I’m writing to you from Man About Town’s Brooklyn redoubt – where we have been spared from the very worst of hurricane Sandy. We never flooded, and we never lost power. Like so many of you, Mrs. Man About Town and I have been glued to Twitter, NY1, WNYC, the NY Times, and a host of other news sources trying to grapple with the scale of the devastation caused by surging storm waters and wind. And, like many of you, we’ve wept over the terrible loss of life, and been inspired by the ingenuity and dedication of emergency personnel, public leaders, and generous neighbors.
We will never be the same.
Disaster recovery is a damned difficult business, because it’s always happening under the worst of conditions. For those without power, heat, hot water, and access to transportation, a day or two of deprivation might be manageable. But stretching that out further, when emergency food and water are dwindling fast, when the nearest outlet to charge your phone is 40 blocks away, and when the toilet hasn’t been flushed in four days, well it’s no wonder that tempers fray. Anger and resentment are sure to show quickly, in spite of the best efforts of committed utility workers, social service providers, relief organizations, and elected officials. People are scared, and for good reason.
Coordinating disaster recovery efforts in the midst of all this requires nerves of steel.
Existing infrastructure and personnel are already spread far too thin, and despite their scale can only accomplish so much. According to NYC Council Member Brad Lander, there are only three teams available to remove fallen trees in Brooklyn. Even pulling 16-hour shifts they are totally overwhelmed.
Equally frustrating, support tends to pour in from multiple sources in uncoordinated ways. NYC Service saw its website crash when too many volunteers piled on in the immediate aftermath of the storm, although it’s back up and doing a great job of trying to create some order out of chaos. All those folks who can’t get to work really want to do something to help, want to make a difference, and want to feel active rather than passive in the face of disaster.
And we’re fortunate that we have lots of highly trained professionals around us. But while it’s great that they can help out at the local shelter, or remove debris from stricken communities, what we need right now is the ability to tap their expertise and take on the really hairy work of putting things to rights.
In speaking to my colleagues at Civic Consulting (who coordinate high level corporate pro bono capacity and provide it to the public sector), and in reflecting on my experiences developing disaster recovery commitments at major corporations, there are urgent needs that could be met by these highly skilled volunteers, if we could only find a way to manage the opportunity:
- The Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) “allows states to send personnel, equipment, and commodities to help disaster relief efforts in other states.” Skilled volunteers could help identify both needs and resources, and coordinate with other state and federal agencies to speed their arrival and deployment.
- Disaster areas need lots of stuff. The US Conference of Mayors has done a great job of reaching out to its members for everything from generators and light towers to portable toilets and drinking water. But when stuff starts showing up, logistics support is desperately needed to make sure it is delivered quickly and to areas of the highest need. Skilled volunteers could help inventory and distribute these resources.
- Many corporations and businesses will be seeking to contribute goods and services. Staffing a temporary emergency operations center that works with these contributors to receive, coordinate and deliver donations will maximize their impact and benefit.
- Many major corporations also have trained emergency response teams that could lend direct logistical support alongside their corporate commitment to disaster recovery.
- Finally, personnel are always needed, including logisticians, emergency managers, planners, and mental health professionals. Embedding these skilled professionals inside shelters and social services agencies, disaster recovery operation centers, and so on would provide deeply needed resource at a critical time.
[Ed note: Occupy Sandy is also an interesting example of quick and flexible disaster relief.]
Like all natural disasters, the long-term recovery effort consists of both mourning our losses and re-building the homes and infrastructure damaged or destroyed. Both are critical to reclaiming our lives. We are going to need all the help we can get to recover from Sandy, so let’s start thinking now about how to maximize the skills and passions of our neighbors and friends as we pull ourselves back together.