Monson Comes Together After Tornado

An interview with Springfield News:


NPR Article on Monson Relief Organization

Morgan and I sat down with Fred Thys of WBUR/NPR Boston while organizing from the First Church to explain the operation there. As early as Week 2, we had recognized a huge need for organizing support, and that the system working so well in Monson could be used in disaster areas across the country. 

WBURSocial Networking Sites Help Monson Rebuild After Tornado

MONSON, Mass. — Parts of Monson have been obliterated by the F3 tornado that hit the town nearly two weeks ago, but recovery efforts are humming, in part because of what’s going on at The First Church of Monson. The landmark has lost its steeple for now, but volunteers there mobilized since the day after the tornado hit. Monson could provide some useful lessons for other places hit hard by natural disasters.

The basement of the First Congregational Church in Monson is laid out like a supermarket, so that tornado survivors can find what they need easily. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

The Red Cross has moved to the First Congregational Church, with its clock lying twisted on the lumber-littered lawn. They’ve moved here from the town offices because they’ve recognized that this is where everyone in town is coming seeking help. Caitria and Morgan O’Neill are two of the reasons that the church has become rebuilding central. The two sisters are from Monson.

“We’re the yellow house with the green shutters, and the yellow tag,” said one sister.

A yellow tag means restricted occupancy. In the O’Neills’ case, they can live there, but can’t turn on their furnace until their chimneys are rebuilt. Caitria was in the front yard as the tornado touched down.

“My dad and my little brother pulled into the driveway right at that time, and then the lamppost next to them came out of the ground and flew across the yard. We all ran down to the basement pretty fast, and the house shook for a while, and then we opened up the back basement door that looks over the valley now, that used to be just trees, couldn’t see anything,” she said.

Although the O’Neills are from Monson, they live in Cambridge now. Morgan is a doctoral student at MIT.

“I study hurricanes,” Morgan said, laughing. “Appropriately.”

And I just graduated from Harvard, I studied political science,” Caitria said.

Morgan knew that a graduating senior at Monson High School, Laura Sauriol, had set up a Facebook page while the twister was bearing down on her house.

“It had 1,000 members, and people were rapidly posting needs and abilities. And we thought, ‘This is an incredible tool, and we need to link this up to the center of the storm response,’ and that happened to be the First Church, because we’re so visible here,” Morgan said.

“Our operation is massive, and the best, fastest way you can possibly get things you need is tell the Internet, so we did that. With Facebook, we find that we just post what we need, and within half an hour, we’ve got it.”

–Morgan O’Neill, volunteer

“We lost our steeple. It’s the most recognizable part of Monson, and people come here to donate things, but the church had absolutely no link and no knowledge of this Facebook site.”

Morgan thought that by linking to the Facebook page, they could link people asking for help with people offering help almost immediately.

“Our dad had an air card, and that’s just something that you can plug into a laptop and get Internet from a cell network, and we had someone make a First Church emergency account, and then just start posting on the page, and it’s turned out to be phenomenal,” she said.

Morgan says the moment First Church needs anything: fruit for the workers, or burgers, someone fills the need.

“We’re sending out maybe 100 chainsaw workers daily,” Morgan said, “And crews with water, and lunch and snacks,” Caitria added.

“Our operation is massive, and the best, fastest way you can possibly get things you need is tell the Internet, so we did that,” Morgan said. “With Facebook, we find that we just post what we need, and within half an hour, we’ve got it. It’s incredible. I think that social networking has transformed emergency response, at least for our little town.”

And it’s not just the Facebook page, says Caitria.

“We’re also creating a volunteer database with the person’s name, their phone number and then what their capability is, or what the large donation item they’re willing to give is, and then we have an Excel database that we can look through,” she said.

“When somebody comes in and says, ‘I need a dump truck,’ we have five people with dump trucks and we have their phone numbers and we can call them and have them on their way within a half hour. I think it’s a really useful format for emergency response.”

Morgan says community organizations should incorporate social networking into their emergency response plans.

“Things need to be rewritten, because people want to give, and they can, using the Internet, and we need to tap that, because people picking through debris and rubble don’t sit at a computer asking for things, but we can,” Morgan said. “So if they walk up to us and say, ‘Hey, I need sunscreen. I got a bad burn,’ you can get that instantly.”

“And also knowing what the community needs. In the first couple of days, very few people came to us asking for specific help, because they didn’t know that we could send it to them,” Caitria said.

So, Caitria said, the church started sending out volunteers.

“People who knew the town, who knew the people here, to go from house to house to see what each family needed, who lived in the house, if they were yellow tagged, things like that, just to collect information,” Caitria said. “And then once the families talked to these people who were canvassing, they were able to say: ‘Oh, you can get a generator at the First Church? You have an extra refrigerator? You can take this tree down?’ People weren’t aware of the help that was available.”

Their work in Monson has been transforming for the O’Neills, especially for Caitria, who just graduated from Harvard.

The O’Neills say this is a really cool thing that’s going on in Monson. And they say if they can do this with two laptops and a slow Internet connection, it can be done anywhere. Monson is doing so well that they’re helping other towns that were hit.

Monson Command Center

The First Church of Monson lost its steeple in the storm, making it an easily visible landmark and natural gathering point for those in need and those who wished to help.

In the first days following the storm, hundreds of volunteers began pouring into the area. The church opened its doors, accepting donations and providing meals and support to the community. It would be a few days, however, until an orderly system emerged.

Morgan and I got involved early on: we brought over a netbook, a Macbook and my dad’s ancient Sprint aircard to start putting Monson’s recovery on the computer.

Volunteers who had come initially for yardwork stayed to organize, databasing the massive amounts of resources the church had already taken in, creating a volunteer database, forms, press releases. No one had ever coordinated an operation at this scale before, but an organized system made it surprisingly straightforward.

We used what we had, and we simply asked the internet for things we needed. A local teen created a Facebook group during the storm. We created a Tornado Relief profile for the church command center, and used the group to communicate our needs with the outside public.

It worked. Within five days, we could post “Gatorade” on the Tornado Watch Facebook group, and twenty minutes later someone would arrive with a carload. Within a couple of weeks, the Monson Tornado volunteers, backed by the First Church of Monson, had become an autonomous and integral part of Monson’s phenomenal recovery.

What we saw in Monson was not groundbreaking – it was the same process experienced by every other area recovering from a disaster. People need to be organized, so they organize, with whatever tools they can find or make. Monson was lucky to get online as fast as it did, in an area that did not regain internet access for nearly two weeks.  I’m starting to realize most local relief efforts aren’t as lucky.

-Caitria O’Neill

Volunteers Wendy Deshais and Kayla Biggs at the Tornado Volunteer tent outside of the First Church:

Day One

Confusion, devastation in Monson

Updated: Thursday, 02 Jun 2011, 6:13 AM EDT – Jacqueline Jing

“MONSON, Mass. (WWLP) – The Tornadoes hit about 19 communities here in Western Mass, and buildings on Main Street in Monson were ripped apart.

Wednesday’s tornado tore up Monson Center. Dozens of buildings were ripped apart. The destruction is unbelievable.

People who live in this small town cannot believe a twister touched down…”

It was an event no one expected – but disbelief did not make it any less real. At 5pm on June 1st, 2011, a tornado turned our world upside down, tearing the roof from our house, destroying streets of homes downtown, and splintering large trees.

I spent the first few hours after the storm trying to get in touch with family and guiding groups of people over a tangle of downed trees behind our house to avoid wires and transformers burning in the street.

Just a few days later, my sister Morgan, myself, Wendy Deshais, Ted Sisley, Ed Harris, Lyn, Pastor Bob Maroni, Karen King and a troop of incredibly hard-working volunteers were piecing together a successful and organized community based disaster relief effort.

We weren’t experts in disaster relief, but we were experts in related areas: campaign organization, local community, databasing, logistics. Monson is recovering, and we would like to make sure other communities are able to do so as well.

Caitria O’Neill