This year, Poynter oversaw a climate change reporting grant program funded by the Joyce Foundation. We are sharing the results as the projects reach completion.
Climate change makes flooding worse. This isn’t just an ocean or riverfront problem. When the heavens open up, any place is vulnerable.
In the inland Detroit metro area, far from the shores of Lake Erie, a 2014 flood wiped out an estimated $300 million worth of research at a General Motors facility. The indy online news service Planet Detroit thought its readers should know that their region is ill-prepared for the inundations to come. And that, ultimately, is what brought us this November to the middle of a 250-foot wide drainage channel in Sterling Heights, about 25 miles north of downtown Detroit.
The outing was the bonus event following a 5-part October series on metro Detroit’s water woes, a joint effort of Planet Detroit and Michigan Radio.
Drainage channels can be grim concrete affairs. This one is lovely — meticulously engineered, but lovely all the same. High grasses on the upper banks ripple in the November breeze. There are oats, sedges and Indiangrass. Deeper in the basin, a few white blossoms of asters remain. Each plant was picked for some particular quality — long thick stalks, deep roots, ability to hold soil in place.
Less bucolic, beneath the grasses and plants runs a 4-foot diameter concrete pipe. Between the greenware and the hardware, this channel does some serious work.
The pragmatic point of the tour was that this 5-mile channel — upgraded at a cost of about $2.1 million over the past few years — treats roughly 160 million gallons a year of urban stormwater runoff. When heavy rains hit, it captures and slows down millions of gallons that would otherwise overflow land downstream.
Helping the region’s residents understand the threat, the gaps in the region’s flood control system, and the potential solutions shaped the Planet Detroit series. The Sterling channel works, but it is far from enough in a region where taxpayers are leery of big projects and cooperation across municipal lines can be hard to forge.
“I don’t think anybody’s really reporting on this big issue,” Planet Detroit founder Nina Ignaczak said. “We were one of the first to report on the potential for flooding being a major public health issue on the east side of Detroit, but there’s been little on what is going to happen with climate change.”
The core theme of Poynter’s Beat Academy is to help reporters show the local relevance of big national issues. Our 2023 climate change sessions, underwritten by the Joyce Foundation and guided by Climate Central, pointed Ignaczak to web tools that map the impacts of rising temperatures down to the county, even street level.
Critically for Ignaczak, one of those sources, First Street Foundation, had just released a study that found the Detroit area to be particularly vulnerable to rain-driven flooding, something federal maps don’t fully factor in.
“Those two things kind of connected in my head and I’m like, oh, we should look at that,” Ignaczak said.
The final ingredient was money. That came from the Joyce Foundation, which provided the funds to pay for four reporting projects out of the Beat Academy class.
Planet Detroit took readers through the history and data of floods that have overwhelmed local systems. It’s not that local agencies haven’t acted; some have, but what they have in place isn’t sufficient for the current threat, much less one that is intensifying. The series visited projects that have worked, and those that have fallen short. Reporters spent time with residents in a Detroit neighborhood caught in a Catch-22: It faces chronic flooding, but due to that, is largely barred from being part of any federally funded solution.
Michigan Radio was a key partner, both for extending the series’ reach and for giving Ignaczak the editing she often goes without. Ignaczak said Michigan Radio’s Sarah Hulett helped her close the gap between the data and the typical reader.
“Maybe because I was familiar with the technical side of it, it was harder for me to simplify it, or it just wasn’t intuitive what I needed to simplify,” she said.
Ignaczak may have come to Poynter through Beat Academy but she is hardly a typical beat reporter. A decade before she turned to journalism, she was an environmental planner with a county just northwest of Detroit proper. Reporting on how governments deal with water was something she felt she could manage.
“I went into it knowing a little bit about the topic and knowing who some of the players were,” she said.
Not only did she know them; she used to work with several. She could speak the language of acre feet of water (roughly enough to flood a football field 1 foot deep), retention ponds and vegetative swales (planted ditches to slow down stormwater runoff and absorb it into the ground). For the most part, everyone shared the same concerns about the rising frequency of powerful storms.
In that respect, Ignaczak noticed a fundamental change in her former colleagues.
“When I was working in county government, we could not use the words ‘climate change’ in our communications,” she said. “It was like our gag rule. It’s just all different now.”
Ignaczak launched Planet Detroit in 2019, not just to dig more deeply into environmental stories, but to change how those stories were covered.
“I thought it would be great if we had a publication that really shone a light on some of the grassroots voices that I saw being routinely ignored,” she said. “We don’t give credence to local activists. They’re kind of, you know, the crazies, the neighborhood, people that are complaining about these things. So I was interested in trying to just experiment. See if we can add something else.”
Planet Detroit grew slowly. It now has three paid staff, and a long list of contributing diverse writers. “It always bothered me that our region is so segregated,” Ignaczak said. Partnerships, like the one with Michigan Radio, have broadened its reach. They have won awards. The enterprise has achieved a measure of stability, enough for Ignaczak to claim a bit of success.
“I think we raised awareness about issues and raised voices that weren’t being heard before,” she said. “And I think we’ve influenced how some of the news media approach these issues.”