After two 20-something sisters lived through a tornado and its aftermath in their Massachusetts hometown last year, they vowed to transform a well-intentioned but unorganized disaster-recovery process.
The resulting online tool, recovers.org, is now helping local governments and nonprofits coordinate Hurricane Sandy relief efforts through a concept known as “community-powered” recovery.
Organizers in areas hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, including Staten Island, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Astoria and Red Hook, N.J., are using the platform. Nearly 17,000 volunteers and 2,000 donors have participated in efforts such as delivering food, water, and flashlights to 50 senior citizens unable to go down a high-story building, connecting pet shelters with skilled volunteers, matching local nonprofits with translators and funneling excess volunteers to other communities in need.
“A lot of guerilla organizing happens in an unorganized way on the ground in every single disaster area,” said Caitria O’Neill, recovers.org co-founder and chief executive officer. “The problem is these lessons aren’t shared and they aren’t put into tool form.”
She later added: “Our end game is more intelligent disaster management, whether it’s before or afterward,” she said. “This is bigger than a volunteer management software system. We’re going to change the way that a community interacts with preparedness information.”
With contacts at all levels of government, O’Neill said she’s seeking partner cities to launch a host of new tools in the coming year. There also is some international interest from London and French officials.
The current subscription-based system allows cities, towns, community organizations, and churches to immediately create a web- and mobile-based platform. Prices are based on population; a city of 50,000, for example, would pay approximately $2500 per year, with additional costs for training and support
The system provides:
- Volunteer Management Tools: Online volunteer sign-up, hours tracking, liability waivers and a smooth assignment process.
- Case Management: Confidential case management, online/mobile help request feature and cross-organization aid coordination.
- Donation Item Databasing: Local resource mapping, ‘sign up, don’t show up’ messaging and efficient matching.
- Information Hub: Local news reporting, Twitter feeds, community messaging center and community commenting.
O’Neill was 23 and had just graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in government when a tornado ripped through her hometown of Monson, Mass. last summer. Her sister, Morgan, 26 at the time, was a second-year graduate student in atmospheric physics at MIT.
The town wasn’t prepared for such a disaster, and relief workers struggled to manage volunteers, donations and other critical needs for more than 260 families left homeless. Dismayed by the lack of commercial community-recovery tools, the O’Neill sisters used online technology to co-found and build recovers.org.
While a team was building the site with the support of grants from MIT, the sisters traveled to disaster areas around the country, supporting relief efforts and formulating best practices and lessons learned.
The tool debuted last April after a tornado devastated several Texas towns and allowed emergency officials to quickly put an infrastructure in place to manage and match community needs with volunteers and donations.
“It was first time we actually used the software and it was really successful in collecting donation items and meeting needs,” Caitria O’Neill said. “We also found something interesting in that case: When the community organizations were empowered [through the tool] to meet some of the needs that were being reported, they not only meet all of the needs in their own town, they started using resources reported in their town to meet the needs in surrounding areas. So once you raise the capacity of a community to respond to disaster, it does things that you just don’t expect.”
Community responders in Forney, Texas, where nearly 100 homes were damaged or destroyed by the April tornado, used recovers.org to coordinate the recovery effort with the Forney city government.
“We wouldn’t have been nearly as effective in helping people if it hadn’t been for the recovers software,” said Cooper Taylor, missions director at a local church that was designed by the city government as a drop-off location for donations of money, clothing, food, water and other supplies. “We worked hand in hand with people in the city government. They took care of the emergency-personnel response but when it came to helping individual families and people, they very much left that up to the churches and [community organizations].”
Taylor also worked with the federal Small Business Administration to help those in need of larger-scale assistance, posting details on Forney recovers site about obtaining SBA loans.
Recovers.org was among six winning media innovation ventures awarded more than $1.37 million by the Knight Foundation in June. The O’Neills have ambitious plans to use their $340,000 share to reshape disaster relief and preparedness with an additional platform emergency officials can put in place before a disaster and help reduce risks.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Caitria O’Neill said. “There are a lot of things we can do not only to help people recover after a disaster but to make sure disasters aren’t as bad. We started with this community organizing platform but our real goal is to make sure these disasters don’t harm as many houses and don’t hurt as many people. … For example, if you clear out the gutters on your street before a hurricane, you’re less likely to flood locally, but no one thinks of that.”