Online tool aids governments in disaster recovery

By Richard W. Walker

The town wasn't prepared for such a disaster, and relief workers struggled to manage volunteers, donations and other critical needs for more than 260 families left homeless. Dismayed by the lack of commercial community-recovery tools, the O'Neill sisters used online technology to co-found and build recovers.org.

While a team was building the site with the support of grants from MIT, the sisters traveled to disaster areas around the country, supporting relief efforts and formulating best practices and lessons learned.

The tool debuted last April after a tornado devastated several Texas towns and allowed emergency officials to quickly put an infrastructure in place to manage and match community needs with volunteers and donations.

"It was first time we actually used the software and it was really successful in collecting donation items and meeting needs," Caitria O'Neill said. "We also found something interesting in that case: When the community organizations were empowered [through the tool] to meet some of the needs that were being reported, they not only meet all of the needs in their own town, they started using resources reported in their town to meet the needs in surrounding areas. So once you raise the capacity of a community to respond to disaster, it does things that you just don't expect."

Community responders in Forney, Texas, where nearly 100 homes were damaged or destroyed by the April tornado, used recovers.org to coordinate the recovery effort with the Forney city government.

"We wouldn't have been nearly as effective in helping people if it hadn't been for the recovers software," said Cooper Taylor, missions director at a local church that was designed by the city government as a drop-off location for donations of money, clothing, food, water and other supplies. "We worked hand in hand with people in the city government. They took care of the emergency-personnel response but when it came to helping individual families and people, they very much left that up to the churches and [community organizations]."

Taylor also worked with the federal Small Business Administration to help those in need of larger-scale assistance, posting details on Forney recovers site about obtaining SBA loans.

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