Guest Commentary Opinion

Letter from the former editor: covering Harvey, one year later

The staff of the Daily Cougar continued their coverage during Hurricane Harvey, even when they were forced to evacuate, like Emily Burleson in the above image. | Courtesy of Emily Burleson


This time last year, my family and I were the last men standing in Meadow Glen, a Cinco Ranch neighborhood nestled just on the edge of the Barker Reservoir. The threat of flooding led every other household on the block to evacuate in lifted trucks, or later, airboats, while we were determined to stick it out as long as possible.

Sloshing through 9 inches of brown water, I took my Facebook friends on a tour of the first floor of our flooded home. Here, you can see the floorboards floating; over here, out the front door, the lake that used to be a street.

Eerily, the only signs of anything amiss were the wading required to traverse the first floor and the constant hum of airboats searching for families in distress. The water never rose high enough to short the electricity, so we enjoyed hot coffee and air conditioning while deciding what to do next.

In that state of relative comfort, while my family moved furniture and packed up belongings, I ran The Cougar. That instinct to document the flood from home via Facebook Live extended to UH: If the school newspaper didn’t record what happened when 51 inches of rain dropped, no one would. The staff agreed with my conviction.

They wrote about students who stuck out the storm at Cullen Oaks; President Renu Khator’s visit to the Moody dining hall; a UH student who served in the Texas National Guard, which mobilized during the storm; the few buildings that did flood on campus; UH students who rescued senior citizens living in the Third Ward, and so much more.

Like everyone else who could, much of The Cougar staff evacuated. From Austin, the sports editor reported on the football team’s practice at UT. From Laredo, another staff member wrote about evacuating to Corpus Christi — then leaving again as Harvey’s eye approached. From Dallas, another editor wrote about basketball coach Kelvin Sampson’s nationwide appeal for donations from sports teams large and small.

Eventually, my family evacuated in a boat, and we stayed with friends while waiting for waters to recede; other editors were in Austin and dryer locations in Houston. We directed the coverage, edited it, tweeted it and compiled it into email editions.

All that coverage appeared online while UH was closed. When classes reconvened after a week off, a new challenge arrived: Writing and editing at least a dozen more stories for our weekly print edition — in one day.

When students returned to campus, they deserved a thorough report of how the storm was impacting the University.

That issue including even more Harvey reporting, including coverage of flooding at Bayou Oaks; a premonition from a sports editor that such a tragedy would lead to city to rally around the Astros; an explanation of how the University prepares for hurricanes; and commentary on other catastrophic flooding around the world.

That Sept. 6, 2017 issue of The Cougar, among four others from 2017-18, led this newspaper to be named a finalist for the highest award in college journalism: the Pacemaker. That’s right; the paper you’re holding right now is one of the top 37 collegiate publications in the United States.

The Cougar is proud to have served this campus during Hurricane Harvey, a time when accurate, timely reporting could mean life or death.

Some say Hurricane Harvey was a 1,000-year storm, never to be seen again in our lifetimes. Others say anthropogenic climate change means Harvey is just the first wave of catastrophic storms across the Gulf.

If the second is true, please know you can turn to the hardworking reporters and editors at The Cougar; I know they’ll be busting their asses to bring you what you need to know.

Emily Burleson is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Cougar. She can be reached at [email protected].


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