Things that worked

Disaster recovery in an unprepared city

The city of New York got a lot of things right in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The sheer scale of the disaster means that it does take time to reach all of the people with needs. In my opinion, for

Volunteers at the Red Hook Initiative – photo by Dave Perry

all the criticism – the city and large aid organizations like FEMA and the Red Cross did a fairly good job considering the circumstances. They prepare for the unthinkable.

But they did not prepare ordinary citizens for the roles they would have to play in such a massive disaster. With official response overwhelmed, citizens began meeting needs without any training, information or legal forms to protect themselves. This is one of the largest failures and greatest success stories to come out of New York City. And it is something that we can change. gets busy

1.) We bridged the gap: In the first week, we were able to database over 23,000 skilled volunteers and item donors.

Reported needs are steadily increasing as more and more residents return home and assess the damage. While these volunteers could not all be used in the immediate aftermath, they are needed more than ever now.

Google Search “Volunteer Sandy” site traffic

Local organizations in impacted areas did not have the capacity to do this in the first week. Thanks to our site. We’ve taken the peak of interest in the disaster, and given it to them for long-term recovery.

Compare the graphs for the Google search “Volunteer Hurricane Sandy” and a graph of our site traffic in the same time. Local churches and nonprofits operating in the deadzone could not translate this interest into aid in real time. We did – and effectively translated these web searches by motivated volunteers into a database record of skills and items that local churches and nonprofits can continue to leverage far into the future.

2.) The community owned their own recovery: While our tool kit contributed greatly to the initial capacity, this effort was completely owned and operated by local organizers on the ground. This wasn’t riding in on a white horse, this was application of a tool kit, by neighborhoods that needed it. 

In NYC, we launched sites for the Lower East Side,  Red Hook, Astoria and Staten Island in partnership with the burgeoning Occupy Sandy movement. Our understanding was that each of these sites belonged to the communities they were named for, would remain there long-term, but that the people providing aid quickly should have the means to do so. Occupy Sandy was able to jumpstart recovery across the city – moving masses of people and goods from where they showed up to where they were needed most.

Now, we are seeing more and more community leaders and local organizations begin to take ownership of these tools. Pet shelters seeking pet-specific skills in volunteers. Local nonprofits looking for translators. Organizations with remote volunteers who want to help by matching needs and aid as administrators. Know any? Have them email

3.) We’ve learned: I’m not sure we were ready for Hurricane Sandy – but we now know we can handle a landscape scale disaster in the largest city in the US. We’ve also learned exactly how hard this is.

It is imperative that these systems be implemented BEFORE a disaster. Trying to reach and train administrators in a dead-zone, to teach them how to use an unfamiliar system during a disaster is unworkable. Here, it only worked through blood, sweat, tears, and dedicated volunteers. We were unable to provide additional sites for areas like Coney Island, the Rockaways, and Lindenhurst NY that also sustained damage.

We also learned a great deal about the way our tools are seen and used in the absence of training. We’ve built a long list of changes to implement, and have been responding to feedback in real time to make the site easier to use. Keep it coming.

Next Steps: 

This experience, more than any other in our history, has convinced me of the need for this type of platform. We need coordination between government, nonprofit and grassroots efforts. We need fewer forms, smarter tools, and cleaner data. We need simple, accessible information BEFORE a disaster, letting ordinary people know how to get involved in a safe, efficient manner.


2 thoughts on “Things that worked

  1. You’ve created a wonderful resource here — and one badly needed. It’s a perfect fit between government, large scale relief organizations, and the needs of volunteers. Just really smart work. Go get ’em!

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