Archive for the ‘Hurricane Sandy’ Category

By Julia Moline

When you read an article or hear a story or see firsthand how hard it is to manage information after a disaster, it’s tempting to think that if only we had the right systems, all of our problems would go away. Technology can achieve amazing things. We can use aerial imagery to allocate response teams; we can trace tweets to find people trapped in a building; we can share information with people all over the world over computers and mobile devices. So why can’t we make this work?

The first hindrance is money, which can be a large barrier for non-profits. There are also number of issues that technology itself cannot address. These challenges are especially pronounced in areas that bring a lot of different kinds of responding groups together, including anywhere voluntary aid meets government response.

1. Different groups need systems for different reasons. In-kind donations management is a good example of this—it makes sense to have a single system that allows donors, beneficiaries, and decision-makers to see what’s needed and what’s available. Systems like the National Donations Management Network are built to help meet various needs through selective user access, multiple data filters, and custom reports. But as the system continually expands to meet more needs, it becomes less intuitive for the average user.

2. Database skills are not a given. The people who respond to disasters range from extremely tech-savvy grassroots organizations like Occupy Sandy to retired first responders with decades of field experience but little knowledge of technical systems. Most of the government and aid workers who get involved fall somewhere in the middle, so they need training (or instructions) on how to use a new technology or database. Often the system only goes part of the way toward accomplishing their tasks. Without the skills or the confidence to make the system work for them, aid workers often resort to simpler systems or even manual methods.

3. Frustrations with systems lead people to develop workarounds. In a high-pressure response environment, you only have time to do the minimum to get your job done. So spending time entering data or trying to run a report seems like a waste. Instead, you start printing out the individual records you need and handwriting your notes. Or, you don’t completely give up on the database, but you start to enter your information in the comments field instead of trying to track down all of the places you’re supposed enter data. Or, you just pick up the phone and have a conversation with someone. So you get your task done right now, but when your shift is up, the next person doesn’t know where you logged everything. And when his shift is up, you don’t know where his stuff is. You want to fall back on the system, but by this point, its information is outdated, and you have to figure out who has the information you need.

4. Sometimes, people just don’t want to share. Organizations can be territorial or suspicious of each other’s ulterior motives. It can be unclear who is responsible for keeping certain information up to date. And sometimes, people just don’t get along (especially when the environment is tense and the stakes high). So even when a system has the capacity to collect and synthesize data from a lot of different sources, some people might not want to use it, because they don’t want to grant others access. If enough users start to feel this way and stop using the database, it will no longer hold enough information to make it worth others’ time.

That is not to say that we should give up on developing technological systems for response. On the contrary: we have an obligation to continue to develop and improve our systems so that we’re best able to respond to disasters. But to do so without recognizing these challenges would be a waste of technology and a failure of development. We must develop systems with an emphasis on user-friendliness and intuitiveness, implement data management goals into planning programs, and make a concerted effort to train responders on basic data management principles.

Technology alone isn’t going to “fix” emergency management. But if we’re deliberate about making technology a part of the way we prepare for disasters, we can go a long way toward a more efficient, effective response.


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By Julia Moline

When a house floods, it doesn’t just fill with water; there’s dirt, household chemicals, and, often, raw sewage in the mix. In the response world, this toxic brew is known as muck. To clean a flooded home, it’s not just a matter of getting the actual muck out, though.  You have to remove all damaged furniture and finishes, clean all surfaces, and dry everything out to prevent mold growth. On top of all of that, you have to document damage for insurance purposes.

In an event like Superstorm Sandy, which had such widespread impacts, muck outs are a case study in the challenges of disaster response and recovery. They are deeply personal and a challenge of scale, at once slow going and a race against time.

I spent a few days working with the New York City Donations Coordination Team in the aftermath of Sandy. Coming in looking to learn something about how response works, and with a background in flood mitigation and flood damage-resistant materials, I was fascinated by muck out coordination efforts. It was becoming clear that muck outs would be the next major need, particularly as a cold front approached and shelter space began to run low. As coordination proceeded, I noticed four themes emerging that spoke to larger challenges of emergency management in general.

1. Government-NGO coordination. The real work of rebuilding can’t happen until homes are clean and dry, but the government doesn’t have the resources to muck out each of the tens of thousands of flooded homes.  Formal partnerships with VOAD groups1 can help provide the needed assistance; a number of those have the resources and experience to help with large-scale muck out operations. Groups such as Team Rubicon and the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief have experience from previous floods and understand what’s needed. Local organizations with access to large numbers of volunteers can be additional resources, even though they may lack training and experience. This convergence of organizations and resources presents an opportunity and challenge that, if managed well, can lead to a successful and empowering response.  Managed poorly, it can lead to duplication of efforts, disenfranchisement, and, worst of all, inability to help disaster victims. 

2. Rapid action, the right way. After a disaster, you try to act as quickly as possible to get life back to normal. With muck outs, however, up-front speed might not always translate to time savings or better results in the long run. It’s tempting to skip some of these steps, or to only take the first step of getting the muck out of the house. If a house isn’t allowed to dry fully before reconstruction begins, moisture can lead to long-term mold problems that can require years and thousands of dollars to fix. If damage is not documented, the insurance reimbursement process can be prolonged. Doing these things all at once can save a lot of time and money. It’s more important to take the time needed to do the job right, rather than focusing on doing the job fast.

3. Data collection and situational awareness. To ensure that every area in need is covered, to avoid duplication of efforts, and to provide necessary follow up with homeowners, tracking and mapping is a critical step in a coordinated muck out effort. Because no single organization has the capacity to meet all of the needs, mapping also helps to ensure that each area is covered. Still, few organizations can spare the people to canvas needs and collect enough information to create a meaningful, complete dataset, and this is a significant issue that needs to be addressed.

4. Supplies and logistics. Having the people to do muck outs isn’t enough; cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment (gloves, goggles, etc), hammers and other tools are needed in bulk. Although volunteer efforts and donations are necessarily managed separately, close coordination is required to make sure that volunteers have the resources they need to do what they show up to do.

These four themes are common to all areas of disaster response and boil down to a few key elements: personnel, process, plans, and products. Each of these elements must be present for a successful response. When failures in response occur, looking for improvements in each key area can help to improve response. For instance, a map of affected areas will do no good if there is no coordination among government and not-for-profit organizations. Truckloads of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies will not solve anything if there is no way to get those supplies to muck out volunteers. And thorough action plans will not be successful if there is no mechanism for training and information sharing.

New York City is one of the best-equipped cities in the world for such large-scale coordination challenges, and will hopefully be able to learn and improve its own processes. As Sandy recovery continues for the months to come and winter approaches, we are sure to see new relationships forming, new information flows, and innovative data collection and tracking techniques.

1Link to: http://www.nvoad.org/

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By Julia Moline

A few days after Superstorm Sandy struck New York, a call came into the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) that a woman was on her way into the city with an 18-wheeler full of donations from her church group. She needed to know where to bring her haul.

This wonderful and well-intentioned gesture created a big challenge for OEM. First, wind damage, debris, and transit issues had resulted in massive traffic congestion. Second, there was no clear place to bring large quantities of donations—warehouse space was in short supply. Third, there were no trained people available to sort the donations and bring them to afflicted populations.

After a catastrophic disaster, people want to do something to help. It’s only natural—how can you sit at home and watch story after story of families who lost everything without wanting to, well, do something? So people text to donate $10, celebrities host telethons, and…community groups organize drives. And that’s where things get complicated.

When a disaster strikes on as large a scale as Sandy, it is incredibly challenging just to figure out three basic logistics questions:

  1. What do the organizations responding, sheltering, and canvassing need?
  2. Who has what these organizations need?
  3. How are those resources going to be transported from the donor to the recipient?

To have any kind of timely response, it is imperative that these transactions be conducted in understandable units, for instance pallets, containers, or truckloads. If I know that a shelter needs five pallets of water, I can get them five  pallets of water and know that their need has been met; but if I start sending them one case or a few cases at a time, it becomes impossible to track whether they have enough. More than that, if I send a shelter with critically low water levels a truck full of some water, some clothes, and some other stuff, I may be doing more harm than good; not only do they likely not have the capacity to sort what I sent, they have no place to store things that can’t be used immediately, and they either have to keep everything on the truck (which means the truck isn’t available to transport new shipments) or take up valuable shelter space with piles of unnecessary stuff.

If this concept isn’t planned, it rapidly becomes obvious to anyone managing the logistics of response. Unfortunately, it is not obvious to well-intentioned bystanders. So unsolicited donations flow in, most of it unsorted. “Mystery bags” of clothes, blankets, and who knows what else are dropped off at shelters. Truckloads of donations from church groups in the Carolinas and the Dakotas arrive without specific destinations. And responders, whose goal is to match resources to need, get diverted into making sure those donations don’t choke their logistics network.

This is not to say that the outpouring of support and the desire to help aren’t appreciated; in a lot of cases, these kinds of efforts are the only ray of hope for people whose lives are destroyed. And giving something tangible, not just money, contributes to the much-needed feeling that an entire country is coming together to help its vulnerable citizens.

The response world’s challenge, then, is this: How can we direct in-kind giving to encourage and maximize outside assistance without disrupting critical response work?

New York City came up with several innovative ways to try to strike this balance. First, as much as possible, individuals were encouraged to give money rather than items. This message was relayed through a number of channels, including the city’s service website (link to: nyservice.org), Twitter, not-for-profit partners, and OpEds like this one by Jose Holguin-Veras (link to: http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/latest-columns/20121106-jose-holguin-veras-avoiding-a-post-sandy-disaster.ece).

Second, individuals looking to donate were directed to their local Salvation Army or Goodwill store. Why? Unlike response organizations, these two groups have the local capacity already in place to receive, sort, store, and transport unsolicited gifts. Where donations are not immediately useful for affected people, they have the ability to turn things like golf clubs and tuxedos into revenue that can later be used to aid response and recovery efforts. And, because those organizations also have the capacity to separate different kinds of donations, donors have the satisfaction that their contribution did its part. If I contribute food, my food goes to a shelter; if I give something like golf clubs, they go to Goodwill.

It is also interesting to note that both Salvation Army and Goodwill developed voucher systems for disaster victims. The vouchers allowed people to purchase what they needed rather than what donors thought they wanted.

Third, VOAD groups (link to: http://www.nvoad.org/) like the American Red Cross managed large-scale corporate donations through their well-established infrastructure. Large-scale, unsolicited in-kind donations (such as the bounty of a church donations drive) and trucks (including the one that was en route in those first few days) were intercepted before they got to the city so that the goods could be sorted and redirected as appropriate without interfering with operations in the city. This eliminated the need for massive donations warehouses like those that popped up after the Joplin, MO tornadoes last year. It also cut down the potential for disaster capitalists to sell donations that the city didn’t want.

New York City continues to struggle with in-kind donations—from club DJs with weekend drives to individuals cleaning out their closets continue to send “mystery bags” to shelters and other sites that don’t have capacity. As response turns to recovery and the flow of generosity decreases, the need to manage existing donations will increase. Building on lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and earlier events like the March 2011 Japanese earthquake/tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the disaster response community can move forward with innovative approaches to the logistics of in-kind donations that will make a difference when the next disaster strikes.

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By Dr. Jarrod Goentzel

The mammoth logistics effort needed to help New York City cope with the ravages of Hurricane Sandy is a story that will unfold over the coming months. But there is one logistical subplot that may surprise those active in the response and the public at large: the race to reopen the city’s schools.

Amid the turmoil brought on by Hurricane Sandy, bringing New York’s schools back on stream may not seem like a critical priority.  But as I witnessed firsthand last month in New York, and in other contexts such as Haiti in 2010, returning the education system to normalcy is a vital, and perhaps underestimated, logistical step on the road to recovery.

Unused emergency supplies await pickup as a shelter is transitioned back to a school

Unused emergency supplies await pickup as a shelter is transitioned back to a school

Amidst the chaos post-disaster, children need the routine that is imposed by school timetables. And having kids under the care of teachers frees time for weary parents to focus on disaster recovery.

But the challenge is far more complicated than inspecting and cleaning classrooms.

On October 28, more than one day before Sandy arrived in New York, the city mobilized 76 shelters, mostly in public schools. A few days after the storm passed, city leaders decided to consolidate the network into 15 core shelters, including four special “warming centers” where citizens could manage the dropping temperatures. The goal was set to transform most shelters back to their primary role as schools by Monday morning, November 5.

This transition required a huge logistics operation, one of many managed by the New York City Office of Emergency Management (NYC OEM). Ample supplies of critical items such as blankets, cots, food, hygiene products, and water – which had been successfully deployed prior to the storm – had to be shipped from 61 locations scattered across the city back to a warehouse for redeployment as speedily as possible.

NYC OEM workers repalletize water

Workers repalletize water

The age of some of the buildings posed a number of unique logistics problems. For example, many old-style school doors have steel posts positioned narrow enough to make it impossible for pallets to pass. Full pallets of supplies such as water had to be manually disassembled so the items could be carried out of the building. Once outside, they had to be repalletized before being loaded on the trucks.

This work required many hands, so logistics personnel drove to the schools to do the heavy lifting. That required them to burn gasoline – a scarce commodity in the storm-torn city. As a result, an additional logistics challenge was organizing this operation while keeping fuel consumption to a minimum.

Planning required coordination with staff at the schools, to estimate the quantity of supplies remaining in each building for labor and truck assignments and to ensure access for the around-the-clock operation. Further complicating plans, efforts were made to redeploy supplies directly to the remaining shelters, using impromptu “crossdocks” to avoid unnecessary trips to the warehouse.

Despite the scale of operations required over the weekend, the logistics operation was a success. All shelter supplies were removed by Sunday night, some 12 hours ahead of schedule. Dozens of former shelters were able to open their doors for school children on Monday morning.

Arriving within days of the disaster to assist the NYC OEM logistics team where needed, I was surprised that my first role focused on reverse logistics. I was tasked with “demobilizing” at a time when many people were still in need. But I quickly learned that sometimes the mantra of logistics professionals – having the right goods at the right place at the right time – means getting supplies out of the way…so the kids can come back to school.

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