Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
Rick Rojas, a New York Times national correspondent based in Nashville, was working out of the Times newsroom in Manhattan when the flooding started in southeastern Kentucky last week. Flash floods were barreling down the region’s steep terrain, and endangering lives. The disaster has now killed at least 37 people.
Mr. Rojas spent a few days filing breaking news reports from New York, and on Sunday morning, he flew to Nashville, rented a 4×4 truck and drove toward the Appalachian counties where people were still missing. In a story, published Thursday and reported with his colleagues Christopher Flavelle and Campbell Robertson, Mr. Rojas detailed how the region was set up for disaster by poverty, geography and industrial degradation.
In December, he spent several days on the other side of Kentucky, after a tornado rendered the town of Mayfield unrecognizable. After hurricanes battered Lake Charles, La., in 2020, Mr. Rojas was there, too. In a phone interview on Wednesday, conducted shortly after he returned home to Nashville, Mr. Rojas recounted his recent reporting trip and discussed covering natural disasters. Here is that conversation, which has been edited.
When did you and the National desk determine it was time to get on the road and travel to these counties in Kentucky?
It became very clear that we needed to have someone on the ground. And so, at first, we had help from freelancers who did great work in those early days. They were there first. I came in and worked on a story this week with Campbell Robertson and Christopher Flavelle from the Climate desk about how intense poverty and neglect had left this region extremely vulnerable to this kind of disaster.
And how quickly did you identify that as an angle that needed to be reported and explained?
It was just something that kept coming up. Many of the buildings had very little in the way of building codes and very low building standards. You also have the damage that was done to the landscape through decades of mining, then the coal companies picking up and leaving. It left these communities utterly drained. The flooding would be bad enough, but it’s just happening in places where people already have so little and are struggling so much. The population has already been declining, it’s already difficult to find a steady job. This place was pretty close to a crisis point even before there was a flood. And so when you add in this kind of disaster, it raises really big questions about how much recovery is possible.
In December, you described tornado damage in Mayfield, Ky., as destruction you had never seen before. What impression did the damage from these recent floods leave on you as a reporter?
I’ve covered floods before. What’s different here is the geographic landscape. It is already very remote, and there isn’t a lot of concentration in terms of housing and development. Everything is scattered into very small communities. It took covering a lot of ground to get a sense of the gravity of this.
In Whitesburg, I saw everything being pulled out of homes and buildings and churches. That was a clear indication of how bad the flooding was — the fact that so much stuff had to be thrown away. In Fleming-Neon, it was just staggering to see. Homes had been picked up off foundations and thrown around. It was clear something really powerful had just surged through this place. In other places it was not quite as visible, and I think that made it a little bit harder to to grasp. It took a little bit more time to see how extensive the damage was.
What is your approach to interviewing people who have lost so much and who have never met you?
I don’t ask that many questions, I let them talk. I want to know, What have the past few days been like? Once they start talking, then I ask questions about that: What’s your family’s history with this land or this broader region? Stories come pouring out.
I can see a lot of the devastation myself: the homes, the car that was tossed on its side. But what I can’t see is the human connection to the place, the depth of history and experience that makes this a hard thing to go through.
I don’t bother people who don’t want to be bothered. I go to people who are willing, and by and large, people are willing and open. I listen and pass that on in our stories.