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Hurricane Sandy: Hackers, a satellite dish and an IKEA canteen

25 Apr 2013


Access to RHI Wifi, as supported by the FEMA innovation teams, was crucial for Hurricane Sandy survivors in Red Hook.
Credit: Becky Kazansky
How FEMA’s Innovation Team restored connectivity to parts of New York devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

OCHA’s new report, Humanitarianism in the Network Age, looks at how important communication is for people and communities affected by disasters. One of its findings is that with the advent of mobile technology, communication and information should be treated as a form of humanitarian aid. This case study shows how relief organizations in the United States incorporated this approach in their response to Hurricane Sandy which hit the east coast in October 2012.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the neighbourhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, New York City, residents lost more than heat and light. With power supplies cut and with phone lines and internet connections severed, they lost their ability to connect with the outside world. Many elderly people and those with disabilities were trapped in their apartments, unable to alert anyone, when power cuts disabled their elevators.

Desperate for help, survivors in one neighbourhood started to arrive at the headquarters of a local community group, the Red Hook Initiative (RHI). Their building still had power and heating. But rather than ask for food or housing, staff found that the first question most survivors asked was: ‘Can I charge my phone?’

“The office had a room full of chairs for people who wanted to sit and get warm. People would come in, plug in their phones and then sit there – texting friends and family to say they were OK, going on Facebook,” says Becky Kazansky, a film maker who works with RHI.

People were also desperate to get online – but RHI’s beleaguered system could only service around 300 people at a time, and staff needed to use it to organize their response.

“We immediately saw communications as one of the critical needs in the community,” said RHI Media Programmes Coordinator Tony Schloss.“We wanted it to be as easy as possible for people to contact their networks to find housing, gain access to information, and report their safety status.”

“Solve problems and don’t break the law”

Fortunately for RHI, a few blocks away the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s first ever Innovation Team was setting up shop in the Red Hook branch of IKEA – one of the few buildings in the area with a generator. Hurricane Sandy was the first time FEMA had deployed a dedicated Innovation Team. The model was simple: provide resources to specialists in communications technology, send them out directly to the affected areas and task them with finding solutions to the problems they found. The team jokes that they were given just two rules: ‘Solve problems, and don’t break the law.’

A volunteer already working with RHI contacted FEMA team member Frank Sanborn. The ask: could the FEMA innovation team help expand their network so that survivors could get online? The team activated their networks to find volunteers with the required technical skills. One of the organizations to answer the call was the NGO Geeks Without Borders. The volunteers were soon joined by members of the Occupy movement, government officials and community leaders. The Information Technology Disaster Resource Centre, a disaster communications non-profit, offered to donate a satellite link. RHI negotiated with a neighbour - the owner of an auto repair shop - who agreed that the team could set up a crucial repeater for the satellite dish on his roof.

Within two days the network capacity doubled, enabling hundreds of residents to get online, as well as greatly assisting those organizing the response.

“One of the women at RHI I worked with had to send her daughter to live with her sister because their apartment had been destroyed,” says team member Frank Sanborn. “But with a web connection, she could check on her via Facebook – which meant she could relax and carry on working.”

“We knew the system was critical because the one time it went down, we had people coming to complain within minutes,” continues Frank.

Most critically, the network enabled survivors to access FEMA’s online system and register themselves for assistance. They could use an online tool to register damage to their homes; by identifying their homes on a digital map and uploading pictures of damage to property, they created a self-estimated system that could be independently verified by inspectors.

FEMA is determined to build on the efforts of the innovation team and expand the model. They say they learned some key lessons.

“Feeding into pre-existing efforts in communities is key. It’s clear that that’s the vision going forward,” says Frank.

His colleagues agree. "Not all communities respond the same. Some are highly self-reliant, and have extensive external support networks across the country or the world,” says team member Steve Birnbaum, who specialises in satellite technology. “Others do not trust the authorities. By giving them connectivity, we empowered communities to support themselves.”

The innovation team model is one that FEMA plans to replicate. Rich Serino, the Agency’s Deputy Administrator, stressed the importance of bringing together a diverse range of expertise. “No one group has all the answers,” he says.

“We need to keep collaborating.”