Friday, November 2, 2012 - By Ben Berkowitz - No comments

Volunteers, Local Governments and FEMA use the Internet to fight back the effects of Sandy

In a quick time-out from helping folks use SeeClickFix to recover from Sandy we wanted to share one of our favorite stories of communities coming together around this devastating event.  

Having heard about the platform from an article in the WSJ last month written by Steven Berlin Johnson a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, John K. Phoebus, reached out to ask for help with the software to enable volunteers to get involved in the cleanup effort.  In a thank you letter to Mr Johnson Crisfield writes of the impact the social web on Crisfield, MD

Mr. Johnson,

I want to thank you for an article you wrote back in September. You wrote about SeeClickFix, a startup that lets people report potholes to their town government.

Monday, Crisfield, Maryland was hit harder than any other community in Maryland by Hurricane Sandy. Swift boat rescue teams had to go by boat house to house to rescue people from flooding worse than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. As word of the devastation spread, we were fortunate that, through social media, so many people learned of the devastation that the hurricane brought to our town and offered to help.

As offers to help came pouring in, I realized that our municipal and county governments wouldn’t be able to harness the energy of volunteers because they were so busy providing basic services to their citizens. The chamber of commerce, in cooperation with the City of Crisfield, took on the task of organizing these volunteers. I offered to lead the effort as a chamber member and, as I did, I remembered the article you wrote about SeeClickFix.

On a whim, in the middle of the night/early morning on Wednesday, I emailed the CEO, after a quick online search and told him about our town. I will forward to you the email I sent when I can find it. The same day, I heard back and they offered to set us up with a free service to let us use this app to identify and report damage from Hurricane Sandy that our volunteers can help fix.

Today at 1 p.m. we had the first meeting of volunteers, who downloaded the app, and spread out through town. In a few hours, we had made it through half of the town, identifying 85 issues. Tomorrow, we delve into the hardest hit area of town and will probably triple that number.

I’m thanking you because, if it hadn’t been for your article, I wouldn’t have heard of SeeClickFix and we wouldn’t have had such success in using their generous offer to organize the volunteers in our town. If you’re interested, you can read about our efforts at this websitehttps://sites.google.com/site/crisfieldcleanupproject/home, which we put together to organize the effort or look for the Crisfield, Maryland facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/crisfieldmd

If we didn’t have this app, we wouldn’t have been able to harness this energy so effectively. Instead of a bunch of people in the back office organizing things, everyone is out on the street clearing debris out of homes and getting trees off of cars and homes.

Since writing the letter Crisfield is now using SeeClickFix to alert FEMA to what they are calling "white towel homes" or homes that are in need of assistance.  FEMA has asked residents to put a towel on the door if they need help and the volunteers are just starting to document those homes with SeeClickFix.  John sent us an email 5 minutes ago to update us on today's events,

FEMA is on the ground here, but we have not yet been declared a disaster. They now have us using your tool to log “white flag” houses as part of their preliminary damage assessment. (They actually want all of Somerset County on here, but I’m working with what I have)

If you look at our Issues dashboard we now have “white flag” house as a category and are using the app to find people who need food and shelter."

Hurricane Sandy is serving as a reminder that the Internet, and specifically open platforms designed to connect people and resolve problems, can help government expand the act of governance to its citizens and organizational partners in the community.  

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