It was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that The Bee first reported the Sacramento region is the second most vulnerable city in the country to the threat of flooding – behind only New Orleans.
The sudden possibility three weeks ago that the Oroville Dam emergency spillway might fail was a terrifying reminder that for California, weather extremes might be a bigger immediate threat than drought. Almost 200,000 people evacuated in what became, for hours, a giant and panicked traffic jam.
While people fled, Bee journalists drove into the danger zone. We had reporters in Oroville, Colusa, Chico, Yuba City and Marysville. Visual journalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. was in Marysville and Chico. They all got stuck in traffic along with everyone else, in downtowns, residential areas and on highways throughout the region. They improvised, interviewing evacuees at gas stations and in their stopped cars. Dale Kasler made his way back above the dam to hang out with emergency personnel so he could keep the region apprised of the emergency spillway’s precarious stability. One reporter slept in his car overnight. Others bunked with friends or the families of colleagues because evacuees filled the hotels.
Back in Sacramento, at least half the staff rushed to the newsroom to help with the story. The job of water reporters Ryan Sabalow and Kasler was to provide the expertise to help us frame coverage that would be of most value for residents from Oroville to Sacramento. They were assisted by data journalist Phillip Reese, who worked with our graphics/news editor Nathaniel Levine to show the path water would take if the spillway collapsed.
Beyond the context, much of what we do is publish as much information as we can, as fast as we can. We posted more than 30 news updates at sacbee.com through the evening, at least five videos and maps of the dam inundation area and speed at which water would reach different cities in the region. We posted a map of the dam area itself, showing what was happening with the spillway. We told residents where they could find evacuation centers, which ones were full, what was going on with the gridlock, how the state was responding, which Chico hotels already were full, where to take horses and RVs, and importantly, what would happen in a worst-case scenario. We posted much of that information to Facebook as well, tweeted, and sent out email alerts and smartphone notifications. Copy editors and designers working on the printed Bee finished all pages unrelated to the dam so that they could get the latest news into print right before the presses started.
We staffed the story overnight and were back in the office in the wee hours with more reporters and digital producers who could update stories as the region was waking up. Our readership was so high Sunday night and Monday that we had to increase server capacity at sacbee.com to accommodate all the traffic.
Like other news operations, we have technology that tells us how many people are reading our stories and watching our videos. That data showed us the effort we made to keep the region informed was well worth it – everyone was craving information. Our video views, for instance, were six times the expectation for February and over 1 million more than the company record. More people watched dam videos on that Monday than we expected on our entire site in February.
By midafternoon Monday we published answers to questions about the spillway crisis, along with a story revealing that state water officials were warned about the Oroville Dam weakness a dozen years ago. Visual journalist Randy Pench was in the air capturing images for an online photo gallery showing damage to the dam. We also published 23 news updates, keeping a close eye on the weather and water levels, detailing the damage done, revealing that vulnerable Oroville residents without cars had stayed despite the evacuation, reporting school closures and much more.
Our regular readers know that in the ensuing days and weeks we’ve stayed on top of this story, working in particular to answer this question: Can Oroville Dam’s damaged spillway hold up through the rainy season? We’ve looked at how much money the state plans to spend on flood control improvements. We launched a new sacbee.com feature, “How full are Northern California reservoirs and rivers,” that we updated daily through the storms because of reader interest. We’ve shown Oroville Dam’s spillway erosion over time and this past week we showed what the main spillway looks like now, after crews shut it down to assess the damage and clean up the Feather River.
Given the import of flood control and safety in this region – and the strong interest shown by readers – The Bee will continue to publish deeply reported stories throughout the year. Already, we have numerous requests in for public records to better understand decisions that led to the crisis and lack of improvements to the emergency spillway.
Many in our newsroom were working their sixth consecutive day on Friday, Feb. 17, when President Donald Trump tweeted to the world the words I’m guessing will follow him into the history books – his assertion that the media is “the enemy of the American People.”
He then said those words out loud in a speech before the annual Conservative Political Action Conference one week later.
I look around The Bee’s newsroom and what I see are journalists who don’t hesitate to cover news in dangerous situations but rather drive right into it. Journalists who miss valuable family time to rush to the office to report the news so evacuees know where to go. Journalists who sleep in their car when the news demands it, or bunk with a colleague’s in-laws because the hotels are full. Journalists who are part of this community, and who care deeply about it. Journalists who take their children to school and soccer games. Who care for aging parents. Who hike and bike and run. Who garden and cook and pray.
And, importantly, journalists who are committed – always – to public service work, even when it requires challenging those in power, from water officials up to the president.
With enemies like that, who needs friends?