like a lot of tightening of language and making sure that everything was clear. Having editors come in at different points in the process, actually, really, I think, benefited the series. 

Loginova: One thing to add to that is just from a personal perspective, it was a lot of work. I think the topic was, so what’s the right word? It affects everyone. It affects us. It affects everyone in the country, really affects everyone in this world. And we hear about it every day. Right. The heat waves in Europe and Asia, many African countries – everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. It was all encompassing and. I think that’s the only thing I’ve been thinking about throughout the year. No, there was a war. But between the war and climate change, that was it. That kind of became Modus operandi. You wake up, you think about it, you think about your stories, you think about what’s happening and what’s the legislation? What are these folks doing? What are these folks doing? How are these people doing? What’s the solution? And in a way, I think it was kind of also not a light story because there is no easy way out. And it’s not an unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a solution story because what we show is kind of pretty dramatic. And sad. And personally, I feel this sadness and just always thinking, what can we do better? What are people asking for? Why people aren’t doing more?

Alvarez: And so my last question is what advice would you have for reporters interested in working on larger collaborative projects? 

Lubben:  Yeah, I mean, it’s hard to do. Like, it’s hard to do without the structure of a fellowship, like the one that we were in for. Without a newsroom, like the Center for Public Integrity or Type like we had. We just had a lot of resources behind this project. So I guess the first piece of advice is like find yourself a newsroom that does this kind of work and connect with them. And there aren’t that many out there. But if you can get a foot in the door with them, then that is the first step for sure. 

As far as actually going through a big collaborative process. I mean, we definitely all said the same thing over and over again to several people. Like there is a certain amount of patience that you have to have when you’re working with so many different people. Like getting everybody on the same page takes time, but the projects really do turn out better for it. But getting a bunch of people on the same page helps sharpen your ideas and helps make the project really concise and strong. But it does take some patience.This project took. Yeah, this, I think, is it. Working with a large group of people might extend the time that it takes to produce a project like this. And that’s something you got to be willing to have happen.

Loginova: Yeah. I totally and fully agree with you. I think having a newsroom backing you up is paramount. And having the freedom of knowing I can do this research and it doesn’t have to lead somewhere in particular for this story, but it’s still valuable. We did research in Colonias in the south of Texas or along the U.S.-Mexican border of Texas. There is, of course, in other states. No. I don’t know if it’s possible that that’s my honest response. You really need to be independently wealthy to do it as a freelancer. 

Lubben:  There’s no way to do it as a freelancer. 

Loginova:  I feel like I happen to be the shorter end of the – well, another researcher called me a hunter gatherer because for a portion of time I was on grants and I felt it. I feel it now. Hunting and gathering and it’s the harvest season. So just also, I don’t know, there should be discussion with the newsroom like, what are you thinking? If you really need quality work that takes months to produce, you really need to have those people and cultivate them. This is important. 

But I think there’s no doubt that the story, these stories that we have been working on, I think we all went in knowing that these are important stories. And as we continue talking and working on them, we understood just how much more important than we thought initially the stories can be.

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