More than a year before Hurricane Harvey caused devastating flooding across Houston, The Texas Tribune and Reveal reporters took a tour of some of the city’s most important flood control measures — the Addicks and Barker reservoirs — and learned just how vulnerable they were to a torrential rainstorm. We recorded hours of audio during the tour, but we could never quite figure out how to use it for a radio segment. Then Harvey happened, and all of the things that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had told us would happen on tape during that tour — that thousands of homes built inside the reservoirs would flood, and that the Addicks and Barker dams themselves might be at risk — came true. It was the perfect opportunity to revisit the audio we had collected and to hold local officials accountable for decisions they had participated in years earlier.
This radio segment deftly brings to life an enormously complicated story — a story of how federal and local officials allowed thousands of homes and businesses to be built inside “dry reservoirs” west of central Houston, which are huge patches of green space that only fill up with water during torrential rainfall. Through the voices of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official Richard Long (who tried to warn the public about the risks to no avail), the Bunning family (which bought a home inside Barker Reservoir decades ago and then lost it to Harvey), and Sam Chaudhry (a realtor who unknowingly sold dozens of homes in the reservoirs), the segment reveals how government negligence endangered huge numbers of residents in America’s fourth-largest city.
Reporter and producer Neena Satija’s presence in the segment demonstrates the power of audio storytelling when she reacts in astonishment after Richard Long shows her a community of apartment buildings inside Barker Reservoir. More than a year later, she returns to that community and finds out from workers in the area that it flooded during Harvey, just as he predicted. She is also the one to tell the Bunning family that they bought a home inside Barker Reservoir; similarly, Chaudhry hears from her for the first time that he sold houses inside the reservoir. Their reactions are funny, surprising and human.
Satija can also be heard grilling local officials about their involvement in the whole debacle. Throughout the course of two recorded interviews that can be heard in the segment, officials try to claim they did not realize homes were being built inside Addicks and Barker Reservoirs — until Satija shows them documents to the contrary. All of those interactions, including some rather angry reactions from local officials, are captured on tape — a powerful blend of accountability journalism and audio storytelling . As one listener wrote in an email after hearing the piece, “I learned a lot and was very entertained as well.”