Every time a populated region experiences a natural disaster, people have the same reaction: Why didn’t we prepare for this better? What can we do differently next time?
Those were some of the thoughts going through Caitria O’Neill’s head after a freak tornado hit her hometown of Monson, Massachusetts, in May 2011. O’Neill had just graduated from Harvard and moved her boxes home when the tornado arrived, making her house uninhabitable. She tried to help with recovery efforts as best she could, using Facebook, Google Voice, and even sticky notes to organize volunteer information.
"There were these two completely uncoordinated things happening on the ground: people showing up who wanted to help and organizations and families that needed help," she says. "There was no infrastructure binding the two. We saw people being turned away in very early recovery, and [nobody was] databasing their contact info or skills." O’Neill knew there had to be a better way.
That’s when the idea for Recovers, a simple logistical management system for disaster recovery, was born. The startup, which launched in April, just completed a four-month stint in Code for America’s accelerator for civic startups.
Communities that want to prepare for disaster can sign up for a Recovers subscription that includes software, training, and support. They’re given a personalized site (townname.recovers.org) and access to a web and mobile platform that allows them to match up donations and volunteers to the people and places that are in need. When parts of a community lack power and Internet, canvassers can be sent out to those locations to record requests via iPhone or paper. Recovers is working with Captricity, another Code for America startup, to make digitally recording these needs easier.
Recovers will have 21 communities signed on by next month. The problem is that many places only think to implement the system after disaster has struck. When that happens, Recovers can’t charge for the service in good conscience—and it drains the startup’s resources.
For example, Recovers launched a site for New York City’s Lower East Side after Hurricane Sandy hit. If the disaster relief movement—largely organized by members of Occupy Wall Street—had signed on before the hurricane hit, leaders would have had much more time to learn the Recovers system and think about what they might need post-Sandy. O’Neill explains: "I have not put down my email since 4:30 this morning. It’s unsustainable."
The Hurricane Sandy experience has undoubtedly been useful—Recovers now has the opportunity to see how its platform fares during a large-scale disaster in three New York City communities and Staten Island. And of course, the startup is helping countless people pool together resources. But O’Neill stresses that Recovers is meant to be a preparedness tool. We’re guessing O’Neill and her team will have plenty of requests from skittish communities on the Eastern seaboard in the coming days and months.