The Sandy Legacy

Less than a week has passed since Hurricane Sandy passed over the Caribbean and the US East Coast, leaving a trail of destruction and death behind. Only seven years have passed since Hurricane Katrina, one of the costliest disasters of all times left a similar trail of destruction on the Gulf Coast. Thankfully a lot of lessons were learnt from Katrina, especially when it comes to leadership and organizational issues. But sadly there are many issues that we will have to learn and re-learn from Hurricane Sandy. 
One of the things that makes Hurricane Sandy so special is the massive geographical area that was affected. It is way larger than anything we have ever seen before. Compared to Hurricane Katrina twice as many states and 5 times as many people were affected, and that is not counting the Caribbean Islands where millions more were affected. Sadly with increased extremes in climate related disasters, with ever increasing urbanization and population growth, these kind of mega-disasters affecting tens of millions of people will become more and more commonplace.
In many countries, and the US is no exception to this, the preparedness and response to disasters is in the hands of multiple levels of government, ranging from town/city level, up to county, state and finally federal level. This means that it is the duty of the city to provide response to and make preparations for any potential disaster. When the situation becomes to difficult for the local level, i.e. the city, to handle, then they can reach up to the county level, which activates resources from nearby cities or from county-level agencies. When the county surpasses it’s limit, then the state comes in and provides additional support. The state can activate state-level responders, such as national guard or other state level agencies. When the situation becomes to difficult for the state level to handle, that is when the federal government comes in provides national-level support, through national-level resources such as the military and federal agencies.
This hierarchical level of disaster response works very well in most disasters, since the majority of disasters are small enough to handle locally or with mutual-aid support from nearby cities. Even for medium level disasters, most disasters can be handled at the state level, with minimal support from the federal level. It is however when mega-disasters, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy occur that the entire response model gets stretched beyond its limits. The system was simply not built for so many cities, counties and states to all be experiencing disaster of this magnitude, all at the same time.
Thankfully in order to ensure that there is some organization in place, coordination of activities happens at the various administrative levels. Each city collects information about the needs of it’s citizens and then shares that with county, who in turn shares that with the state. All of this then gets aggregated up to the federal level. Sadly however often this information ends up in a silo, either within some of the function groups (called Emergency Support Functions/ESF in the US and clusters in the international response world) or at a particular administrative level. There are also different information systems being used at each level and there are lacks of standards for sharing the information correctly. In many cases information also only flows up the chain and not down the chain, so people at the local level are often unaware of what is happening at the macro level.
When a need is identified at the local level, a request for support needs to go up the chain before it can be provided by the appropriate level. I saw this first person during Hurricane Ike in Galveston, where the city EOC needed a generator from FEMA and there were dozens of them sitting in a nearby parking lot. The head of the EOC asked the FEMA person in charge for one of their generators, but the answer he got back is that the request had to go through the correct channel. Here was a great opportunity to provide direct assistance (and there were plenty of generators) down at the person-to-person on ground zero, but bureaucracy got in the way.
It is also important to remember that the government is also not the only responder on the ground. They are actually outnumbered in most disasters by staff and volunteers from non-profit organizations, such as Red Cross, Save the Children and Worldvision. In addition a large number of faith and community based organizations get active and provide assistance to those affected. Some of these organizations model their response on the same administrative boundaries as the governments (i.e. Red Cross chapters for cities and/or counties), while others work across these administrative boundaries, providing response where there is a need.
It is also important to remember that although I am using Hurricane Sandy and the US national response framework as an example above, then the same holds true around the world. The names of the responders may be different and the administrative levels may be different, but the chaos and the lack of effective response can also be found in every major disaster around the world. In fact when disasters become too big for the national response system to cope, that is when the international community arrives, often resulting in even more chaos.
At the same time we have seen how through an explosion in mobile phone ownership and through social media and networks, people affected by these major disasters are not only communicating their needs but also leveraging those same technologies to coordinate their own community response often independent of the official response channels. Although this community lead response at the moment may result in some duplication of efforts, it in most cases ends up meeting the gaps the official response leaves. This community based response also starts immediately after the disaster, way before the first responders arrive.
What is also great about these community based responses is the fact that they do an amazing job in creating a feeling of togetherness in these communities. Helping your neighbor is a concept that most religions have taught and the fact is that it is one of the best ways to build resiliency in communities at risk. Through mobile phones and technologies, these communities can now better organize their efforts and achieve even more impact than ever before. 
What is even more amazing is that through the Internet, concerned citizens around the world can help participate in these community based responses, by lending a helping hand in gathering, processing and sharing information. Often these distributed “digital volunteer” efforts spring up, when they see people affected directly by the disaster call out for information through social media, but we are also seeing more and more connections being established between the formal governmental responders and digital volunteer groups, because the formal responders have realized that those massive crowds of digital volunteers can be tasked with tasks that earlier were impossible to do because of the effort required to complete them. A great example of this is the areal damage assessment that FEMA in collaboration with Civil Air Patrol started immediately after Hurricane Sandy passed over. Over a hundred thousand areal images are being assessed for damage by thousands of volunteers sitting at their computer around the world, all organized by the Humanitarian Open Street Map team.
The underlying need that all of these responders, whether they are international, governmental, non-profit or community based have is a need for good information. There is a need for information about the situation at hand, the needs of the affected population, the response being planned and given and information about resources available. All of this information is then leveraged by the responders and communities affected to make decisions on their next steps. When the appropriate information is not available or accessible, then efforts may end up being duplicated and there may gaps in the overall response. Furthermore lack of access to the right information also often delays the appropriate response from being provided. 
At the same time, responders at various levels often get criticized for their work, which in most cases is being provided at a best effort basis. Response to and recovery from disasters is costly and often there is criticism in how the funds raised are utilized. Over the past decade this criticism has been met by putting strict accountability practices in place, sometimes so strong that more effort is being spent on tracking and documenting efforts than actually providing them.
The key to addressing many of the issues raised above is openness. If response organizations at all levels would start openly sharing the information they are gathering or producing and would share it publicly in ways that other organizations could consume and utilize it, then replication of efforts would be minimized and gaps in the response could quickly be identified and dealt with. What is even more important is that through openness we also achieve transparency, which leads to less effort being required to produce all of the accountability reports we currently have to hand in.
What is even more important is that when a response organization only has a limited visibility to the situation at hand (like state of the communication systems in the affected areas), they can bring in other organizations and digital volunteer groups to help them supplement the information they have through crowdsourcing and analysis. An example of this is that today the various private sector communication providers are mandated to provide FEMA with information about the state of their communication towers (how many are operating and where). Yet this information is not complete and what is even worse, it is not publicly shared, which means that response organizations and citizens who want to get to the nearest operating mobile area or want to know where to get online do not have any place to discover that. As digital volunteer groups discover the need for this information, they start collecting it and sharing with the public, but since they don’t have access to the data from FEMA then their efforts are also not complete.
Imagine what would happen if everyone was sharing this kind of information openly with each other. The mobile phone companies sharing information openly to everyone about the current state of their network (this happened a few days in for some of the operators in Japan back in March 2011). The federal government sharing the overall situation from all the different operators. Then the digital volunteer groups and citizens augmenting that data with information from the ground. Instead of a fractured, incomplete and siloed overview of the state of communications, a compressive and valuable overview would be available to everyone.
Communication is not unique in this aspect. All of the basic needs that pop up after a disaster would benefit from openly sharing information. Where is water available and where is it going to be delivered. Where is shelter available and where are people requiring a roof over their head.  Instead of tens or hundreds of silos of information capturing these, then a comprehensive overview can be created, one that is accessible both to the response organizations and the communities involved.
But why isn’t information being shared openly already? A lot of it has to do with the shift in culture that we are experiencing all around us. As we move from the industrial age ways of doing things to the information age way of doing things, then there is resistance to change from what worked in the past. But as younger generations who have grown up within this digital culture of openness start becoming the majority of our workforce then we will see that shift happen more quickly. But we cannot afford to wait for that generation shift to occur, because lives are at stake.
We at NetHope in collaboration with a number of organizations and individuals have been advocating for a focus on increased openness in the humanitarian world. Although many organization we have talked with have been very positive, we have also experience this resistance to change, especially when it comes to willingness to fund efforts to improve disaster response through open information sharing. 
We feel that Sandy has taught us lessons that we cannot ignore. It has taught us that communities are the key to more effective response and it has also taught us that mobile technology, social media and social networks are a crucial infrastructure for making the overall response more effective. Furthermore it has taught us that there are many issues still to figure out, such as how to coordinate this networked matrix effort of communities, digital volunteers and formal responders. These are all issues we know we can tackle, but in order to do that we need to work together and we need to ensure that the funding is in place to make that collaboration happen.
There is a lot of work to be done, but that work is not impossible if we work together. So if you are still reading and agree that through openness and better collaboration we can together co-create the response community of the information age, then I have a call to action for you:

  • If you are a first responder, NGO worker or work for one of the international response organizations then help us to advocate about this effort of openness within your own organization. Furthermore you can join our pool of subject matter experts willing to help drive change in this space. You can send us an email OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG and we will add you to our Subject Matter Expert pool
  • If you are a response organization (community, non-profit, local government, national government or international organization) and want to join our effort in enabling openness then shoot us an email at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG – collaboratively we can best help each other drive openness into our work
  • If you are a donor (private, foundation or government) that believes in openness and transparency and feel there is room for improvement, both domestically and internationally then shoot us an email at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG
  • If you are a high-flying entrepreneur or corporate executive that want to spend a couple of hours a month/quarter providing us with access to your smart brain to crack some complex problems, then contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG to learn more about our Advisory Fellows program
  • If you are an academic institution or a researcher who want to help us drive openness in the disaster response space and help us solve some of the challenges we face then also contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG
  • If you are a developer, software architect, database guru, designer, tester or software project manager, then sign up to be part of The Humanitarian Toolbox, a “volunteer army” of software experts willing to donate part of their expertise and time to help solve the the technology issues that arise in enabling this open response community and help us develop the solutions required to support this community based response
  • If you are a private sector company that has resources or expertise that you believe might help in this important effort then contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG
  • If you don’t fit into any of the categories mentioned above but want to put your effort into helping us make this a reality, then contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG

Together we can ensure that Sandy leaves a legacy of change in the disaster response space. Change that lead to great improvement in effectiveness of response and in building more resilient communities. Change that leads to openness and transparency while at the same time saving lives. Together we can be the change we want to see in this world and ensure that we all together leave a footprint of progress on this world.

Published November 4th 2012 at DisasterExpert