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Pulitzer Center Update October 26, 2020

Climate Change’s Toll on Public Health in Coastal Communities

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Forget climate change. The real story is climate speed. From rain bombs to higher seas, the...

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Tony Bartelme speaks during The Coastal Southeast: Rising and Hazardous Waters webinar.

"The Coastal Southeast: Rising and Hazardous Waters," the second webinar in a two-part series, focused on the hazards in floodwaters and rising sea levels, and how journalists have begun tracking the impact of this displaced water.

The discussion featured Pulitzer Center grantees covering the impact of climate change in the U.S. Southeast. Tony Bartelme, a journalist at The Post and Courier, recently reported on how climate change has worsened flooding in the Charleston area in the project Rising Waters. Georgia Public Broadcasting reporter Emily Jones' project, Waste in Georgia, investigated how rising seas pose a serious threat to septic and sewer systems. As part of Beyond the Beach, Sammy Fretwell, environment writer at The State, covered the increasing occurrence of a toxic bacteria along the Carolina coast and plagues of mold, left in the wake of floods, in South Carolina homes.

As the journalists explained their reporting and the challenges climate change poses to their communities, a common thread emerged—public health. 

Bartelme and the team at The Post and Courier found that floodwaters filling Charleston's streets carried so much dangerous bacteria that if the same levels were detected in a lake, authorities would close it. And threats to health go beyond what's in the water. On days of heavy flooding, the emergency room entrance of the Medical University of South Carolina, a major hospital cluster, is inaccessible. To deal with this, Bartelme said, the hospital acquired military personnel carriers to ferry employees to and from the hospital.

As climate change's consequences have become increasingly obvious, they have also become inextricable from environment reporting.

"So many of my stories now, even if they're not a climate story per se, climate is an element of that story. It's just the reality of the day," Fretwell said. "I find it's almost inescapable to write an environmental story these days without mentioning climate in some way."

Though reporting on environmental issues, however urgent, is sometimes curtailed by shrinking newsrooms, Jones said. 

"I think there's interest in climate coverage, but there's not always personnel to do it," she said.

Collaboration between newsrooms has been one solution to this problem. Fretwell's project, Beyond the Beach, is an effort by two newspapers—The News & Observer, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, and The State, based in Columbia, South Carolina—and colleagues at eight McClatchy Carolinas news sites.

"It does help to collaborate," Jones said. "That helps you bring in the expertise of multiple people, and the editors from different newsrooms."

All of the featured reporting projects are part of the Pulitzer Center's Connected Coastlines initiative, which is building a consortium of newsrooms and independent journalists across America to chronicle how erratic weather patterns are impacting coastal communities.

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A properly functioning septic system has plenty of soil between the tank and the groundwater to ensure filtration. Image courtesy of UGA Carl Vinson Institute.
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Rising seas pose a serious threat to septic and sewer systems, putting our water at risk of...

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A man stands in the ruins of his house, destroyed by flood.
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Climate change has a clear impact on the beaches of the Carolinas. But just past those glittering...

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Multiple Authors

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