Eyes of the Hurricane: how volunteers saved lives during the 2017 hurricanes

Following is a step-by-step factual account of how one group of anonymous volunteers (among many) stepped in to save lives during the 2017 United States hurricane season.

If you’re interested in an audio version of my personal narrative (5 minutes: suitable for sharing publicly as a gust speaker or keynote address), here you go:


Let me be clear: This story is about only one group of loosely organized volunteers, which I call “CR.” When I say “We,” I am, indeed, often referring to the work done in the CR project space. But it’s critical to note that thousands of other volunteers joined the effort to help in 2017: boaters, high water vehicle drivers, shop owners, neighbors, formal first responders, and other local and global volunteer groups. We’ll *never* know who they were.

I know this isn’t the only account, and I know this isn’t even CR’s full story. Most of the work – including decision making – was done out of my sight. I just happened to witness much of the inner workings, and because I’m a writer and archivist, I wrote it all down.

Storytellers and community organizations across the globe are gathering first-person narratives and data from people who stepped in to help.

Luckily, this isn’t it. There will be more stories.

Unpacking this story is going to take years. Even here… there will be more.

Author: Heather Succio, Co-Founder: CR


Overview

CR was an all-volunteer, global effort using the crowd-sourced power of social media to provide direct and indirect support to people suffering in the wake of the 2017 United States area hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate).

Between August and November 2017, CR’s volunteers scoured social media for post-hurricane-disaster SOS calls and messages about ground conditions and connected people with resources for both immediate and sustained assistance.

Structure

CR was a fully grassroots, unregulated effort… never an “organization” really. It was simply people coming together – anonymously – for no pay or recognition: good samaritans, helping others in need.

Although CR had no formal operating structure, its volunteers self-organized, forming several external (but informal) partnerships with organizations such as Google, Fulcrumapp, Tableau, SlackHQ, NAPSG Foundation and Esri to produce both technical solutions and innovation in organizational practices related to disaster response. Through these partnerships, CR created several public-facing resources for 2017 disaster support: fully interactive GIS maps, broadcast content, and informatics – all tailored for each disaster mission.

In addition to providing resources, CR housed its own grassroots technology engineering effort aimed at developing applications serving disaster volunteers and first responders.

Impact

CR’s spreadsheet databases, GIS maps, infographics and audio broadcasts were leveraged directly by FEMA, the US Coast Guard, ATF, and local EMS partners to aid on-the-ground response work throughout the hurricane season. The best practices that formed out of this loose partnership are still used today.

While CR’s GIS resources helped to expand the capacity of the United States’ formal disaster response teams, their true power resided in their ability to connect with disaster victims directly. As of October 2017, CR was the only organization partnering with Zello app to broadcast current conditions and breaking news regarding Puerto Rico’s emergency conditions directly to Puerto Rico’s residents – both in English and Spanish.

Whether helping others or seeking information directly from those affected, CR collaborated with others to develop crowd-sourced tools and best practices aimed at achieving one simple goal: to help people in need.


Hurricane Harvey

Swift Water Rescue

Texas Flag

  • 9,000+ facilitated rescues
  • 11,360 SOS tweets and Facebook requests
  • 500+ pets and livestock rescues
  • 175+ critical medical requests

Five friends who had met over Twitter saw a need: flood victims stranded in Houston, not able to reach 911, but tweeting out SOS calls over social media… praying SOMEONE would find them.

Those friends starting combing Twitter for those notes, using hashtags to locate SOS messages and rescue confirmations. This wasn’t a formal rescue effort. Every communication clearly instructed hurricane victims to call 911 first, but the reality was formal emergency systems were overwhelmed couldn’t respond to every request.

harvey-sos

Within 30 minutes, this group – which would become known as CR – had a rapidly growing database, through which they could log rescue location coordinates and status.

harvey-rescue-doc-1

Within an hour, they were live mapping information on Google maps. Within the course of one week, they grew from 5 people, to 10, to 100; eventually engaging 700+ volunteers in England, Paris, Australia, and beyond.

During Hurricane Harvey, CR’s rescue logs and maps flowed into first responder systems fielded by FEMA and the US Coast Guard via a dashboard managed by NAPSG.

Meanwhile, a volunteer dispatch team facilitated handoff to volunteer rescuers and local/federal USAR teams for use during triage and rescue – all while working over the phone to keep survivors calm as they waited for help.

harvey-montage-1

As rescue operations progressed through Hurricane Harvey, CR began to write geocoding scripts and built a tool for volunteers to quickly assess each new SOS request for potential duplications.

They partnered with Google, who “quarantined” CR’s master sheets and gave them unique features, allowing more users and APIs to have access without causing the sheet to fail.

These spreadsheet experts, graphic designers, GIS mappers, translators, medical professionals and animal lovers logged 8,000 SOS messages and facilitated rescue of at least 9,000 human and 500 pet rescues. A Houston community member states that by the end of the storm, civilian volunteers had rescued a total of 35,000 people.


Hurricane Irma

Wellness Checks in the Florida Keys

  • 253 facilitated rescues
  • 70 pets and livestock rescues
  • 50+ critical medical requests

During Hurricane Irma, CR continued their efforts to support search and rescue efforts in storm-ravaged Florida. Ground crew and boating access was severely limited, however, due to dangerous water conditions – thus requiring a shift in response.

CR quickly re-focused their efforts, supporting Southeastern Florida communities by mining social media for information about on-the-ground conditions and mission-critical resources. Their communication flow shifted focus somewhat. Although CR did dispatch rescue boaters through affiliated networks such as Cajun Navy and other volunteer agencies, weather conditions made it impossible to engage to the degree possible during Hurricane Harvey.

Instead, CR dispatched to local groups; triaged conditions over the phone; and cold called churches, condo associations, and grocery stores to investigate conditions on the ground and the wellbeing of local residents.

Again, data from these direct contacts and social media fed into a GIS map dashboard used directly by USCG and FEMA urban search and rescue teams, as well as the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on Marathon Key and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Center.


Hurricane Maria

Infrastructure and Relief Mapping

  • 1,500 mapped data points
  • 2,047,769 visits in 3 weeks
  • 25 infographics in English and Spanish
  • 90+ audio broadcasts in English and Spanish

Before CR had reflected on process improvements for Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria approached. Initially, CR prepared for a rescue response, should Maria make landfall in the continental United States. But United States Territory Puerto Rico was ravaged.

Families were left without water, electricity, food, gasoline, and communication channels, but due to infrastructure challenges in Puerto Rico, CR was not able to engage in the same search and rescue efforts they supported during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Seeing people suffering, however, CR volunteers came together with an idea: use their social media model to gather informational resources for victims they were unable to help through direct rescue support.

Leveraging even deeper partnerships with Google, Fulcrumapp, Tableau, SlackHQ, NAPSGFoundation and Esri, CR created a fully interactive ground conditions map for the entirety of Puerto Rico. Together, they determined they could provide real-time information about infrastructure, and utilize communication resources needing only limited electricity and cellular signal.

The map highlighted status regarding roads, bridges, power lines, fuel, sewage, trash, food, water, healthcare resources, and communications. Organizations like FEMA and USATF used this intelligence to support their search and rescue teams.

As CR connected directly with people on the ground – residents, reporters and other NGO representatives – they began to envision more ways to support the people of Puerto Rico. Realizing Puerto Rico’s people were faced with only rudimentary tools and resources, they created infographics to help people capitalize on those resources safely – sharing printable PDFs with organizations on the ground… PSAs on water purification, mold mitigation, outdoor cooking and other topics.

As CR connected with people on a more personal basis, they naturally began to gather information about each of Puerto Rico’s municipalities. Through a combination of Internet research and on-the-ground interviews, CR’s volunteers conducted an assessment of each neighborhood on the island… municipality by municipality… logging access to resources like water, electricity, medical services, communications, food, roads and schools and publishing those status updates on a publicly accessible website.

But with Wi-fi service so spotty across the island, CR knew the intended audience for this information – the people of Puero Rico – wouldn’t receive it. With Zello’s help, they broadcasted details about these post-hurricane disaster and relief conditions over 21st century walkie talkie tools for about four to five hours per day – in both English and Spanish.

XXXXXXXX still doesn’t have power or access to clean water. Roofs hang off houses, and septic tanks have burst. The roads are impassable, and schools remain closed. A unit from the U.S. Coast Guard, in coordination with the U.S. Army and several federal law enforcement agencies, lead a convoy of aid to two neighborhoods there. The military is the only lifeline for residents.

28 October, 2017


Hurricane Nate

ESF9 Partner GeoPlatform

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During preparations for Hurricane Nate, CR’s key partner NAPSG Foundation deployed an SOS Tracking system wherein anyone could go in and add their location and needs. The source of this information could be social media, a survivor, agency staff, etc. Creating this effort allowed CR and NAPSG to track where SOS messages were coming from.

As was the case with previous hurricane efforts, only those with editing access would be able to update the status of these SOS points, but they would also have access to situational awareness tools. They were able to answer questions like, What 911 area is this SOS coming from? How many people live in this area and who are they? Are there any schools, hospitals, or nursing homes in the vicinity?

Nate Montage

This SOS Tracking system is currently fully interoperable with the GeoPlatform that FEMA and ESF9 partners use, and the data can be shared in OGC formats – or even via spreadsheets, as needed.


Strategic Partners

FEMA

Throughout CR’s existence, they collaborated with several organizations… none more impactful than FEMA. So how did it happen?

  1. CR first met with FEMA — along with several other NGOs and casual volunteer groups — on August 29, during Hurricane Harvey. The aim of the call was simply to understand each others’ work, in order to amplify our shared ability to help people.
  2. By October 3, our successful response to subsequent hurricanes prompted one of our volunteers — a NAPSG Foundation staff member — to recommend inclusion of CR into FEMA’s Crowdsourcing Unit, specifically pointing out that CR’s data on infrastructure status could be utilized by other groups already working to support FEMA.
  3. FEMA invited CR to participate in their daily Crowdsourcing Coordination Team calls; along with the Standby Task Force (SBTF), Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), Digital Humanitarian Network, GISCorps, and representatives from several related Federal agencies. These calls focused on sharing and leveraging general geospatial knowledge transfer and best practices.
  4. CR’s rigorous data validation practices and volunteer operations training process impressed the members of FEMA’s Crowdsourcing Coordination Team. Together, we pushed each other to overcome bureaucratic reluctance to rely on crowdsourced information sources. We identified new ways of work and potential best practices — influencing not just survival and wellbeing, but policy decisions regarding use of social media to enable crowd sourced disaster support.
  5. Working closely with the Crowdsourcing Unit to identify the most pressing needs and relevant user audience, CR created the most authoritative crowd sourced data set regarding power infrastructure, sanitation, and other morbidity factors in Puerto Rico. Through this work, CR helped define the future of effective disaster and humanitarian crisis response — not just within FEMA, but globally.

The National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation (NAPSG)

The NAPSG Foundation is not for profit organization whose key focus is building the capacity of emergency responders and public safety leaders to use geospatial tools and technology that enhance mission critical decision making. Crowdsourcing is often overlooked or not considered early enough and saw an opportunity to help. NAPSG provides key guidance around Public Safety Symbology, use of available data, and best practices around layers, maps, and apps. They generally configure first, develop second as they want the tools they use to be as widely available as possible.

Emergency Liaison Partners

FEMA and the United States Coast Guard urban search and rescue teams were confirmed users of CR’s rescue and ground conditions dashboard map. During Hurricane Irma, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on Florida’s Marathon Key also used CR’s triaged info to prioritize their rescue work.

During Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, CR expanded the capacity of the U.S. government’s search and rescue effort by dispatching rescue boaters through affiliated networks, such as Cajun Navy and other volunteer agencies.

Residents and Citizens

While CR’s formal resource partnerships help to expand the capacity of the United States’ formal disaster response teams, their true power lie in connecting with the people living in disaster areas directly and families of disaster victims – sharing their stories and information first-hand.

Media and Misc. Agencies

CR conveyed public service announcements in the form of infographics and curating vetted content provided by mainstream media and health agencies through their social media feeds.


Outreach

Digital Volunteer Network: Volunteer & Technical Community (VTC)

As a part of the FEMA-hosted Digital Volunteer Networks: Volunteer & Technical Community (VTC), CR worked alongside several organizations focusing on digital solutions to humanitarian crises.

Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN)

GISCorps

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT)

Oregon and Colorado Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST)

Standby Task Force (SBTF)

Statistics Without Borders


FEMA: Disaster Preparedness Hackathon

CR also coached and co-hosted FEMA’s Disaster Preparedness Hackathon, held both virtually and in-person at headquarters in Washington, D.C. on October 21, 2017.

Hackathon Purpose and Goals:

Promote and Contribute to Crowdsourcing Projects

Highlight how existing crowdsourcing projects have been used; Encourage contributions to these existing projects; Identify new crowdsourcing projects for current needs.

Experiment with New Crowdsourcing Platforms by using Open Data & Tools

Try out new crowdsourcing tools & approaches; develop quick prototypes to real-world issues, identify use cases with subject matter experts, and use design techniques to improve user experience & accessibility to government data.

Build User and Volunteer Community and Capacity

Engage & network with our users & digital volunteers, creating a “datable” environment to match current needs with skills and resources.

Hackathon Projects:

Operationalize Crowdsourcing for Emergency Management

Create a landing page of all crowdsourced maps. Develop standards, processes, and procedures. (Potential Tools: GeoQ, Trello, Slack, Esri CrowdSource Manager)

Outcome: Prototypes of Crowdsourcing Coordination Tools

Crowdsourcing Analysis of Imagery

Create an imagery analysis crowdsourcing tool building from the FEMA imagery analysis tool. Explore using crowdsourced data for machine and deep learning.

Outcome: Enhance the Imagery Analysis Tools

Text Message/SMS Crowdsourcing from the Field

Explore how text messages can be leveraged in crowdsourcing efforts to enhance situational awareness and understand the needs of survivors. (Potential Tools: FrontlineSMS, Textizen, Ushahidi, SMS phone based surveys)

Outcome: Prototypes of SMS tools for collecting survivor needs

Open Street Map (OSM) Mapathon

Join OSM mappers all over the world to provide baseline maps in disaster impacted areas. Great project for newcomers!

Outcome: OSM training and mapping


Author’s Note

People died. Surely, under our watch, people died. In addition to the victims, many of our volunteers suffered the very real effects of post traumatic stress during and after this mission—including myself, enduring hours of anguish, confusion, self-doubt and countless internal and external warnings about the liability we had taken on, simply by getting involved.

I didn’t read a single news report about the hurricanes between August 27 and September 2. I couldn’t. One: I was too busy doing the work… many days only sleeping an hour or two. Two: I couldn’t, emotionally. I was afraid if I saw the faces of those victims… if I saw the efforts of the rescuers… I would break. And I couldn’t break; I was co-leading the mission.

I was right; on Saturday, September 2, I read a front page newspaper article about the hurricanes and subsequent rescue. I heaved so hard with tears, I scared my family. Yes, I knew – – but I hadn’t witnessed.

We endured warning upon warning about “not talking about it.” Why? I don’t know. I suspect things… about potential ramifications, should our current presidential administration “find out” what really happened, when industrious do-gooders from FEMA opened their arms to a ragtag bunch of volunteers… about chaos agents who engaged, simply to delay and cause havoc… but honestly, I don’t really know.

THESE are the people I worry about now: the volunteers, who risked, and – indeed –  lost portions of their lives doing this work.

For about 18 months, I woke up every night at about 2:30 am, which is when I used to get up to check in with the rescue team. I still cry heaving tears, some days.

But what stands out the most now is hope. I have faith in humanity, for I have seen it in all its messy, blessed glory. I saw humans… right/left, old/young, American/Global… simply doing the right thing. We worked together, transcending all judgment to concentrate on one, single thing: helping others… literally saving other people’s lives.

Were there people in that volunteer pool who I might count at racists – or haters – or even dangerous, in a different time? Absolutely. But for just that time, it didn’t matter.

Upon hearing about Jones Act legislation, which severely complicated our efforts in Puerto Rico, we simply agreed to move beyond it. Here we were, in the thick of political effect, and it didn’t matter. It couldn’t matter.

Was it worth it? There was a time when my answer was no. For 18 months, all I could remember how hard it was… how much I sacrificed; then I remembered the faces and voices and love shared between those victims and saviors. Little by little, I let myself remember. Every time I do, my faith gets a little bit stronger and my witness—a little bit louder.

I’m different now. It’s ALL different now.

Perhaps… better.


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Author: Heather Succio, Co-Founder: CR