Tag Archives: disaster organizing

Search Engines and Social Media Step Up for Disasters

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 10.02.57 AMNew Orleans     It’s hard to find any good news in disasters.  The Nepal earthquake has already counted more than 4000 deaths with countless homeless and crises abounding will leave that country in recovery for years, particularly in Katmandu.  India and Chinese rescue teams were first on the scene and many are joining, though slowly it seems.

I wrote a book several years ago called the Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, so even ten years on from Hurricane Katrina, I continue to look for lessons that we have learned that make a difference.  Parsing the press releases from recovery specialists and Silicon Valley is always a tricky business where one hopes for the best, but both search engines and social media outfits may be trying to fill a vital need that we recognized early after Katrina:  finding people and establishing who is safe and who might be missing.   We found many of our members by mass texting to cell phones then, but there had to be a better way.

Before I even realized that there had been an earthquake in Nepal, I got a Facebook message on my phone on April 25th at 1248 PM that Ruchi Srivastava was safe in Nepal.  I didn’t know Ruchi well.  She had connected to me through Kanchan Shinha, a former program officer with Oxfam Great Britain in India and country director for Oxfam GB in Tanzania, who I knew much better.  Nonetheless, I liked knowing she was safe.  I wasn’t sure what was going on, though it became clearer quickly once I realized a devastating earthquake had hit Nepal.

It turned out that with Facebook’s billion plus users globally they have created an application called “Safety Check” that allows people to let their friends know that they are safe.  Nothing more, but that’s often enough.  I had asked my daughter about a college roommate of hers who worked in Nepal, but she was not in-country at the time.  According to Facebook “…millions of users in Nepal, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh had been marked as safe, and their status had been relayed to tens of millions of people….”  In places like Indonesia where Facebook is almost ubiquitous, this could be a lifesaver in the event of another tsunami.
According to The New York Times as well, Google has an application that allows people to search for friends and loved ones as well as allowing people on the scene to input their data.

Google’s Person Finder  was tracking about 6,300 records… Anyone can enter a person’s name, biographical information and photograph into Google’s database. You can specify whether you are that person, are seeking information about that person or have reason to believe the person is either alive or missing. Google does not review or verify the data.

It turns out that a small contribution and lesson learned from Katrina in 2005 has driven this bit of actually not “doing evil” and actually doing good.

Google’s tool can also accept data from other registries. The common format used, called PFIF , was established by a group of volunteers after Hurricane Katrina  in 2005, according to Google. After that disaster, multiple lists of missing people sometimes created confusion, pointing to a need for a central database.  The tool was first introduced in 2010 after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and it was used again the next year after the major earthquake in Japan.


Springfield Story: Do We Learn from Disasters?

foreclosureNew Orleans There’s a t-shirt coming:  global warming gonna get your mamma! The spate of disasters from Japan to Joplin, Birmingham, Alabama to Springfield, Mass brings all the horror home again.  Living in New Orleans and still in recovery from Katrina and weaker and wiser from the experience, I keep an eye on these things, and in the case of Springfield I have been connected to some of the scrappy organizations, organizers, and activists trying to contend with the both the learning curve and the vast unmet and crying needs of victims and the community itself.

Springfield is at the top of the list for foreclosures in Massachusetts and sitting with the redoubtable Congressman Barney Frank, banking expert and one-man accountability squad, but people are still demanding a moratorium during the crises for foreclosures and have yet to win it, despite the Springfield City Council joining the call and FHA saying they are ready.  A federal disaster has been declared.  Occupancy for housing units was frightfully low (about 6%) before the tornado, yet no action.  Why after Katrina is this not automatic?  Why do families and their organizations have to start from scratch here?

Housing can’t be found.  There is still no moratorium stopping evictions for families still living in houses that have been foreclosed during this crisis.  What the frick?!?

This morning I have been listening to a video of interviews with survivors.  I did not need to watch.  I’ve heard all the stories before from different faces.  We are almost 30 days out from the disaster and people have their famous FEMA letters, but no money yet.  It seems that the emergency payments that helped us survive post-Katrina have not been issued.  The Red Cross has announced that it is closing shelters today and some of the survivors who were interviewed talked about the crushing indignity of having their cots and gear moved out yesterday as they got the notice.  Why do we still let the Red Cross muddle through the mess?  They are good at giving out water and food, waving their flag and raising money, but they don’t know how to handle housing or survivors once the first punch has been taken and the long sloughing fight to rebuild sets in.  Why are we still not being better?  This is a congressionally authorized corporation with virtually no accountability in Washington that preys on disorganized and panic victims thankful for any help.  Listening to one woman talk about how she felt Puerto Ricans and African-Americans faced discrimination at the hands of the Red Cross was just flat over the line for me!

Hotel rooms are going begging for guests in Springfield now, and there is word that survivors unable to locate housing may be relocated to some, but in a typical disaster catch-22, FEMA says it will reimburse the survivors for their lodging which means these poor, working families would have to come up with the money now on the front end and get reimbursed who knows when?

And, working, forget about that even though protecting livelihoods is lifeblood for families and for the community.  One woman talked about having lost her car and having no way to replace the transportation so knowing that her job was going to be the next thing she would lose and then she would have to “start all over.”

In New Orleans we had to learn how to organize to win on all of these fronts after Katrina and we’re still paying the price.  Now almost six years after Katrina where are new communities and new victims and survivors of disaster still facing the same maze of obstacles and obstinacy in the face of tragedy when our national and local policy should be an open and helping hand?