Story

To Tell the Story of Climate Change, We Went Beyond the Beach. Here’s How We Did It

Sellers, South Carolina Mayor Barbara Hopkins shows homes damaged by repeated flooding and hurricanes on February 13, 2020. While many homeowners across the small town have received help from FEMA and other natural disaster response agencies, those without a clear title for their home have been left with no government help in mold saturated homes. Image by Joshua Boucher. United States, 2020.

Sellers, South Carolina Mayor Barbara Hopkins shows homes damaged by repeated flooding and hurricanes on February 13, 2020. While many homeowners across the small town have received help from FEMA and other natural disaster response agencies, those without a clear title for their home have been left with no government help in mold saturated homes. Image by Joshua Boucher. United States, 2020.

In North and South Carolina, sea-level rise is most noticeable in counties along the coast, where beaches shrink, dunes disappear and homes crumble, but the effects of climate change reach well inland. “Beyond the Beach” is a seven-part series examining the health toll that climate change is already taking on the people who live and work in the Carolinas.

The project is a partnership of The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, The State in Columbia, South Carolina, Columbia Journalism School and the Center for Public Integrity. Funding support for “Beyond the Beach” came from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School, also contributed to the project. Funding for CJI comes from the school’s Investigative Reporting Resource and the Energy Foundation.

 

Much of the national reporting on climate change has focused on warming oceans, rising sea levels and the impact on the coast and beaches. But the effects of climate change go beyond the beach, and that’s where we went for this project.

The warming climate is being felt in the small towns and rural counties of the coastal plain of the Carolinas, the region between Interstate 95 and tourist destinations such as Myrtle Beach and the Outer Banks. It’s being felt by people who live in regions that have not shared the prosperity of the Carolinas’ metropolitan centers of Charlotte, Raleigh, Columbia and Charleston.

Supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center, our journalists set out to tell stories that weren’t only about the predicted effects of climate change, but about how it was affecting people and their health today, in real and visible ways — and sometimes tragically.

 

Hunting Vibrio

Sammy Fretwell, an environmental reporter for The State, became a sort of climate detective to find out how and why a toxic bacteria called vibrio killed a crabber in a coastal South Carolina creek in 2017. He found that the warming climate has brought more storm surge from the ocean and more freshwater flowing down rivers to the sea, bringing bacteria with it.

Fretwell found family members and friends, talked to doctors and university researchers, to document the science and the trauma of Billy Bailey’s story.

Midway through his reporting, Fretwell teamed up with Ali Raj and Sofia Moutinho, reporters with Columbia Journalism Investigations, to document other vibrio cases in the Carolinas. They used data to show the growing threat of vibrio and the lack of public education by health officials over the years.

Another story by Fretwell came out of a different kind of detective work, the kind that comes from poring over densely written scientific studies. He learned that University of South Carolina researchers had discovered vibrio in a popular recreational river in a wildlife refuge eight years ago. The information was tucked away in an obscure peer-reviewed journal. It was disturbing news to the refuge manager who didn’t know the deadly microbe had been found there — until Fretwell told him.

 

Mold, Asthma and Storms

Our reporting also took us back to communities where the legacies of hurricanes Irene, Matthew and Florence have been a persistent mold problem over the past decade. Fretwell told the story through the towns of Sellers and Nichols in Marion County, South Carolina, where powerful storms would bring the mold back repeatedly, triggering allergies, wheezing and asthma, especially in children and the elderly.

Researchers told him that the prolonged mold exposure is weakening immune systems, making residents more vulnerable to a host of ailments, now including COVID-19.

Lynn Bonner, a News & Observer reporter, also visited low-lying communities to find families living with persistent mold problems. In Eastern North Carolina, asthma medications and breathing therapy for children have become a familiar routine for these families. Bonner talked to researchers who are now focusing on the link between climate change and asthma. The combination of mold and humidity has been claiming the lives of asthmatic children.

 

Unrelenting Heat

Agriculture is a dominant industry in the Coastal Plain of the Carolinas, and it draws in tens of thousands of migrant farmworkers, who work all day in the hot sun only to return each night to grower-provided housing that has no air conditioning. This makes them some of the most at-risk victims of a warming climate. But the challenge in reporting stories about the impact on farmworkers was finding workers who would tell their stories. Because many of them support families in Mexico, they’re particularly concerned about keeping their jobs.

News & Observer reporters Adam Wagner and Aaron Sanchez-Guerra spent months developing sources and gaining trust in those communities, gaining important insights into the workers’ struggles with rising temperatures.

Wagner’s stories also highlight the work of two Wake Forest University researchers who have studied farmworkers for decades, and have found that more than a third of them have suffered from heat illness. In other industries, this might result in legislation and regulation. But in the Carolinas, migrant farmworkers’ voices are seldom heard, which is why it was so important for Wagner and Sanchez-Guerra to tell their stories.

Words are powerful tools, but visual journalism helped bring the full impact of our reporting on the farmworkers, vibrio, mold and the impact of rising temperatures on the coastal plain. Working with our reporters were photojournalists Josh Boucher of The State and Travis Long and Julia Wall of The News & Observer. Helping us report the data underlying the project, in addition to Moutinho of Columbia Journalism Investigations, was News & Observer data editor David Raynor.

 

Keeping Focus

Finally, this project was reported against the backdrop of an extraordinary and difficult year. Journalists around the country turned their attention to covering a pandemic and ongoing protests against racism. Work on the project halted — but only temporarily. Our journalists were able to complete this important work as part of the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines project, and it’s been distributed to McClatchy newsrooms in the southeastern United States and to North Carolina’s largest newspapers. For more information, contact N&O environment editor Dave Hendrickson, dhendrickson@newsobserver.com.

Dan Barkin, a former managing editor for The News & Observer, was the project manager and lead editor for this series.