After Hurricane Sandy, Digging Out with Digital Tools

Nov 19, 2012

Almost three weeks have passed since Hurricane Sandy brought historic destruction to the northeast, and many communities — especially in New York and New Jersey — are still only in the early stages of rebuilding. Here at BSD, we’re hoping that this storm leaves at least one positive impact behind: a new set of online tools and technology geared to mobilize support after disasters strike.

Almost three weeks have passed since Hurricane Sandy brought historic destruction to the northeast, and many communities — especially in New York and New Jersey — are still only in the early stages of rebuilding. Here at BSD, we’re hoping that this storm leaves at least one positive impact behind: a new set of online tools and technology geared to mobilize support after disasters strike.

We have offices in three cities affected by the storm (Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston), and many staffers and clients suffered damage and power outages during the storm. Our New York office was without power for a week, but staffers who had power offered their homes as coworking stations for colleagues who suffered damage. Scenes of incredible generosity between neighbors were commonplace in New York, and inspired several of us to join in efforts to help our neighbors rebuild across the city.

I spent three days volunteering in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, and I couldn’t believe the devastation I saw. Hundreds of families from all walks of life lost their homes in a single night of horrific floods, winds and fires. Even today, almost three weeks after the storm, with temperatures dropping, more than 25,000 to 30,000 people still lack power on the peninsula.

During those days of distributing food, cleaning out flooded basements, and talking with residents who narrowly survived, it was obvious that the need was enormous and wouldn’t disappear immediately when the lights come back on. Volunteers will be needed in affected communities for months, but since I tend to think the Internet can solve anything, I found myself wondering how myself and my talented colleagues at BSD could use technology to help.

I offered our services to a team of Rockaway natives who began organizing an impressive relief effort starting the day after the storm, well before FEMA and other organizations arrived. A group of BSD digital strategists shared guidance on their website — www.rockawayhelp.com — built and launched quickly by a team of volunteers. We offered the group free access to the BSD Tools, which they’re now using to manage hundreds of volunteers and requests for help.

And we’re just a tiny part of the tech community’s response to this storm. We hope some of these efforts lead to permanent tools that will be ready to deploy when the next disaster hits.

  • The New York tech meetup and Hurricane Hackers built quick networks, held hackathons, offered free IT advice and support to affected businesses, launched real-time maps and social feeds, and more.
  • The Occupy movement transitioned into disaster relief mode and made great use of the web as an organizing tool.
  • A group of high school students in New Jersey launched a crowdsourced map of gas stations so drivers could share notes during the two-week gas shortage in the area. (See below for a photo of the map)
  • Crowdfunding has been critical in rebuilding efforts, as sites like GoFundMe have helped residents and communities raise millions of dollars to begin rebuilding efforts.

We’re planning to continue our work supporting RockawayHelp in the weeks and months ahead, and we’re hopeful that this storm leaves in its wake a wave of new online tools to make disaster relief more effective.

What tech solutions would you like to see in place before the next natural disaster hits?

— Matt Kelley is a content strategist based in BSD's New York office.