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Historic flooding in Louisiana

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Many media were slow to respond to the historic flooding in Louisiana this month, but not The Associated Press. AP journalists provided timely, perceptive and poignant spot and enterprise stories from the very first hours of the torrential rains.

Aggressive cross-format coverage by a staff focused on stories of real people were key to covering the disaster. In text, the reporters included New Orleans administrative correspondent Rebecca Santana; Baton Rouge correspondent Melinda Deslatte; and newsmen Mike Kunzelman in Baton Rouge and Kevin McGill in New Orleans. Freelance photographer Max Becherer and video journalists John Mone of Houston, and Josh Replogle of Miami rounded out AP’s team on the ground.

Conditions were tough. Staffers had to navigate flood waters and closed roadways. When it wasn’t raining it was hot and muggy. Replogle waded through chest deep waters with his camera clutched above his head to get a shot of a family returning to their home for the first time and finding their cat alive. Becherer drove through darkness to connect with the National Guard in Livingston Parish, spent half a day riding through precariously high waters with the Guard and then slept in the back of his truck.

Deep South Editor Jim Van Anglen coordinated among staff and the regional desk to ensure AP had a clear focus each day – something that allowed AP to move the story line forward instead of just reacting to the news.

AP journalists covered the heart-wrenching stories of those caught in the rising waters, weaving those into the harder news. They framed coverage each day around reporting threads, drawing on experience gained from covering other major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. One piece focused on how a so-called 1,000-year storm caught everyone by surprise. Another was about the housing crisis to come as residents sought places to stay; and yet others detailed the gruesome problem of caskets being unearthed and the searches of homes for survivors.

One story recounted the hellish summer the city of Baton Rouge has endured following the shooting death of a black man by police, the subsequent ambush of three law enforcement officers and now the flooding. In spite of those difficulties, the story struck an unexpectedly encouraging note as people talked about how the flooding caused them to come together.

“You have had a summer of pain, too, covering these awful stories. And it was great that you could see this light in such dark days.

“This is a lovely,surprisingly hopeful step-back story,” Marjorie Miller,vice president and director of global news and enterprise,wrote to the staff.

“You have had a summer of pain,too, covering these awful stories. And it was great that you could see this light in such dark days.”

In other highlights,Deslatte was one of the few reporters to fly with the governor when he surveyed the damage by air – a request she knew to make because she’d covered Katrina and knew how important those helicopter trips were. Other reporters soon began putting in similar requests.

Becherer alone on the ground over the weekend arranged for editors to contact the people he photographed by telephone so they could be interviewed,part of the crucial teamwork that allowed AP to deliver stories rich in detail – such as a story about the struggles of one small church congregation.

Mone and Replogle covered the return of evacuees whose homes had been destroyed; family members searching for the caskets of loved ones, swept away from cemeteries by the high waters; and a makeshift animal shelter set up by volunteers to save rescued pets. An example: http://bit.ly/2bZqam2

Deslatte also found time during the week to also help score a sports scoop on the NBA moving its all-star game to New Orleans next year.

AP’s flood coverage played strongly in all corners of Louisiana and beyond.

Play included hundreds of thousands of total engagements and thousands of Tweets. Mesfin Fekadu’s exclusive (http://apne.ws/2ba4Wlq) about Taylor Swift donating $1 million to relief efforts alone garnered 240,000 engagements/6,000 Tweets. Becherer’s photos made many front pages, including The New York Times. Among his photos: http://n.pr/2bvjoEe

For their grit,stamina and creativity in setting the news agenda on a major story,Santana,Deslatte,Kunzelman,McGill,Becherer, Mone and Replogle share this week’s $300 Best of States prize.

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