Global Issues TED Talks

Hit by a natural disaster? The first 6 things to do for your community’s relief effort

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Every part of the world is susceptible to natural disaster, but somehow, the quiet western part of Massachusetts steered clear over the years. In fact, in 2005, declared inland Massachusetts one of the top three places in the United States “to hide from Mother Nature.”

So imagine the surprise when a series of surprise tornados slammed through Western and Central Massachusetts in June 2011, killing four and causing $200 million in damage.

One of the towns hit was Monson, Massachusetts, the hometown of sisters Caitria and Morgan O’Neill. While Caitria had just moved home after graduating from college, on a pit stop before beginning a master’s program in Moscow, Morgan was in Boston, studying (as it happens) atmospheric science at MIT. The two felt helpless as they watched a tornado wreak havoc on their town, knocking the steeple clear off the church across the street.

In this touching talk given at TEDxBoston, Caitria and Morgan tell the harrowing story of the tornado — and the day after, when they discovered just how unprepared their community was to coordinate a local recovery. The sisters decided to take action, building systems to organize volunteers and donations using two laptops and an AirCard.

After a disaster, people around the country want to help with donations of money, food and more. But as Caitria points out, after any disaster, 50 percent of all web searches on that disaster happen within just seven days. Meaning that a community has just a week to organize — in the thick of survival and clean-up efforts — to maximize donations and support.

Having gathered plenty of knowledge through experience, Caitria and Morgan are hoping to help more communities hit by natural disaster. Their first step: the website, which they call a “recovery in the box.”

So what should one do if their community is hit by a natural disaster? Below, Caitria and Morgan share the first six steps.

1. Recovery begins before a disaster. You need to prepare yourself, your family, and your community to survive at least 72 hours before rescue in an emergency. You can also start planning at the community level right now, speaking with community leaders about recovery plans and familiarizing yourselves with organizing tools. You can also tap into the knowledge of towns who have been through the recovery process before.

2. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, care for yourself and your family first. Use the Red Cross’s Safe and Well program or Google’s Person Finder to announce that you are unharmed. Don’t rush directly into the disaster area with a shovel trying to help — professional first responders need time to make sure the area is safe before volunteers can come in. Try to send text messages instead of placing calls whenever possible, since the phone networks will be strained and emergencies need priority access.

3. Get online as soon as possible. Make a clear plan as a community to decide where you’ll be getting and sharing information. It is important to have a way to accept offers of money, labor and donations immediately — people will be searching online to help you, far before you’re able to accept that help in person. Facebook is a decent place for this, but our organization built a platform to directly meet all the different needs you’ll have — check it out at It’s essential that the wider public has a clear place to offer donations and volunteer help while your area has the attention of the media cycle.

4. Find a place to organize massive amounts of people and volunteers. Again — people want to help, and if you can manage their time, you can turn that goodwill into useful aid. Think school parking lot, church with large basement, or function hall. Get the local hardware store or a neighbor to lend a generator. Post a call for volunteers on your webpage and open the floodgates.

5. Database or record everythingFirst, find out where the damage is by sending crews of volunteers to visually assess damage. (As long as it’s deemed safe! No walking near downed power lines or sneaking into totaled houses!) Inform homeowners of the services they can get from your group. Then, deploy volunteers to help with the cleanup. Be sure to have everyone sign waivers for safety reasons, and track what hours are being worked at what worksite. FEMA needs this information to process federal disaster aid, and it can make a big difference for the community.

6. Train seven of yourself. Disaster recovery at the community level is a logistical circus. You will burn out, and it is important that you hand off the torch before doing so. As your area transitions into long-term recovery, often grants are available through the United Way and other organizations to pay your long-term volunteers.

As long as you are organized, you don’t need to wait for a large organization to come in. You’re not alone — at least a few people in every area affected by disaster will step up and start putting the community back together again. We’re assembling a community of these “local organizing” veterans to share their best practices with others. Are you doing this kind of organizing in your community? Please get in touch with us on — we want to learn from you!