A Year After Hurricane Sandy, Community-Powered Recovery Gains Traction

What was your first experience with "disaster?" Did you watch the aerial footage of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? Are you a New Yorker who lost power or a car during Hurricane Sandy? Lose power during an ice storm? Everybody's story is personal -- my first taste of disaster was a tornado wrecking my home in 2011. You dust yourself off and move on.

Oct. 29 marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy's landfall in New York and New Jersey, and a giant leap forward in the legitimacy of community-powered disaster recovery efforts. Stories of local heroism, community organization and neighbors helping neighbors filled the news waves and form a large part of Sandy's legacy.

Flash back to my roof coming off in a tornado. Like any tax-paying individual, I assumed that someone would come parachuting through the hole and patch it up immediately. In reality there are many programs, organizations and initiatives that mobilize. The problem is that there are gaps between them. The Red Cross shelters people for the first week, but where do survivors stay for 6 months while rebuilding?

This is where your neighbors come in. In every community, after every storm, there are folks who just show up to help. They're called "spontaneous volunteers" and are traditionally considered a liability and sent home by big organizations. That makes sense from the big organization perspective -- some guy with a chainsaw running around right after a tornado could hurt himself and first responders.

But if we send these people home during that short window of media interest, what happens in month four, after all of the aid organizations have gone home? What happens when lawyers, babysitters and translators are still needed for survivors? By sending everybody home, we're effectively destroying the long-term recovery support network of the local community.

In my hometown, Monson, Mass., my sister and I saw this problem on the horizon and reacted. We stepped in and began connecting the people standing around with chainsaws with the homeowners in need of help. Post-its, Google Docs, word of mouth -- we had to cobble together a sophisticated logistical system flying by the seat of our pants. When we finally started pumping out volunteers into the community, we were told to go home by officials who were afraid of the liability we were creating.

We stayed. We kept working. We incorporated waivers and privacy measures. Two years later, we were recognized at the White House as Champions of Change for starting a company that helps other residents manage recovery efforts in their communities.

We've helped hundreds of thousands of people find information, request help, volunteer or donate items -- simply by handing them tools and saying "you're allowed to do something about this."

Sandy was a landmark. Community-powered recovery just two years ago was largely unpublicized. Local news would pick up the story, but best practices just weren't spreading organically and our company was only able to fly into every disaster. After Sandy, people helping their neighbors was suddenly a hot story. Information on how to recover was being spread through the stories of the people jumping in with both feet. This work continues in the news and at events like the ongoing Chicago Ideas Week. Any time people get together to discuss recovery, the ideas generated in small communities spread further.

Interested in helping in your community after a storm? Here are two of the things I've learned on the ground in recovering areas.

  • People revert to communication through familiar networks. If the community used Facebook pre-disaster, they'll be on it immediately afterwards. They also use the oldest social network - just standing out in the street and exchanging information. If you want information to spread, share a printable flier and tell people to run off copies and hand them out in areas without 3G service.
  • You can begin conversations about preparedness now. Speak to your mayor and elected town officials, the fire chief, the emergency-preparedness leader, the clergy and the librarian. They each play a different role - whether it's to open emergency shelters, check on the elderly, advise on trusted general contractors who can fix a roof, or maintain the local disaster-preparedness information. If you can make a map of who will do what and distribute it residents now, you'll help them find the assistance they need immediately in the case of an emergency.
  • What we're seeing increasingly is an "action" itch by community members, both before and after disasters. And every time a group of neighbors gets together and provides aid, they are helping other communities across the globe learn how to do the same. Despite causing severe damage, Hurricane Sandy has created a fantastic legacy of community-powered aid that will outlast this particular recovery effort.

    Caitra O'Neill will be speaking Oct. 18during Chicago Ideas Week