Facing Disaster: It Takes a Local

04.01.13 8:45 AM ET

A year and a half ago four tornadoes cut a forty-mile swath through central Massachusetts taking a sorely unprepared region by storm. Lives were lost, and homes, businesses, and schools were reduced to rubble. The small town of Monson witnessed the biggest twister of the pack, an EF3 tornado with 160 mph wind gusts, leaving the town with no power, no running water, no answers. The damaged Monson home of two college-aged sisters, rendered unlivable, would displace their family for a year.

In the immediate days that followed, Caitria O’Neill a recent Harvard grad, and Morgan O’Neill an MIT undergrad, were blown away by more than the destruction to their community of 8,500. Monson, like many cities and towns facing for the first time Mother’s Nature withering wrath, was caught flat-footed. “We were waiting for the large organizations to rush in to save the day with capes on, and that’s not actually what happens,” said Morgan O’Neill. “They’re good at specific things and no one else can do what they do.” Like figuring out insurance, where to find resources, and how to notify your family you’re okay. But it wasn’t everything that needed to be done. Like, say, tarping an exposed roof. In search of a hot meal, her family went to Monson’s Protestant church-cum-community center. Organizational structure was nonexistent, and the sisters stood eager to harness locals, donations, and resources in a way that might help.

Wielding chainsaws was admittedly not their strong suit. But with no more than a couple of laptops, an air card, and some pol-organizing experience between them, they got a Google voice hotline and the Internet involved in Monson’s recovery—spreading hyper-local information about victims’ needs in real time. Still, Ciatria was baffled, “Surely, in the United States we can’t be the first to organize (a community) post-disaster.” Why weren’t there tools connecting people with needs to people with aid, she wondered? It seemed reasonable to expect someone to walk up to them and say, ‘OK, this has happened to you, now this is what you do.’

There was nothing easy about starting their startup. Mistakes were inevitable, like not realizing the need to keep track of volunteers’ hours for FEMA data-reporting requirements. But in fairness, the O’Neills were reacting to a crisis. What if they could take best practices learned on the ground after a disaster and put together a tool kit and a functional recovery infrastructure for a community before the next calamitous event? Ciatria and Morgan’s entrepreneurial colors were showing: Imagine how powerful it could be to put a system in place preemptively. Then came the idea for Recovers.org and a disaster-organizing software company. The website could “collect the aid that was coming in immediately, canvas needs much later, and mash it all together with all the right data,” said Caitria. As Morgan was still finishing up at MIT, Caitria became Recovers’ CEO.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast this past October, Recovers.org immediately launched a dedicated page for Manhattan’s hard hit Lower East Side, and the website began getting need requests right away. Elisia Espiritu, the development director of the organization Two Bridges required essentials for a multi-floor, 110-unit building of seniors in an evacuation zone and trapped in their apartments without access to food and water.

Morgan, who saw an opportunity to do a lot of good all at once, posted the seniors’ predicament on Recovers’ home page and Elisia heard back from Morgan within an hour. “It was such a relief to know that someone was helping us,” she said. By afternoon the director was receiving messages on Recovers.org that she could expect food deliveries and gallons of water for shut-in residents. She says she had no idea where they were coming from but was thrilled nonetheless.

Meanwhile in Boston the small company of five, including Recovers’ talented software engineer in Alvin Liang, stays focused on tweaking the tool kit and being in a place before a crisis, creating local sites for communities, churches, and the many parties coordinating aid. The Beantown team was impressed by the number of New Yorkers who stepped up to the plate and began organizing as administrators on dedicated neighborhood sites without any real training.

Queens resident Leni Calas is the founder of The Mamas Network, a web-based community for local parents and she runs the Astoria Recovers website, she calls invaluable. Likewise, the O’Neills have high praise for Leni and her work in the debilitated Rockaways. In addition to mobilizing massive amounts of resources to victims, “she’s extremely keyed into how the software works as a process,” said Caitria, adding: “People like Leni actively make our platform better for the next storm.”

What the innovative sisters say they realized after the Monson tornado was that organizational problems are pretty much the same everywhere—whether it’s New Orleans, Joplin, or Jackson, Mississippi. “The local community does so much of the heavy lifting that if we just make it easier for them,” said Morgan, “then recovery can be measurably, if not significantly faster.”

So far, Caitria is proudest of the time she visited the small town of Forney, Texas, ravaged by an EF3 tornado last April. “Up to that point we’d gotten a lot of mentorship, grants, and support. In Forney, I was standing in a destroyed neighborhood seeing community members meeting needs through the first launch of our software system, and thinking ‘we’ve finally tipped the balance.’ We’ve actually done just as much good as has been done for us as an organization. It was an extremely powerful moment.”

Currently the O’Neill sisters are busy preparing a number of communities in the U.S. and Australia, interfacing with emergency management departments and nonprofits, and developing more tools for neighborhood awareness and resident preparedness. All in the name of addressing measures that can be taken before a disaster occurs. In Caitria’s words, “it will only get better from here.”