09:24
TEDxBoston 2012

Caitria + Morgan O'Neill: How to step up in the face of disaster

Filmed:

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.)

- Disaster relief expert
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

- Disaster relief expert
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

Newscaster: There's a large path of destruction here in town.
00:19
... hit here pulling trees from the ground, shattering windows,
00:21
taking the roofs off of homes.
00:24
Caitria O'Neill: That was me
00:27
in front of our house in Monson, Massachusetts last June.
00:30
After an EF3 tornado ripped straight through our town
00:33
and took parts of our roof off,
00:36
I decided to stay in Massachusetts
00:38
instead of pursuing the master's program
00:40
I had moved my boxes home that afternoon for.
00:42
Morgan O'Neill: So, on June 1st we weren't disaster experts,
00:45
but on June 3rd we started faking it.
00:48
This experience changed our lives.
00:50
And now we're trying to change the experience.
00:52
CO: So tornadoes don't happen in Massachusetts.
00:54
And I was cleverly standing in the front yard
00:57
when one came over the hill.
00:59
After a lamppost flew by, my family and I sprinted into the basement.
01:00
Trees were thrown against the house, the windows exploded.
01:03
When we finally got out the back door,
01:06
transformers were burning in the street.
01:08
MO: So I was here in Boston.
01:11
I'm a PhD student at MIT,
01:12
and I happen to study atmospheric science.
01:14
Actually it gets weirder.
01:16
So I was in the museum of science at the time the tornado hit,
01:18
playing with the tornado display.
01:22
So I missed her call.
01:24
So I get the call from Caitria, I hear the news,
01:26
and I start tracking the radar online
01:28
to call the family back when another supercell was forming in their area.
01:29
And I drove home late that night with batteries and ice.
01:33
We live across the street from an historic church
01:35
that had lost its very iconic steeple in the storm.
01:38
It had become a community gathering place overnight.
01:40
The town hall and the police department had also suffered direct hits,
01:43
and so people wanting to help or needing information
01:46
went to the church.
01:49
CO: We walked up to the church because we heard that they had hot meals,
01:50
but when we arrived we found problems.
01:53
There were a couple large, sweaty men with chainsaws
01:55
standing in the center of the church,
01:57
but nobody knew where to send them
01:58
because no one knew the extent of the damage yet.
02:00
And as we watched, they became frustrated and left
02:02
to go find somebody to help on their own.
02:04
MO: So we started organizing.
02:07
Why? It had to be done. We found Pastor Bob
02:08
and offered to give the response some infrastructure.
02:11
And then armed with just two laptops and one AirCard,
02:13
we built a recovery machine.
02:16
(Applause)
02:22
CO: That was a tornado,
02:24
and everyone's heading to the church to drop things off and volunteer.
02:25
MO: Everyone's donating clothing.
02:28
We should really inventory the donations that are piling up here.
02:29
CO: Yeah, and we need a hotline. Can you make a Google Voice number?
02:32
MO: Yeah, sure. And we need to tell people what not to bring.
02:35
I'll make a Facebook account. Can you print flyers for the neighborhoods?
02:37
CO: Yeah, but we don't even know what houses are accepting help at this point.
02:40
We need to canvas and send out volunteers.
02:43
MO: We need to tell people what not to bring.
02:45
Hey, there's a news truck. I'll tell them.
02:46
CO: You got my number off the news?
02:48
We don't need any more freezers.
02:50
MO: The insurance won't cover it? You need a crew to tar your roof? CO: Six packs of juice boxes arriving in one hour?
02:53
Together: Someone get me Post-its!
02:56
(Laughter)
02:58
CO: And then the rest of the community figured out
02:58
that we had answers.
03:01
MO: I can donate three water heaters,
03:02
but someone needs to come pick them up.
03:04
CO: My car is in my living room.
03:06
MO: My boyscout troop would like to rebuild 12 mailboxes.
03:07
CO: The puppy's missing, and insurance just doesn't cover the chimneys.
03:10
MO: My church group of 50 would like housing and meals for a week
03:14
while we repair properties.
03:17
CO: You sent me to that place on Washington Street yesterday,
03:18
and now I'm covered in poison ivy.
03:20
So this is what filled our days.
03:22
We had to learn how to answer questions quickly
03:25
and to solve problems in about a minute or less,
03:28
because otherwise something more urgent would come up,
03:30
and it just wouldn't get done.
03:32
MO: We didn't get our authority from the board of selectmen
03:34
or the emergency management director or the United Way.
03:36
We just started answering questions and making decisions
03:39
because someone, anyone, had to.
03:42
And why not me? I'm a campaign organizer.
03:45
I'm good at Facebook.
03:47
And there's two of me.
03:48
(Laughter)
03:49
CO: The point is, if there's a flood or a fire or a hurricane,
03:50
you, or somebody like you,
03:55
are going to step up and start organizing things.
03:56
The other point is that it is hard.
03:58
MO: Lying on the ground after another 17-hour day,
04:01
Caitria and I would empty our pockets
04:04
and try to place dozens of scraps of paper into context --
04:06
all bits of information that had to be remembered and matched
04:09
in order to help someone.
04:12
After another day and a shower at the shelter,
04:13
we realized it shouldn't be this hard.
04:15
CO: In a country like ours
04:17
where we breathe wi-fi,
04:18
leveraging technology for a faster recovery should be a no-brainer.
04:20
Systems like the ones that we were creating on the fly
04:24
could exist ahead of time.
04:26
And if some community member
04:28
is in this organizing position in every area after every disaster,
04:29
these tools should exist.
04:33
MO: So we decided to build them --
04:36
a recovery in a box,
04:38
something that could be deployed after every disaster
04:39
by any local organizer.
04:42
CO: I decided to stay in the country,
04:43
give up the master's in Moscow
04:45
and to work full-time to make this happen.
04:47
In the course of the past year,
04:49
we've become experts in the field of community-powered disaster recovery.
04:50
And there are three main problems that we've observed
04:54
with the way things work currently.
04:56
MO: The tools. Large aid organizations are exceptional
04:59
at bringing massive resources to bear after a disaster,
05:02
but they often fulfill very specific missions
05:04
and then they leave.
05:07
This leaves local residents to deal
05:08
with the thousands of spontaneous volunteers, thousands of donations,
05:10
and all with no training and no tools.
05:14
So they use Post-its or Excel or Facebook.
05:16
But none of these tools allow you to value high-priority information
05:19
amidst all of the photos and well wishes.
05:22
CO: The timing.
05:24
Disaster relief is essentially a backwards political campaign.
05:26
In a political campaign,
05:29
you start with no interest and no capacity to turn that into action.
05:30
You build both gradually
05:34
until a moment of peak mobilization at the time of the election.
05:36
In a disaster, however, you start with all of the interest
05:38
and none of the capacity.
05:41
And you've only got about seven days to capture
05:43
50 percent of all of the Web searches that will ever be made
05:45
to help your area.
05:49
Then some sporting event happens,
05:50
and you've got only the resources that you've collected thus far
05:51
to meet the next five years of recovery needs.
05:54
This is the slide for Katrina.
05:58
This is the curve for Joplin.
06:00
And this is the curve for the Dallas tornadoes in April
06:02
where we deployed software.
06:06
There's a gap here.
06:07
Affected households have to wait for the insurance adjuster to visit
06:09
before they can start accepting help on their properties.
06:12
And you've only got about four days of interest in Dallas.
06:15
MO: Data.
06:19
Data is inherently unsexy,
06:20
but it can jumpstart an area's recovery.
06:22
FEMA and the state
06:24
will pay 85 percent of the cost of a federally declared disaster,
06:26
leaving the town to pay last 15 percent of the bill.
06:29
Now that expense can be huge,
06:32
but if the town can mobilize X amount of volunteers for Y hours,
06:33
the dollar value of that labor used
06:37
goes toward the town's contribution.
06:40
But who knows that?
06:42
Now try to imagine the sinking feeling you get
06:43
when you've just sent out 2,000 volunteers and you can't prove it.
06:46
CO: These are three problems with a common solution.
06:50
If we can get the right tools at the right time
06:53
to the people who will inevitably step up
06:56
and start putting their communities back together,
06:58
we can create new standards in disaster recovery.
07:00
MO: We needed canvasing tools, donations databasing,
07:03
needs reporting, remote volunteer access,
07:06
all in an easy-to-use website.
07:09
CO: And we needed help.
07:11
Alvin, our software engineer and cofounder, has built these tools.
07:13
Chris and Bill have volunteered their time
07:16
to use operations and partnerships.
07:17
And we've been flying into disaster areas since this past January,
07:20
setting up software, training residents
07:23
and licensing the software to areas that are preparing for disasters.
07:26
MO: One of our first launches was after the Dallas tornadoes this past April.
07:30
We flew into a town that had a static outdated website
07:33
and a frenetic Facebook feed trying to structure the response.
07:37
And we launched our platform.
07:40
All of the interest came in the first four days,
07:41
but by the time they lost the news cycle,
07:43
that's when the needs came in,
07:45
yet they had this massive resource of what people were able to give
07:46
and they've been able to meet the needs of their residents.
07:49
CO: So it's working, but it could be better.
07:52
Emergency preparedness is a big deal in disaster recovery
07:54
because it makes towns safer and more resilient.
07:58
Imagine if we could have these systems ready to go in a place
08:00
before a disaster.
08:03
So that's what we're working on.
08:05
We're working on getting the software to places
08:07
so people expect it, so people know how to use it
08:09
and so it can be filled ahead of time
08:11
with that microinformation that drives recovery.
08:13
MO: It's not rocket science.
08:15
These tools are obvious and people want them.
08:17
In our hometown, we trained a half-dozen residents
08:20
to run these Web tools on their own.
08:22
Because Caitria and I live here in Boston.
08:24
They took to it immediately,
08:26
and now they are forces of nature.
08:28
There are over three volunteer groups working almost every day,
08:29
and have been since June 1st of last year,
08:32
to make sure that these residents get what they need and get back in their homes.
08:34
They have hotlines and spreadsheets and data.
08:37
CO: And that makes a difference.
08:40
June 1st this year marked the one-year anniversary
08:42
of the Monson tornado.
08:45
And our community's never been more connected or more empowered.
08:46
We've been able to see the same transformation
08:49
in Texas and in Alabama.
08:51
Because it doesn't take Harvard or MIT
08:53
to fly in and fix problems after a disaster,
08:56
it takes a local.
08:58
No matter how good an aid organization is at what they do,
08:59
they eventually have to go home.
09:02
But if you give locals the tools,
09:03
if you show them what they can do to recover,
09:05
they become experts.
09:09
(Applause) MO: All right. Let's go.
09:12
(Applause)
09:15
Translated by Timothy Covell
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speakers:

Caitria O'Neill - Disaster relief expert
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.

Why you should listen

Caitria O'Neill, then 20, had just graduated from college in the summer of 2011, and was preparing to begin a Master's program in Moscow. But on June 1, an EF3 tornado hit her hometown of Monson, Massachusetts. Caitria, along with her older sister Morgan, quickly took action. Working as lead volunteer coordinators, the two created a flexible framework for an "unofficial" community relief effort. By leveraging the short term spike in national interest, along with social media and database organization, Monson recorded more volunteer hours than any surrounding town -- hundreds more hours, in fact.

After this intense experience, Catria and Morgan have translated their system into organizing software for local coordinators, through the website Recovers.org. This “recovery in a box” can be rolled out in minutes, helping local relief organizers turn interest into action. Caitria serves as Chief Executive Officer.

More profile about the speaker
Caitria O'Neill | Speaker | TED.com
Morgan O'Neill - Disaster relief expert
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.

Why you should listen

Morgan O'Neill was in MIT's Museum of Science, playing with the tornado display, when she got a call informing her that a tornado was ripping through her hometown of Monson, Massachusetts. After driving home, Morgan -- alongside sister Caitria -- took the reins of the relief effort. Working as lead volunteer coordinators, the two created a flexible framework for an "unofficial" community response. By leveraging the short term spike in national interest, along with social media and database organization, Monson recorded more volunteer hours than any surrounding town -- hundreds more hours, in fact.

After this intense experience, Catria and Morgan have translated their system into organizing software for local coordinators, through the website Recovers.org.  This “recovery in a box” can be rolled out in minutes, helping local relief organizers turn interest into action. Morgan serves as Chief Operating Officer.

More profile about the speaker
Morgan O'Neill | Speaker | TED.com