As flooding from Hurricane Harvey intensified over the weekend and into Monday, Houston TV stations as well as national TV news outfits struggled to navigate the city as thousands of residents were rescued from the disaster. Five people were killed over the weekend.
Local TV stations by and large were not technologically neutralized by the storm, which has brought two feet of water to one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the U.S. CBS affiliate KHOU did have to evacuate live on the air when water started creeping onto the set.
Social media has played an outsize role in this story, as stations have used Facebook to stream live images and residents in peril have received help through Twitter. The Houston sheriff’s handle has been trending and offers a starkly compelling narrative of a city in crisis.
TV crews have ended up on the scene of several dramatic rescues, in some cases helping out themselves. One Houston columnist marveled at seeing “reporters literally drop their microphones” to take part in rescue efforts.
FEMA administrator Brock Long said the state of Texas “has never seen an event” like Harvey. Rivers and reservoirs are not projected to see peak levels until Wednesday, by which time another two feet of rain may have fallen on the saturated region.
Several factors have combined to make the Houston flooding the news story of the week, chief among them the fact that the rains have lasted for days, plus the timing of the storm in the traditionally slow week before Labor Day.
The logistical challenges of a major city paralyzed by the ongoing weather crisis have slowed the customary TV response of anchors and reporters flocking to the scene. Some faint grumbles were heard on Twitter on Sunday night that MSNBC and CNN had stayed with their scheduled episodic programming instead of opting for wall-to-wall flood coverage. '
By Monday, they were more fully in flood mode. And just as the disaster itself has been a slow-motion one, the TV coverage could take some time to develop as more on-air personnel makes their way to East Texas.