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Caitria O'Neill: That was me in front of our house in Monson, Massachusetts last June. After an EF3 tornado ripped straight through our town and took parts of our roof off, I decided to stay in Massachusetts instead of pursuing the master's program I had moved my boxes home that afternoon for.
CO: So tornadoes don't happen in Massachusetts. And I was cleverly standing in the front yard when one came over the hill. After a lamppost flew by, my family and I sprinted into the basement. Trees were thrown against the house, the windows exploded. When we finally got out the back door, transformers were burning in the street.
MO: So I was here in Boston. I'm a PhD student at MIT, and I happen to study atmospheric science. Actually it gets weirder. So I was in the museum of science at the time the tornado hit, playing with the tornado display. So I missed her call. So I get the call from Caitria, I hear the news, and I start tracking the radar online to call the family back when another supercell was forming in their area. And I drove home late that night with batteries and ice. We live across the street from an historic church that had lost its very iconic steeple in the storm. It had become a community gathering place overnight. The town hall and the police department had also suffered direct hits, and so people wanting to help or needing information went to the church.
CO: We walked up to the church because we heard that they had hot meals, but when we arrived we found problems. There were a couple large, sweaty men with chainsaws standing in the center of the church, but nobody knew where to send them because no one knew the extent of the damage yet. And as we watched, they became frustrated and left to go find somebody to help on their own.
MO: So we started organizing. Why? It had to be done. We found Pastor Bob and offered to give the response some infrastructure. And then armed with just two laptops and one AirCard, we built a recovery machine.
CO: You sent me to that place on Washington Street yesterday, and now I'm covered in poison ivy. So this is what filled our days. We had to learn how to answer questions quickly and to solve problems in about a minute or less, because otherwise something more urgent would come up, and it just wouldn't get done.
MO: We didn't get our authority from the board of selectmen or the emergency management director or the United Way. We just started answering questions and making decisions because someone, anyone, had to. And why not me? I'm a campaign organizer. I'm good at Facebook. And there's two of me.
MO: Lying on the ground after another 17-hour day, Caitria and I would empty our pockets and try to place dozens of scraps of paper into context -- all bits of information that had to be remembered and matched in order to help someone. After another day and a shower at the shelter, we realized it shouldn't be this hard.
CO: In a country like ours where we breathe wi-fi, leveraging technology for a faster recovery should be a no-brainer. Systems like the ones that we were creating on the fly could exist ahead of time. And if some community member is in this organizing position in every area after every disaster, these tools should exist.
CO: I decided to stay in the country, give up the master's in Moscow and to work full-time to make this happen. In the course of the past year, we've become experts in the field of community-powered disaster recovery. And there are three main problems that we've observed with the way things work currently.
MO: The tools. Large aid organizations are exceptional at bringing massive resources to bear after a disaster, but they often fulfill very specific missions and then they leave. This leaves local residents to deal with the thousands of spontaneous volunteers, thousands of donations, and all with no training and no tools. So they use Post-its or Excel or Facebook. But none of these tools allow you to value high-priority information amidst all of the photos and well wishes.
CO: The timing. Disaster relief is essentially a backwards political campaign. In a political campaign, you start with no interest and no capacity to turn that into action. You build both gradually until a moment of peak mobilization at the time of the election. In a disaster, however, you start with all of the interest and none of the capacity. And you've only got about seven days to capture 50 percent of all of the Web searches that will ever be made to help your area. Then some sporting event happens, and you've got only the resources that you've collected thus far to meet the next five years of recovery needs. This is the slide for Katrina. This is the curve for Joplin. And this is the curve for the Dallas tornadoes in April where we deployed software. There's a gap here. Affected households have to wait for the insurance adjuster to visit before they can start accepting help on their properties. And you've only got about four days of interest in Dallas.
MO: Data. Data is inherently unsexy, but it can jumpstart an area's recovery. FEMA and the state will pay 85 percent of the cost of a federally declared disaster, leaving the town to pay last 15 percent of the bill. Now that expense can be huge, but if the town can mobilize X amount of volunteers for Y hours, the dollar value of that labor used goes toward the town's contribution. But who knows that? Now try to imagine the sinking feeling you get when you've just sent out 2,000 volunteers and you can't prove it.
CO: These are three problems with a common solution. If we can get the right tools at the right time to the people who will inevitably step up and start putting their communities back together, we can create new standards in disaster recovery.
CO: And we needed help. Alvin, our software engineer and cofounder, has built these tools. Chris and Bill have volunteered their time to use operations and partnerships. And we've been flying into disaster areas since this past January, setting up software, training residents and licensing the software to areas that are preparing for disasters.
MO: One of our first launches was after the Dallas tornadoes this past April. We flew into a town that had a static outdated website and a frenetic Facebook feed trying to structure the response. And we launched our platform. All of the interest came in the first four days, but by the time they lost the news cycle, that's when the needs came in, yet they had this massive resource of what people were able to give and they've been able to meet the needs of their residents.
CO: So it's working, but it could be better. Emergency preparedness is a big deal in disaster recovery because it makes towns safer and more resilient. Imagine if we could have these systems ready to go in a place before a disaster. So that's what we're working on. We're working on getting the software to places so people expect it, so people know how to use it and so it can be filled ahead of time with that microinformation that drives recovery.
MO: It's not rocket science. These tools are obvious and people want them. In our hometown, we trained a half-dozen residents to run these Web tools on their own. Because Caitria and I live here in Boston. They took to it immediately, and now they are forces of nature. There are over three volunteer groups working almost every day, and have been since June 1st of last year, to make sure that these residents get what they need and get back in their homes. They have hotlines and spreadsheets and data.
CO: And that makes a difference. June 1st this year marked the one-year anniversary of the Monson tornado. And our community's never been more connected or more empowered. We've been able to see the same transformation in Texas and in Alabama. Because it doesn't take Harvard or MIT to fly in and fix problems after a disaster, it takes a local. No matter how good an aid organization is at what they do, they eventually have to go home. But if you give locals the tools, if you show them what they can do to recover, they become experts.
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After a natural disaster strikes, there’s only a tiny window of opportunity to rally effective recovery efforts before the world turns their attention elsewhere. Who should be in charge? When a freak tornado hit their hometown, sisters Caitria and Morgan O’Neill -- just 20 and 24 at the time -- took the reins and are now teaching others how to do the same. (Filmed at TEDxBoston.)
When a freak tornado hit her Massachusetts hometown, Caitria O’Neill wasn't an expert in disaster relief recovery. But she learned quickly and is now passing her knowledge on through the website Recovers.org. Full bio »
Pursuing her PhD in atmospheric science did not prepare Morgan O'Neill for a freak tornado hitting her hometown. With her sister, she helped coordinate a local relief effort and is teaching other towns to do the same through the website Recovers.org. Full bio »