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The Single Most Powerful Visualization Of Harvey’s Impact

This New York Times graphic is information design at its best.

The Single Most Powerful Visualization Of Harvey’s Impact
[Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images]

When a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Harvey strikes, it can be difficult not to reduce it to a number. Nearly 50 inches of rain. Thirty-eight dead. Thousands of homes flooded, thousands of people displaced.

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These numbers only do so much to represent the scale of the catastrophe. But a group of graphics editors at the New York Times have managed to give the hard facts a human side with a visualization that maps thousands of rescue requests from stranded people across the region. While the graphic highlights only a fraction of the messages from people in need of assistance since the hurricane struck, it’s a striking image of a community under duress: “Running out of food and water,” “Neck-deep in water,” “Cannot swim,” “Water is over the children’s heads,” “Bed-bound and paralyzed.” Their heartbreaking words jolt you into a role as witness to each individual situation.

See the complete graphic here. [Image: The New York Times]
The map tracks requests from 10 p.m. Sunday night until 2 p.m. Wednesday morning, as the storm’s fury shifted from Houston to the neighboring cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur. Only some of the requests for help, represented as red dots, come with a corresponding message from a desperate person to local rescue groups. If each were represented, the information would be too overwhelming to process, but the graphic still conveys the sense of increasing panic as the storm intensifies. The cries pile up on the map, each disappearing after a few seconds to make room for more.

As the New York Times‘ corresponding story follows the requests over time as the storm intensifies, it smartly lets the wrenching messages from the people themselves speak. Many are from elderly people or their caretakers; others are from families with children. In most, the same themes persist–no food, no water, waters rising, nowhere to go. The repetition of similarly themed messages only makes the graphic–and the plight of the people it represents–more powerful. This is information design at its best.

To donate to Hurricane Harvey relief, you can find resources here.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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