Illustration of daughter and mom in Houston after a hurricane.

Watchdog newsletter

Published — August 28, 2020

The mental health toll of wildfires, hurricanes and floods

(Illustration by Joanna Eberts)


Hi watchdogs, and welcome back to your favorite newsletter. 

This week, we published a nationwide, multi-newsroom collaboration investigating the government’s response to natural disasters (and with the pandemic on top of that, recovery isn’t going to be easy.) We also have an analysis on our “red zone” White House coronavirus documents, how people with disabilities are dealing with workplace reopenings and some analyses of the Republican National Convention. Let’s get into it. 

Hidden Epidemics: There’s one problem with disaster recovery that essentially no one is talking about –– mental health. We partnered with Columbia Journalism Investigations and 10 local newsrooms and asked disaster survivors to tell us their stories. Together, we distributed a detailed survey and more than 200 survivors and mental-health professionals responded. (You can tell us your story here.) Sixty percent of people reported emotional distress — in some cases lasting years — yet few got help. 

The kicker: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a crisis counseling program. It only distributes a meager 1% of its annual relief fund to send mental-health workers into disaster-stricken communities. Plus, with the pandemic overlayed on top of disasters, mental-health experts say the psychological toll on survivors could be unprecedented. 

Meanwhile, Gulf states are weathering Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm that hit Louisiana and Southeast Texas. On top of that, California continues to be ravaged by wildfires. 

How are people dealing? 

Thanks to our local partners from the West Coast to Puerto Rico: California Health ReportCentro de Periodismo InvestigativoCity LimitsInvestigateWestIowaWatchThe Island PacketThe LensThe Mendocino VoiceSide Effects Public Media and The State

Here’s what they published so far: 

We’re not done yet. We’ll have more stories publishing soon.

A cashier wears a protective mask as she works behind a plastic shield at a supermarket in Hialeah, Florida. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

What else we published this week: 

  • Without adequate protections, people with serious health issues could be forced out of the labor market amid the pandemic. Courts haven’t yet weighed in on the definition of disability or what’s considered a reasonable accommodation for high-risk workers during the pandemic. That may change soon. 
  • The weekly reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force are chock full of local data and recommendations on how to curb the coronavirus. After we obtained reports, governors in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Arizona are being questioned on why they went against White House recommendations on re-opening bars and gyms. Oklahoma’s governor has declared from now on, all the state’s reports will be made public.

In her analysis, reporter Liz Essley Whyte writes that’s just one example of how the White House’s public health advice has been secret, segmented and inconsistent. 

We’ve been collecting and publishing the secret White House reports here to offer detailed looks at the pandemic’s status in each state — and because we’re in the business of public service journalism.

We’re publishing impactful reporting that can save lives. Chip in to help keep our newsroom going.

We’re hosting an event on defending voting rights on Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 5:30 PM EST. As the nation approaches a historic election, our panel of experts will discuss the contested history of the vote, voter suppression efforts, organizing efforts to ensure voter participation and lessons from the civil rights era. Speakers include LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund; Judy Richardson, SNCC staffer and education director for the “Eyes on the Prize” series; and Sonia Jarvis, professor and distinguished lecturer, Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York. The discussion will be moderated by our CEO Susan Smith Richardson. Register here. 

Did you catch the Republican National Convention this week? Here are some takeaways from the event:

  • The first night’s closing speech by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C — the only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate — was one of the most memorable of the night, reports NPR.
  • The convention ended with President Donald Trump accepting the Republican nomination from the White House while echoing promises he made four years ago
  • Read more from POLITICO and Chicago Tribune.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was conspicuously missing from the speaker lineup, even though her signature school choice issue was a focal point. 👀 (via POLITICO)

Another thing that was absent: Nearly any mention of the police killing of Breonna Taylor from Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. 

Busted: Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former top adviser, has been charged with fraud for his role in a scheme related to “We Build the Wall,” an online fundraising effort that collected more than $25 million for Trump’s border wall. (via New York Times)

Our reporter Carrie Levine tweeted that the use of these structures to conceal questionable financial transactions keep popping up.


For this week’s reporter Q&A, we spoke to Jeremy Singer-Vine about his BuzzFeed News story on how political operatives are faking voter outrage on behalf of the rich and powerful. Under Trump, the Federal Communications Commission planned to scrap President Obama’s “net neutrality” rule, under which internet service providers are supposed to treat all internet communications the same. The public comment period attracted 22 million submissions. The problem: Many were fake. Two little-known firms misappropriated names and personal information to submit more than 1.5 million statements favorable to their cause. Singer-Vine’s investigation offers a window into how a democratic process — in which federal agencies canvass public opinion before enacting new rules — was seriously skewed. 

*Interview lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

For most of 2017, I had been following the FCC’s fake-comment debacle — but I hadn’t been following particularly closely. That all changed in November 2017, when data scientist Jeff Kao identified a set of 1.3 million comments that appeared to have been generated by some sort of Mad Libs–style algorithm.

We managed to obtain a massive dataset of the comments that had been bulk-uploaded to the FCC. The first breakthrough came soon after we received those files, when I ran large samples of the email addresses in them through Have I Been Pwned, a website that identifies whether an address has been exposed in any of hundreds of major data breaches. The results were stark; the kind of results that make you say, out loud and to nobody in particular, wow.

In one particular group of 1.9 million comments, 94% of the email addresses belonged to people who had fallen victim to a hack known as the Modern Business Solutions data breach, in which millions of people’s personal information, including full names, birthdates, home addresses and email addresses, had been stolen.

As chance would have it, the 1.3 million algorithmically-generated comments that Kao had identified accounted for a huge chunk of those 1.9 million, all of which had been uploaded by the same account. I was hooked — I had to figure out how this had happened.

What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them?

We encountered further obstacles outside of the data. For instance: One of the companies that our reporting led us to was LCX Digital, an esoteric advertising agency in Southern California. Before we began our investigation, the company had received virtually zero scrutiny and had left only a very light trace online. To pierce LCX’s veil of secrecy, we had to interview former employees and business partners, scour old versions of LCX’s website on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and comb through scores of business filings.

One major breakthrough came when we discovered an extraordinary deposition by one of the company’s cofounders. The deposition not only accused the LCX’s main owner of extensive deception, but also claimed that the company was a “completely fraudulent” enterprise — with details that bore striking similarities to the evidence we were beginning to uncover in the FCC data.

That’s all we have for you, folks. We’ll be trying a new format out for the next few editions. As always, you can reply to let me know what you think. See you next week.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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