Hurricane Recovery

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Warm Up, Cook, Recharge: A Smart Tool Born of Hurricane Sandy Aftermath

It was originally meant for hikers, but the BioLite CampStove, which converts wood-burning fire into electricity to charge cellphones, could revolutionize disaster relief.

The image of groups of displaced refugees huddled around a contained fire during a blackout or after a major storm is certainly a familiar one. But charging their iPhones at the same time?

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a follow-up storm of relief efforts blew into the New York-New Jersey area. Volunteers flocked to the most devastated areas. The Army Corps of Engineers sent a “SWAT” team of dewatering experts to help drain flooded subway tunnels. And on the ground level, one of the most useful tools to emerge is a genius new spin on the most basic of emergency devices: the campfire.

The BioLite CampStove is about the size of a coffee urn. Developed as the hot new toy for hikers, the stove houses a small fire that burns from hunter-gatherer fuel sources—dry twigs, pinecones—and, in addition to warmth, generates electricity for users to charge mobile devices. You can cook on it, too. But with hundreds of thousands of people without power for days following the wrath of Sandy, and many in the New York region still in the dark, a serendipitous new function of the CampStove—disaster relief—has come to light.

“We realized some of these applications while we were developing it,” Erica Rosen, director of marketing at BioLite, tells The Daily Beast. “But it has really come front and center in the last week.”

The Wednesday after Sandy struck, a group of three BioLite engineers packed a car with four CampStoves and a folding table and drove to Lower Manhattan, where there was still no power, and set up a charging station outside Washington Square Park. They made a handwritten sign—“Come charge your phones for free and drink some tea while you’re waiting”—and quickly amassed a crowd of local residents toting dead phones who couldn’t believe their luck. Finally, a way to charge their cells and reopen crucial lines of communication with family and friends.

“One person was like, ‘Just let me know when this company goes public. I want to pour my life savings into it,’” Nissan Lerea, one of the BioLite product engineers who manned the charging station, says. “A lot of people wanted to buy the stoves from us right then and there, but we weren’t selling it. One person offered to buy it used on the spot.”

The next day, more engineers joined him as he transported seven CampStoves to a pop-up charging station outside City Hall. Lerea says the group wasn’t sure what to expect, or even if setting fires on a curbside table was even legal (both days, cops told them to pack up and leave after a few hours), but he couldn’t fathom not going out to help when he had such a useful—and needed—tool at his disposal.

BioLite Camp Stove
William Bright

As images of the storm’s wreckage and displaced residents, particularly those in hard-to-access, devastated regions like Staten Island and the far Rockaways, continued to flood in, BioLite realized its product needed a wider reach than the nearby blocks of Lower Manhattan. On Thursday, the company dropped off two cases of CampStoves to the Far Rockaways, where, for many, the lights still haven’t come on, the heat isn’t working, the water still hasn’t begun to flow, and a scant group of volunteers are working tirelessly to clean up debris and provide bare necessities to the neighborhood.

BioLite has received numerous requests from on-the-ground volunteer organizers, and sales have spiked to the point where none will be shipped until mid-November.

Chris Devlin has spent the better part of the past 48 hours volunteering in the area. He was there when the CampStoves were dropped off Thursday. “My first reaction,” he says, “was, ‘Holy shit!”

Things in the area are bleak. “In front of us are two camouflage humvees,” he says. “To the left of us is an old restaurant that’s been burnt to the ground. The further you go downtown, you see people who are underserved and have no resources.” No one has gas. No one has fuel or power sources. A device that allows them to cook and charge up simultaneously is invaluable, he says, because it helps keep morale high and tensions low.

Plus, the CampStove can use dry wood as fodder, making it extremely practical. “In a disaster situation, you have a ton of wood lying around,” Devlin says. “There’s a ton of wood here. There’s a whole boardwalk that’s not functional. When you have that much fuel just lying around, particularly in the coming days as debris continues to dry up, this is a pretty good idea.”

The CampStove has only been on the market since June, and has already sold tens of thousands of units. But this is the first time its application as a disaster relief tool has been tested. Rosen says it’s been a valuable learning experience.

“You have this idea of, ‘Let’s just dump a bunch of stoves into a disaster situation, but for us there are logistics about how to do this safely and effectively,” Rosen says. Do the people know how to properly use it? Can they teach others? Do they have a viable fuel source? (Immediately after the hurricane, for example, rain-saturated driftwood and debris would have been useless.) “We’re seeing parallels from this experience to the challenges of international development, where we must figure out how to set up proper distribution channels and education programs.”

BioLite Camp Stove
William Bright

It’s an apt comparison, as BioLite prepares a pilot program in early 2013 that will distribute another product, the HomeStove, to the developing world, including parts of India, Uganda, and Guatemala. The idea behind the HomeStove is that nearly 3 billion people worldwide cook on smoky open fires, leading to premature deaths from lung damage and burns and contributing to climate change. Almost 1.3 billion of these people lack access to electricity. The HomeStove, which is much larger than the CampStove but operates in a similar manner, cuts down on 95 percent of smoke emissions—while simultaneously generating electricity.

In the week and a half since Sandy hit, BioLite has received numerous requests from on-the-ground volunteer organizers for CampStoves, and sales for the product have spiked to the point where none will be shipped until mid-November.

“People have asked if sending our team out there was a publicity stunt,” Rosen says, “but the truth is the idea was the brainchild of engineers who just wanted to help, with no input from the marketing department. We’re just really fortunate that there’s been a great response.”

In the end, she says, she hopes people realize that the CampStove could become not just a valuable addition to a family’s camping gear stock, but its emergency preparedness kit as well.

As Devlin says he’s seen firsthand, “It seems like the perfect disaster device.”