Superstorm Sandy left an indelible mark on the northeast, and communities in New York and New Jersey are still in the midst of their recovery efforts. Tech entrepreneur Aaron Price of Hoboken, N.J., described widespread power outages and flooding resulting from the storm, noting that the National Guard was deployed to help evacuate local residents. The post-Sandy scene, he said, was like a “war zone.”
But the residents of Hoboken have come together to help their neighbors: Residents with their lights on supplied power strips so others could charge their electronic devices, and provided food and coffee. Local restaurants grilled food brought in by those without power, in danger of losing their food to spoilage.
And NJ Tech Meetup, the largest group of its kind in the state, quickly mobilized to bring another kind of aid to displaced Hoboken residents. Their collective technical expertise fueled the creation of several online resources that came to play an important role after the storm.
The group quickly set up a website to mobilize monetary donations, HealHoboken.org. The site has raised more than $20,000 to date, which will go toward local recovery efforts.
Members of the tech group also started an email list, and began regularly distributing a list of pressing needs of hurricane victims, along with available resources. “We were sending out this big list of people who needed a place to sleep or needed an office or didn't have any heat or could offer help cutting down trees -- whatever it was that people needed help with, or could help doing,” Price explained.
Although the email blasts were effective in getting the word out, Price quickly realized its limitations in matching needs with resources. Leaders made the connection with a new disaster recovery software system called Recovers.org, designed to address just that issue.
Born of the experience of sisters Caitria and Morgan O’Neill during a tornado that struck their Massachusetts hometown, Recovers.org sets up the framework that takes some of the chaos out of the early days of a natural disaster like superstorm Sandy.
Called “recovery in a box,” the software helps communities organize critical resources vital to an efficient recovery operation – information, volunteers and donations. Ideally deployed in advance of a disaster, recovers.org set up four separate sites for New York communities after Sandy struck: Staten Island, Red Hook, Astoria and the Lower East Side.
Chris Kuryak, chief operating officer for Recovers.org, explained that while people frequently turn to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter after a disaster, their ability to effectively contribute to a community recovery effort is limited.
”An amazing picture of Staten Island with boats in the middle of the street and trees falling down will get liked more than someone saying 'Hey, we don’t have any electricity and we're running out of food at this address,'" Kuryak explained. “The pictures rise to the top but all this important information about where people need help and what people can do to help kind of falls to the bottom.”
Recovers.org purports to solve this problem by serving as a central location for matching resources with the people who need them. Volunteers can register their availability, and make donations of cash and other supplies.
Recovers.org in New York City: By the Numbers
And the word seems to be getting out. Kuryak reports 150,000 visitors to the websites for the four New York City communities in the first six days that they were live. Recovers.org also has a site serving Hoboken, N.J. Most often, community organizations and volunteers initiate contact with Recovers.org, although in Hoboken, the company is entering into a formal arrangement with the city government.
“It’s the people who need the help that are on the ground and are trying to organize recovery efforts in their neighborhood, that’s who contacts us,” Kuryak added.
The company has been in contact with major disaster relief organizations like FEMA and the Red Cross, but Kuryak makes an important distinction between their roles and the role of Recovers.org. The infrastructure communities put in place through Recovers.org continues to serve the community far into the future.
”This is for the long term recovery effort. Down the road, you really need these systems in place for community level, long term recovery,” he says, “which is something that the FEMAs and Red Crosses of the world don’t really have a capacity to do.”
In Hoboken, Price says his tech meet-up group relished the opportunity to develop some key resources that are helping his community recover from Sandy.
”I saw the community in town rally and help one another, and then I saw the virtual community of the New Jersey tech meet-up rally and come together to raise money and implement services,” he said. “It was a moving experience to see how people came together and wanted to help and find solutions to make this easier for people who were badly affected.”
Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.