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Dangerous levees How they got that story

In this May 19, 2011 file photo, a row of flooded farm homes are pictured near Yazoo City, Miss. (AP Photo/Dave Martin, File)

In a memo to AP staff, Managing Editor for State News Kristin Gazlay recounts how one reporter in Traverse City, Mich., and another based in New Orleans used freedom of information law and their own interviewing skills over many weeks to document how 326 levees covering more than 2,000 miles in 37 states need urgent repair.

For months, John Flesher and Cain Burdeau examined the condition of the nation’s levees, setting a goal of conducting the first analysis into the state of the system that keeps thousands of communities safe and dry.

Flesher, the Traverse City, Mich., correspondent, and Burdeau, a New Orleans newsman, filed a FOIA seeking raw levee inspection data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but their request was rejected on national security grounds. Their next avenue was an online inventory the Corps was planning to post to the public, which included the inspection reports. But that database had not yet been fully populated.

Undeterred, the two reporters interviewed local levee operators across the country and obtained inspection documents and reports that shed light on problems with the system. Then, when that reporting was nearly complete, the Corps’ website put up enough data to round out the duo’s weeks upon weeks of reporting.

The result? An AP Impact story that detailed how hundreds of flood control systems were at risk of failing, endangering people and property in 37 states. The story revealed that 326 levees covering more than 2,000 miles were deemed in urgent need of repair. The most common levee deficiencies: earthen walls weakened by trees and animal burrows, design or construction flaws, and decayed pipes and pumping stations. Houses and other structures also were built on or dangerously close to levees in violation of the Corps’ own rules.

The story was accompanied by a video piece shot by Haven Daley and an interactive by Dan Kempton that included a searchable database by state and county, so members could see the condition of levees in their own areas. 

For persistent reporting on a story of significant local and national import, Flesher and Burdeau win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.


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