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After Sandy, Are FEMA and the Red Cross Helpmates to Neighborhood Volunteers, Not Their Leaders?

BY Joe Maniscalco | Friday, November 16 2012

This post was published through Personal Democracy Plus, techPresident's subscription service, and would normally be available exclusively to subscribers. We are not limiting access to Hurricane Sandy-related stories. — The Editors

The Internet didn't create the outpouring of citizen-to-citizen care that has so often beaten traditional relief agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross to Hurricane Sandy-ravaged communities all over the tri-state area - but it certainly helped to channel it.

After Sandy hit, Bay Ridge school teacher Isana Gitsis became one of the many who wanted to do a lot more than just "get some bagels and drive around looking for people who need them."

After firing off an e-mail to www.nycservice.org on November 2 requesting a list of volunteer opportunities, Gitsis says she ultimately found what she was looking for in Occupy Sandy, Facebook groups, and small grassroots organizations - anyone who was paying attention to communities in NYC where the usual cast of first responders was slow to help. Nycservice.org, she said, didn't get back to her until days after she reached out.

"The devastation in Staten Island, the Rockaways, Red Hook, and shelters for the elderly is astounding," Gitsis says. "People are hungry, cold, displaced, lonely, depressed. If it wasn't for the internet/social networking, I would be largely disabled in lending a hand in any organized manner."

According to Occupy Sandy organizer Ed Needham, the use of things like Facebook, Twitter and quick-to-post websites were crucial in allowing people to act on their huge reserves of civic energy and passion to help.

"Because we're not centralized in an office or a headquarters, everything that we do communication-wise, if it's not face-to-face, it's social media - whether that's email lists, Facebook or Twitter," Needham says. "Things like Facebook and Twitter are great when you have specific things that are happening in real time. Those are platforms that we have used to help communities in different ways since Occupy has been around. These systems were in place, and it just organically happened that we used them."

Like Occupy Sandy, Ned Berke, editor of a hyper-news site in Brooklyn called Sheepsheadbites, found that people compelled to help out anyway they could during Sandy's rampage - or just hoping to get informed answers - were foregoing entrenched and outmoded news outlets, and increasingly turning to his website instead.

"People have said to me, 'Oh, I can't find out anything from Con Ed, I have to find it out from your site,' or 'I can't find out anything from the city,'" Berke says. "Organizing all that information and getting it to people as clearly as possible, and as quickly as possible was our key goal."

During the storm, SheepsheadBites' daily readership shot up to what it normally would be for an entire month. In addition to providing real time information to a community starved for information, the site also helped dispatch groups of volunteers to the homes of neighbors feared lost in the storm, and was able to report back on their status.

"If you look at what we were doing compared to what Brooklyn Daily was doing, they're still very clearly in the weekly mindset," Berke says. "None of the information was really actionable, which is what people needed at the time."

The rise of grassroots organizing channeled through online resources in times of crisis has been so profound that FEMA and the Red Cross aren't even pretending they can do a better job than web-adept citizens groups like Occupy Sandy when it comes to immediately moving people or supplies

A FEMA spokesperson refused to speak for attribution, but told techPresident that the agency's official mandate is to support the state and local relief efforts, and that the first responders during any disaster are always neighbors helping each other.

Despite the expectation by some that FEMA should act as the robust front line in response to a disaster — the idea behind those "FEMA Help Us" signs in marker and cardboard — the agency now seems content operating as just one part of a much larger and varied team of relief workers responding to catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy. While citizen-to-citizen groups devoted themselves to rendering immediate aid to sustain storm victims in place, FEMA's strategy turned heavily on providing financial aid, pushing forms and 1-800 numbers that people could use to access vital monies once they were out of immediate danger.

More than 415,000 individuals have registered for assistance from FEMA, and over $616 million has been approved for the Individuals and Households Program, according to numbers held by FEMA.

Red Cross spokesperson Michael de Vulpillieres says that the storied 130-year-old humanitarian group "can't do anything by ourselves."

"We need each other to respond with a massive effort," he said.

"Everybody needs to work together, and that's really what we're doing," Vulpillieres adds. "The Red Cross has always worked with government and community partners no matter how big or small to enable relief efforts to get to the people who need it. We're all talking to one another. We're always working with alternative groups."

Needham says that while Occupy Sandy has no formal relationship with groups like FEMA and the Red Cross, his group is working hard to avoid overlap with the traditional relief agencies now operating in the field.

"There's plenty of people on the ground talking to people from different organizations so that we know what's happening and we're able to put everyone's resources to the best use," Needham says.

Cooperation is all well and good, but Occupy Sandy believes it has established a model for disaster relief that is worthy of duplication.

"We're trying to show the type of world that we want to live in," Needham says. "Organizations learn from best practices. They learn from what works and what doesn't. We are not a government agency, we don't have to suffer through much of the red tape and bureaucracy. We have to be very flexible and adaptive, so there are things that you just can't compare. But hopefully, when this is over, people will look at what worked and what didn't, and be able to take some lessons away from it."

The Red Cross says it will endeavor to maintain close relationships with the variety of civic groups it is coordinating with on Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. But de Vulpillieres stops short of admitting that the Red Cross is currently being schooled in the way disaster relief really should be done in the 21st century.

"Any group that has resources, that has a knowledge of the local area can help us, and we can help them as well," de Vulpillieres says. "We all have our strengths. I just think we need to realize that and work together utilizing those strengths."

As of this writing, thousands of residents throughout the tri-state area still remain without power, heat and hot water.

"Some people are getting better," Needham says. "But there's so much work left to do. There's so many people in need. But we're headed in the right direction."

Joe Maniscalco is a techPresident contributing writer.

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