Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Can You Hear Me Now?

Information in a vacuum isn't very helpful, only when it's communicated and integrated with other data points can it be vetted and put into context. In the digital age information that's hours old may have changed, this is especially true in a post disaster environment where the balance between supply and demand is in constant flux. Given an absence of relevant and timely information, people turn to each other, oftentimes what ends up happening is that outdated information or outright lies end up being circulated adding to the confusion of an already complex situation.

In the immediate aftermath of Sandy 4G LTE networks performed well and allowed individuals continued access to data networks so that the flow of communication and information never really stopped. Given that the Mid-Atlantic region is one the largest and most densely populated markets in the country, this coverage is not surprising. However, access to 4G LTE networks is not ubiquitous and as a result, many of the challenges that come with lacking reliable access to communication and information in the aftermath of a disaster persist.

With 4G access on the rise continuity in information flow can be expected, but until that happens leveraging the fact that there are close to 7 billion active cellphones around the world, is the foundation upon which The Serval Project bases its open-source software; a solution to the communication and information blackout that happens at a local level after disasters.

The Serval Project
"Serval is a revolutionary, free, open-source software under development for mobile telephones, letting them communicate even in the absence of phone towers and other supporting infrastructure" ( Co-Founder Paul Gardner Stephen, part of the Australian-based Serval Project, was compelled to put his programming skills to use after seeing how infrastructure and communication failures in the wake of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake hampered relief efforts. The result is a free software called Serval Mesh, which essentially enables phones to talk to each other directly, or via a Mesh Extender (think signal booster), instead of via a phone tower. What this means is that it can work in the middle of nowhere, or during a disaster when the phone network is knocked out and there is no data network available. By utilizing the built in wifi capabilities our smartphones already have, this software enables continued person-to-person communication without provider access. While the ramifications of what this could mean for service providers is not fully understood, in terms of what it could mean to teams involved in Search and Rescue and early coordination of activities is an exciting prospect. 

For more information on the work and its applications please go to: and if you like what you see they are raising money via indidegogo to expand their efforts.

Please note that I'm not endorsing this product...I just think it's cool and wanted to share how innovation is impacting the world of disaster response.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fire on the Mountain

Since the 19 wildland firefighters lost their lives fighting the Yarnell Hill blaze in Arizona, the internet has lit up with opinions on where failures may have occurred and how to fix the current state of fire / land management in the US.

Fire is something I know little about: the tactics employed to fight it, the science behind burn rates of certain types of fuel, or the environmental factors that create the tinderboxes that many states seem to be, so I won't pretend to be an expert.

What I do know is that this tragedy has sparked a National debate spurred by President Obama's remarks that "...the Arizona Firefighter deaths shows a need to reassess wildland fire management policy."

I'm a big believer in looking at and learning from past experience, and in January of this year Tasmania experienced a firestorm that may help inform the course of the current conversation around the Fire Management debate. The Guardian created a compelling multi-media story around one families escape from danger and how the blurring of the wildland urban interface is working to put more people at risk.

If a re-examination of fire / land management policies in the US are about to be undertaken, I hope the lessons learned from communities around the world who have gone through this can help shape the conversation.

The "Firestorm" link below will take you to the Guardian piece:

Firestorm - The Guardian UK
The Holmes, taking cover under their doc in Dunally, Tasmania

Monday, July 29, 2013

Man Made Earthquakes

Slipping from the vein of "natural" disasters, the USGS has recently released a study that confirms that Hydraulic Fracturing or "Fracking" wastewater stored in wells can cause traditionally stable faults to slip causing earthquakes.

While the debate of ethics vs economics is waged, the stats that the USGS cites are tough to ignore:
"The number of earthquakes has increased dramatically over the past few years within the central and eastern United States. More than 300 earthquakes above a magnitude 3.0 occurred in the three years from 2010-2012, compared with an average rate of 21 events per year observed from 1967-2000." 
Mother Jones also has an article and a .gif that illustrates the process from well to earthquake:

Drillers inject high-pressure fluids into a hydraulic fracturing well, making slight fissures in the shale that release natural gas. The wastewater that flows back up with the gas is then transported to disposal wells, where it is injected deep into porous rock. Scientists now believe that the pressure and lubrication of that wastewater can cause faults to slip and unleash an earthquake.
Illustration: Leanne Kroll. Animation: Brett Brownell
So what?
While 3.0M quakes rarely, if ever cause damage or injury, the quakes resulting from this method of storing wastewater have been linked to tremors in the 5-6.0M range. From a codes and building perspective, the Midwest is still grappling with how best to offer affordable safe room options in building back smarter that earthquakes and the codes to withstand moderate shaking are not on their radar. As such, the damage from smaller magnitude quakes will continue to impact homeowners because their the exception, not the rule in Tornado Alley. 
House damage in central Oklahoma from the magnitude 5.6 earthquake on Nov. 6, 2011. Research conducted by USGS geophysicist Elizabeth Cochran and her university-based colleagues suggests that this earthquake was induced by injection into deep disposal wells in the Wilzetta North field. Learn more about that research at: Photo Credit: Brian Sherrod, USGS.
While there are preparations underway to respond to a catastrophic quake similar to the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811 that caused the Mississippi River to backflow for a period of time, nothing is being done now to protect against smaller, more frequent shaking.

Who's going to Pay for all this?
After a disaster: flood, hurricane, fire, hail or wind storm, the battle between homeowner and insurance company begins. The combination of under-informed homeowner's who don't fully understand their insurance policies and the insurer's who aren't interested in paying out every claim can be a tension-filled dance taking weeks to resolve. Given that coverage for quake damage probably isn't in most of the home and business owner policies, the impacts of these events are going to become a growing concern. Couple this with the fact that there is evidence that these quakes are precipitated by activities undertaken by private companies and the questions like: who should be responsible for paying to cover the damages begin to be asked?

I don't see this being a problem until someone is crushed by a collapsing chimney or there are serious injuries resulting from a man-made quake and then questions about liability and financial compensation will push this to the forefront of the national conversation given how much money the Natural Gas Industry is currently making.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Consensus on Clean up

One of the greatest assets individuals and communities can have before, during, and after a disaster is the knowledge of what happens next, and the confidence to act on that knowledge. Unfortunately, the current state of preparedness in many communities is far from that ideal and as a result, leaves room for ambiguity around key issues that mark turning points in an individual and community's recovery.

A great opportunity to clear up some of this ambiguity while working to set and manage homeowner expectations is to, as a response community, agree and adhere to standards around the work done on behalf of impacted homeowners i.e. mucking/gutting/debris removal/sanitizing/mold treatment/etc. By gaining consensus on this issue, standards can be proactively communicated as a part of preparedness initiatives to help bring both homeowner and responding groups (established or spontaneous) onto the same page when engaging in cleanup activities. Not only that, but by actively pushing cleanup standards, homeowners don't have to wait around for someone to help them, they can quickly and aggressively begin the process with friends, family, or spontaneous volunteers from the community and work to a standard that is applied across the essence, working to create more resilient communities.

Is it done?
Is it Done?
I would bet that if you were to show the above photo to different people with different levels of experience in response, homeowners included, and asked what needed to happen next, you would get a variety of answers. Not to say that they would be wrong, but finding a definitive answer would not be an easy task because until recently no checklist existed, there was no "how to" guide endorsed by a coalition of organizations or FEMA to help define the process. Given that more than a handful of organizations have been doing this type of work for years spanning hundreds of disasters, one would think that an authoritative guidebook would've been written before now, if for no other reason than to give homeowners a chance at a full recovery without such reliance on response organizations. I say this because responding non-profits can't serve everyone, and after a certain point, they begin to pack up taking with them their know how and experience, leaving the remaining work to fewer and oftentimes less experienced resources. What remains is often a mash up of homes taken to various stages of "completeness," and a lot of grey area around how best to move many of them forward.

In recognition that the resources and surge of Volunteer power are not inexhaustible, the National VOAD Housing Committee has created guidelines to formalize an understanding of what completing the steps involved in clean up means. This was done to bring some uniformity to how we talk and act in the field on behalf of impacted homeowners and renters.
Go here for the download
While the creation of the above guidance documentation is a good start, I believe packaging these guidelines with documentation and other relevant resources should be used as a part of community preparedness programming; preparedness is about more than having food and water, it's about having the knowledge and understanding of what happens next. 

The goal is to ensure that all homeowners and responding groups have a clear understanding of expectations around what the different phases of cleanup are to mitigate the guesswork so that consistency can be created in the work done on behalf of impacted homeowners.

In the post, 'Disaster Response in the Digital Age' I talk about the need for the creation of a standardized data set so that information can flow freely between the proprietary software platforms being utilized during response. I believe the creation of this guidance document is an important first step, because without consensus around the definitions of cleanup activities, getting consistency in data collection and tracking, the first step in data set standardization, isn't feasible.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Monsoon Season

The Indian state of Uttarakhand is working through a complex crisis caused by monsoonal rains. The seasonal weather pattern is something that the region has had to adjust to, however this year the rains came two weeks early and dropped an unprecedented amount of precipitation. The flooding and subsequent landslides have caused 6,000 people to be declared missing and now presumed dead and impacted millions, the magnitude of this event is so great that its has been dubbed the 'Himalayan tsunami.'
Photos courtesy of:
The event happened over a month ago and still the struggles of getting relief supplies into the cities and villages at the base of the Himalaya's remains challenging. For more information on the latest relief efforts and updates I recommend:'s-deadly-Himalayan-floods/

Given the access issues and the scope of this event, it is unclear to me whether there is a need for voluntary resources at this time. I have begun looking into this and if/when I hear more, I'll post what I find out.

In the same vein in terms of weather related phenomenon, the US also has a Monsoon season that provides much, if not all of the precipitation to the Southwest, usually without the detrimental impact on infrastructure. Here is more information on the Monsoon Rains the Southwest experiences according to FEMA:

Given that the silent disaster impacting food prices and our water supply is the ongoing drought we're facing in the US, any precipitation in the areas on the drought map below would be welcome relief.

It's unfortunate that one has to dig to learn about the challenges communities across the globe face given that many of the factors that create their strife are replicated in our own backyards. One of binds that tie us together as a global community is how we face adversity and hardship caused by the natural course of events on earth. It is my sincere hope that aid reaches those who need it in Uttarakhand and that recovery can be swift and efficient.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Disaster Response in the Digital Age

Have you ever seen a competition cooking show where each chef had to prepare a meal based on the same ingredients? The results are always diverse, utilizing different ingredients in ways unique to each Chef's background and training. While there isn't a TV showcasing the development taking place, we are experiencing something similar in disaster response, a renaissance if you will of application creation aimed at increasing efficiencies of response organizations active in disaster response and recovery.

This list represents a small fraction of the applications/companies with applications that have been created in response to the growing number of disasters and their impacts on communities. This list does not include the wealth of googledoc spreadsheets, excel files, or access databases that are created ad hoc to deal with the onslaught of information needing attention following an event.

Crisis Cleanup
GRT Mobile Solutions
Project SGE 2.0
CERTify (an app for CERT Team coordination)
Help Me Help
GeoOp (used by the SVA after the Christchurch Earthquakes)
Crisis mappers
Google Crisis Maps
Ready QLD (Queensland, Australia's app)

While the creation of tools to help communities work with the myriad of groups that aid in response and recovery is great, and certainly welcomed, there is a growing concern that we're progressing too fast and not approaching this in a thoughtful or strategic manner. Just because you can go to an all you can eat buffet doesn't mean that you have to eat until you vomit right? Well the same idea applies--just because we can create an unlimited number of apps that marry GIS,workflow, and damage assessment data, doesn't mean we should...without first putting some parameters around what it is we're trying to accomplish and how these tools can help advance an overall plan. As it stands it feels like each response organization is using and in some cases pushing a unique application which can lead to competition for the one app to rule them all.

We're Not Speaking the Same Language
A consistent issue brought up after events is the lack of access to real-time information, data that can be used to help inform the decision making process during response and recovery. Due to privacy issues, organizations on the ground are reluctant to share information with one another or anyone else for that matter until after they've left. This is a problem, but it doesn't encompass the whole problem. Even if groups were better about sharing information, it couldn't be done easily because the applications that are currently being used don't "speak the same language." There are multiple apps doing the same thing but because of the way they've been built, they can't share info, and given that collaboration and cooperation are the cornerstones of successful response--this inability to share is becoming a problem. Everyone is pushing for faster and more efficient, which is great, but rare is the instance where all responding groups are using the same technological platform to work from so those gains in efficiency are marred when trying to work together.

It's understood that timely information is key to promoting a coordinated response effort, what isn't understood is what information we're talking about. I believe that the wealth of apps created to help communities is great, I just want to ensure that all of the apps created can "talk" to one another so that information can be shared in real time...that way, an established response organization and spontaneous groups are working with the same data sets. Experience tells me that no platform is going to be used 100% of the time by 100% of the groups active in response, if we know that then we should be working to provide a framework so that whatever applications are being used can easily interface with everything else out there to aid in response activities.

Disaster Data-Standard
In essence what I'm talking about is the creation of a disaster data standard. Core data sets that can be the foundational elements of any application mobile or otherwise, think of it like a disaster API. If the foundation upon which all the apps are built is the same, then communication and the sharing of info should no longer be an issue. It turns out that I'm not the only on who's been thinking this way, Nethope, a tech focused nonprofit has spearheaded something called the Open Humanitarian Initiative, a broad-ranging effort with the goal of creating a unified data set that will aid in the delivery of disaster response in the information age. This presentation gives you a more detailed view of what their aim is:

Open Humanitarian Initiative - 2013 Plan from Gisli Olafsson

Technology is a tool, not a solution

In the midst of the conversation on the mass proliferation of technology and how it can impact disaster response, it's important to remember that technology is only as powerful as those who wield it, and that during times of crisis people tend to go with what's easiest and most comfortable. While the agencies responding may be well versed in the latest and greatest, if all disasters begin and end at the local level, it's important that those who will be there long after the National groups have left are comfortable with whatever system has been left for them, if they're not, a new system will be cobbled together and people will start over.

Access to reliably accurate and timely information is essential to gaining situational awareness following a disaster. When every responding organization holds a different piece of the puzzle to gaining situational awareness, efforts are hampered and gaining unity of effort becomes exceedingly difficult. But don't take my word for it, the former Minister of Science and Technology of South Africa said it much better in 2005 at the Southern African Telecommunications Networks and Applications Conference :
“The tsunami that devastated South Eastern Asian countries and the north-eastern parts of Africa, is perhaps the most graphic, albeit unfortunate, demonstration of the need for global collaboration, and open ICT* standards. The incalculable loss of life and damage to property was exacerbated by the fact that responding agencies and non-governmental groups were unable to share information vital to the rescue effort. Each was using different data and document formats. Relief was slowed, and coordination complicated.” 
*Information and Communications Technology 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Wind Mapping

Wind, it can ruin picnics and turn an enjoyable day at the beach into an unexpected sandblasting. These mysterious forces create the waves we surf and cool us on the hottest of days, but to many, the wind, how it's formed and why it acts the way it does reamins a mystery.

In the West, the Santa Ana winds wreck havoc, in the Midwest it's Tornadic winds that keep people looking over their shoulders, in the Mississippi River Valley Derecho's are becoming more regular, and on the East and Gulf Coasts, there are Hurricanes. While I won't profess to be smart enough to be able to communicate the intricacies of wind, it's formation, etc...I do know that seeing something that is usually only felt, is another way to help conceptualize it, which is why the wind mapping I found at is so cool. As they put it, their wind maps are living portraits of the winds over the US...while the image below is static, go here and you'll see what they mean by 'living portrait.'

They have the disclaimer that their maps are for art purposes and not science, but it's still a unique way to visualize something that is only felt and not seen.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Dolla Dolla bills y'all

According to this NYTimes article, NY State Attorney General Eric Schniederman is questioning why so much of the money raised in response to SuperStorm Sandy remains unspent. While the article talks about why non-profit agencies and organizations have yet to spend/allocate all of the money received in response to the plea for financial support following Sandy, what it also does is highlight the mentality people have around money and disasters—a touchy subject to be sure.

The message being pushed when a disaster strikes is that 'cash is king,' that your dollars are far more valuable than a tractor-trailer of unsorted, used clothing. While a donation of your old clothing sound like a good idea in theory, in reality, it isn’t and I've seen firsthand the unintended impact of how those donations can do more harm than good. Money is good because it's flexible, requires little in the way of logistics and personnel to manage it, and can respond to dynamic post-disaster needs that shift every 24-48 hours. Once an organization starts receiving donations however, everyone has ideas on how that money could/should be spent. 

Some organizations tout their ability to turn your donations into goods and services on the ground quickly, those groups are often criticized because many question whether due diligence is undertaken to ensure that the dollars are being spent on those who truly need it. Then there are those organizations/groups who hold off on spending donations they receive, citing the need to wait and see what happens when the dust settles, they are criticized for not being responsive enough and for lacking transparency. 

It seems that even with the best intentions at heart, someone, somewhere isn't going to like how you're doing things and take you to task for it. So what's right when it comes to spending: fast and furious or slow and cautious? The answer that I've found is a healthy mix of both.

The Robin Hood Foundation awarded over $60 Million dollars following the 12.12.12 concert for Sandy Relief to local and national organizations, and did so in record time. The rationale being that they were just the name, they didn’t have the “do” capacity to spend the money on response and recovery activities, so why hold onto it? While the money was awarded to a wide variety of agencies and organizations, Robin Hood still drew criticism that they were spending the money too quickly and not being thoughtful enough about who it went to and whether some should be held for longer-term community needs.

On the flipside, as the NY Times article expounds upon, there are questions about the millions the Red Cross raised and why it hasn't been spent; but local groups aren’t immune either, groups like Occupy Sandy are feeling the heat as well. They have money in the coffers but are looking to see how far FEMA, insurance, and any additional financial assistance individuals, businesses, and the communities as a whole receive before applying their additional financial resources. Unfortunately, the thoughtful approach is rarely seen as thoughtful, it’s seen more as deceitful and usually draws harsh criticism. 

The bottom line where money is concerned is everyone will have an opinion: it's being spent too fast, it’s not being spent fast enough, it’s not being spent on the right things, etc. This butting of heads is unavoidable but the discussion it generates is central to holistic community recovery, and I believe that part of that discussion should focus on a greater degree of transparency around how donated dollars are being spent, not on the rate of expenditure.

This NewsOK article illustrates a great example of what it means to lose sight of where the donations are going. Following the Moore, OK tornadoes, a Red Cross text to give campaign raised several million dollars and Donors believed all of the money received via that campaign would be funneled to the recovery efforts—this was not entirely true and it was only after considerable pressure that this became the case. 

If we as a community of practice are going to encourage individuals to donate money to our organizations instead of giving clothing, then we have an obligation to show donors how their money is being spent in simple, unfettered terms. At the same time, those of you who donate money need to do your homework and understand that if you do not expressly communicate where your donation is to go, that organizations will apply it to their greatest need at that time or put it toward their general fund. While the debate over the ethics of such actions is heated, it’s common practice and you should be aware of it.

Just as important as educating and communicating with donors, is ensuring community leaders get a crash course in disaster economics before they have to go through it. Part of our jobs in promoting community resilience is to work harder on the front end so that when something does happen there is a familiarity with the process and expectations that will be placed upon them as it relates to the financial side of recovery efforts.

While the road to recovery is a long and bumpy one, educating donors and communities alike on the financial realities and timetables that come with building back better needs to take place. While you will never satisfy all of the people all of the time, working to educate around the realities communities will face can only help everyone in the long run.

Experiencing technical difficulties

Good Morning.

I have a post ready to go, but no Internet with which to post it.

Come back in a bit or watch twitter/google+/Facebook for an update.

Gotta love Mondays. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

and we're back...

While I wish I could say that I was doing something important, like hosting a meeting of the minds or presenting something groundbreaking to the UN, I can't...I stared at a wall for a few days. But I'm back, and if what the internet says is true (and when isn't it?) a lot has happened.

The Rockefeller's 100 Resilient cities challenge has launched their application process...there are a few rules as to who can enter but I encourage spreading this around as the more people who know the better. Urge your city council/mayor/manager/whomever to take a look and see how being awarded a grant of this nature could positively impact your community. 

In poking around, the site also has a some good articles around resiliency...often we get wrapped up our bubble's that we forget there's a big world out there struggling with similar issues in creating communities better able to handle the impacts of disasters.

Lots more to come but I wanted to say hello and share the announcement from Rockefeller in the hopes that some of you may be in a position to help your community in a significant way.

Articles from the Rockefeller site:

Building Resilient Cities:
Resilience Begins at Home:

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Taking a breather...

Hi Everyone,

Just wanted to let you all know that I'm going to take a breather and I'll be back at it towards the end of next week. I want to thank those of you who have taken the time to comment and message me with your will be helpful in shaping and creating content moving forward.

I appreciate your continued interest and support.


'Liking' your way to impact

Social Media is a powerful tool; it has the ability to sway public opinion and shed light on issues that would otherwise never see the light of day: Kony 2012 anyone?

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, donations to the charitable sector stood at 2% of the gross domestic product and posited that if everyone gave up a morning coffee, $220-billion more could go to charity on a yearly basis. Easy, direct, and something that won't break the bank...but we're not doing it...why?

Because social media, has created a "new" way for individuals to feel like they're making a difference-through likes and retweets. The buffer that the social media sphere has created insulates many from actually a result, liking something on Facebook or getting something retweeted is the new way of defining impact...what I don't understand is, how can you claim impact when a 'like' doesn't really do anything.

While exposure to a message is good, as Unicef so cleverly illustrates, it means nothing if there is no action to back it up. The awareness generating machine that is social media can quickly create exposure for a cause or group (Kony/Invisible Children), however, the goal of the charitable sector is creating impact and change, and that can only be accomplished through action, and likes or retweets aren't designed to do that.

So why, if likes and the social currency generated from them, are doing little to actually advance the missions of charitable organizations, is so much time and energy being placed on getting more of them? When you read about the US State Dept spending $630,000 on Facebook likes, it makes you wonder, to what end? Are those likes influencing foreign policy? Do they really matter? Couldn't that money have been better spent elsewhere?

Some social media campaigns like tweetathons, or text to give, when successful, generate revenue, a clear cause and effect relationship that enables groups to continue carrying out their mission. The success stories while few and far between offer a foundation upon which growth and lessons learned can be derived from. However, with the ubiquity of social media, taking a stand no longer means sticking your neck out and running the risk of being associated with an issue by attending a protest, rally, community meeting, means changing your profile picture to this:

While supporting issues you believe is important, and social media enables broad exposure, what are you actually doing? Are you writing your congressperson? Are you donating money to support the causes that align with your societal views? Are you Volunteering your time to causes that make you warm and fuzzy? My guess is no...and therein lies the problem.

Social media is making it so that everyone is a brand, and how we market our brand has become more important than what we stand for. As Nilofer Merchant, from the Harvard Business Review so succinctly puts it: "Your Brand is the Exhaust Fume of the Engine of Your Life." 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Picking up after a disaster

Disasters create a lot of debris. Invariably there will be questions about what to do with all of it, where it's going to go, who's going to pay for its hauling, and what happens if homeowners miss the deadline in getting it to the curb?

To give you an idea, Superstorm Sandy created 8.5 Million cubic yards of debris, including 2.5 million cubic yards of sand and silt that was deposited onto roads limiting or halting transport. Debris and its management are central not only to individual homeowners cleaning up, but to the community as a whole and its return to a new normal.

While most of us will never know the joy of being saddled with the responsibility of having to deal with a mountain of household waste (literally), being able to help the process along in anyway possible will save you time and your community money.

The above graphic is what FEMA has put out for sorting debris at the curb, this is a the rule of thumb for sorting and is not always followed because when a basement looks like this after a flood:

It usually ends up on the street like this:

Project Staten Island

And taken to a pile where it all looks like this:

Staten Island

The resources required to coordinate the pickup, hauling, interim storage, sorting, and disposal of the aftermath of a disaster is a costly and time-intensive undertaking. As an impacted homeowner or Volunteer helping to clean up, please seek out guidance on where, how, and how long debris pickup will be taking place, and encourage everyone to abide by that request.

If you're unsure of where to find this information, call the 211/311 information referral service in your county (if available), search for your county's Debris Management Plan online, ask via your municipalities website, look at your county or state emergency management website, etc...Debris management

Friday, July 5, 2013

Bigger isn't always better

As part of my history in responding to disasters I've had the good fortune to spend time in Haiti, albeit under difficult circumstances. One of those times followed the January 12, 2010 Earthquake...which is why reading the report issued by the GAO was and continues to be so infuriating.

The Governmental Accountability Office released an interim report on the efforts of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) 3 years on...remember to take deep breaths. 

Haiti Reconstruction: USAID Infrastructure Projects Have Had Mixed Results and Face Sustainability Challenges 

The Highlights:
  • Of the $651 million Congress allocated for Haiti reconstruction to the USAID, only $204 million has been spent three years later. And much of that has gone to questionable use.
  • USAID is building a power plant, port, and industrial park all of which the GAO has concluded will not be able to be maintained upon their completion without continued outside support. Not only that but the projects were poorly mapped out and budgeted for and will likely require an additional $120-$190 Million to complete.
  • USAID has reduced its permanent housing construction targets in Haiti. USAID initially underestimated the funding needed for its New Settlements housing program. As a result, the agency increased the amount allocated by 65 percent, from $59 million to $97 million, and decreased the projected number of houses to be built by over 80 percent, from 15,000 to 2,649. The estimated number of beneficiaries was reduced from 75,000 to 90,000 to its current estimates of approximately 13,200 to 15,900.
The Report makes the following recommendation:

The GAO recommends that Congress consider requiring regular reports from the State Department on USAID’s progress. It also recommended that USAID hire an engineer to oversee construction of the port and suggested the organization put community support programs in place for housing development projects.

Excuse me...I need to go scream.

Read more here:
How is this possible? How was regular reporting and proper fiduciary oversight not part of the agreement in receiving $651 Million dollars?! I realize that implementing programs of this size and scope is not easy, especially in Haiti where nothing goes according to plan, corruption is commonplace, and the government wants things like flush toilets in new houses with no municipal septic system to process the waste produced. Be that as it may, the findings in the report do not paint a happy picture, and I hope for the sake of those still living in tent camps struggling with getting back to life as it was can expect better now that more eyes will be on recovery programming.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

30 posts deep -- lets take a moment.

30 has never looked so artsy...
I've been posting for about a month now, sharing my thoughts and hopefully posing some questions and ideas (both original and not) that help to challenge the way we think about how non-profits and the charitable sector engage in community preparedness and resilience, as well as disaster response and recovery.

With that said, thank you for your continued interest in what I'm putting out there and please continue to share it widely with friends, colleagues, and strangers alike. Growing the base of individuals who read this can only spur more conversation and work to add ideas that can create new approaches to how we help those impacted by disasters. With that said, the response to yesterday's guest post were really fantastic, and so I would like to throw out the opportunity to more of you; if you'd like to write a guest post on Everything's A Disaster, shoot me a message and lets figure it out. New viewpoints, topics, and expertise are always welcome.

So...30 posts deep, what do we like? What do we want to see more of? What do you we want to see less of? I can guarantee that I will continue to post but in an effort to make this more relevant and engaging for you, some feedback would be helpful.

Thanks again for your continued interest and support, I'll be back on Thursday with a new post.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

We Can't do it Alone = We Need a Plan

I came across this post on Bill Driscoll Jr.'s tumblr blog recently and it communicates the need for unified approach to how non-profits engage in disaster work. Bill is the Executive Director of Nechama, The Jewish Response to Disaster...I encourage you to give it a read:

Longform: We Can’t do it Alone = We Need a Plan 
The reality of disaster recovery is that no one person, government agency, or voluntary organization can do it alone. This staggering and sobering realization for survivors and responders alike, comes consistently post disaster.
Recently the concern and potential complications created by the threat of augmenting Federal disaster funds had been consistently in news. Federal budget negotiations seemed to be fixated around disaster recovery dollars. While Federal support can be critical to disaster recovery for both individuals and municipalities, many disasters in the United States go “undeclared”, meaning that they are smaller in size and do not meet the criteria for a Presidential declaration and the accompanying Federal support. We do know the answer to the questions “what if FEMA support isn’t available?” and “what would the recovery look like?”
When a disaster goes “undeclared” and does not generate a Presidential declaration, the burden of recovery falls on individuals themselves, any insurance settlement, available state programs and available charitable or voluntary organization support.  That said, even in a Federally declared disaster area, non governmental organizations (NGOs) and community based organizations, faith based or not, still provide many of the missing pieces of a disaster survivor’s recovery.  FEMA’s own “sequence of delivery” literally begins and ends with voluntary agencies. [See here]
Amidst the recent budget posturing in Congress, FEMA released the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF), which details “the plan” for future Federal support to state recovery operations. A clearer and updated national plan for the delivery of government related disaster recovery operations is a welcome and important addition to the disaster response and recovery community. That said, no sooner than we can pat those on the back that participated in and crafted the NDRF do we need to focus on what still lacks within this dedicated and passionate community (Full disclosure: I participated in a stakeholders session). The disaster recovery community is comprised of not only government responders but an inspired lot of nonprofit and faith based NGOs.
There is no equivalent to the NDRF for the NGOs active in disaster work and yet this is the part of the community that most consistently engages to help survivors post disaster. The needs that are generated by disaster (even those that do not receive official Federal designation) compel most NGO operations to action, many of which are volunteer and donor driven.
For me, someone that is engaged in disaster response and recovery on a daily basis in the charitable and nonprofit sector, the lack of a consistent field-wide plan or framework is apparent at every disaster event I deploy to. There continues to be lack of consistently agreed upon or valuable structure for NGO coordination both from a distance and on the ground. I believe focusing on an NGO-centric complimentary plan to the National Disaster Recovery Framework needs to be a top priority for the entire disaster response and recovery community. The discussion, research and development of  a “parallel” plan began a few years ago but the process to create what is known as the  “National Nonprofit Relief Framework” has been stuck in neutral. Its originally targeted release date of December 2010 has come and gone. The BP oil spill in 2010 and 2011’s six months of what seemed like nonstop tornadoes, floods, and tropical storms have played a major role in the stall. We as a community have been quite busy…
Many NGOs that are national in scope and have disaster related programs are members of coalitions like National Voluntary Organizations Active (National VOAD) in the hopes that greater communication will lead to collaborative partnerships. National VOAD and the numerous related state level forums are fantastic and beneficial but they are by design, right or wrong, not operational in nature. The members’ relationships and values within the National VOAD community, however, can and will help spawn a renewed effort for a nonprofit relief / recovery framework. Tremendous amounts of aid and hope are delivered by a diverse group of VOAD and NGO partners at each disaster. The potential to do more by strategically pooling resources under the framework of a tactically coordinated plan will only serve to grow the efficiency and effectiveness of our already impressive community. The potential growth is exciting. 
I hope the NDRF completion brings new light and enthusiasm to complete, “whole community” planning through renewed focus on the means by which nonprofits and NGOs collaborate in disasters alongside resources brought to bear by Federal down to local level government.
As expressed by the outpouring of charitable giving by donors following tragedy and disaster, we collectively seem to understand the norm that donated dollars are different than Federal ones and can be utilized and dispersed for varied and perhaps no less effective reasons. Simply no one agency whether or public or private can do it alone. As such we should be constantly driving toward enhancing and improving the way we coordinate and collaborate pre and post disaster.
We in nonprofits are at the mercy of proving that donations are being spent effectively and efficiently.  In order to improve our current collective measures we should move with vigor toward a comprehensive and consistent recovery coordination framework so we are better prepared the next time disaster strikes our country.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Mandatory National Service?

I recently attended the National Conference on Volunteering and Service hosted by Points of Light in Washington, DC; a conference that brought together what I believe to be a fairly robust network of individuals and organizations responsible for providing service opportunities to communities across the country. Many of those in attendance were engaged practitioners promoting volunteer service and civic engagement, as well as thought and community leaders who are trying to expand the idea of what it means to serve and how it can be expanded amongst their constituency. 

The 5,000+ attendees were able to choose from an overwhelming number of workshops, talkshops, panel discussions, and keynote speakers around the concept of service and how it can be bolstered to maximize its impact...all in all, it was a good time. 

Yesterday, I happened upon the "National Service Issue" of TIME magazine, in which a lengthy and powerful article explored the idea of how serving others is a way that can be leveraged to help Veteran's deal with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury while serving the greater good. The article talked about studies being done on the impact of service and used real world examples of its effects on returning servicemen and women. While I've always known that service has been a powerful and life changing force, this article made me think about it in a new light. 

What caught my eye however, was not in that article but in the letter from the editor in the front of the magazine. The letter talked about something that I hadn't heard before--something that just took place at the Aspen Institute this past weekend--something called "The National Service Summit" and it focused on a new initiative called "The Franklin Project." Having never heard of this before I looked for a website and could only find press releases and articles which sum it up as:
"The Franklin Project is a new venture by the Aspen Institute to marshal the best case for a voluntary civilian counterpart to military service in the United States. At the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, General Stanley McChrystal called for large-scale civilian national service to engage more Americans in serving community and country. We believe national service can and should become a common expectation and common opportunity for all Americans to strengthen our social fabric and solve our most pressing national challenges. To realize this vision, the Franklin Project engages outstanding Americans from the private sector, higher education, government, the military, faith community, philanthropy, and nonprofit organizations, to develop innovative policy and to build momentum around advancing a new vision of civilian service for the 21st century." ( 
For more on this I'll let reitred General McChrystal fill in the details:

The idea is intriguing and begs a mountain of questions about how this would work, if it could work, how it would be funded, how it would interact with the current wealth of Service Corps opportunities in existence, and most importantly, how do they intend to make universal national service a "new American rite of passage?" (and what exactly does that mean?)

I also find it interesting that just last week over 5,000 of the Nation's community service practitioners were assembled to celebrate and stoke the fires of civic engagement and there was no mention of this. Given the obvious connection between the conference and this initiative, a project that appears to have the potential to significantly impact how we engage in service as a Nation, one would think that the National Conference on Volunteering and Service would be a natural fit to get people pumped--I guess not. While it appears that 'The Franklin Project' is still in its infancy, I hope the plan for this is unveiled soon so that we will have an opportunity to weigh in and openly discuss the merits and potential impacts of this on how we engage in service as a Nation.

If you attended the Aspen Institute event, have filled out the survey / questionnaire they are referring to,  or have additional information on the Franklin Project, please leave a comment, I am very interested in learning more about this.

Also, below is the TIMES article "Can Service Save Us?" as well as a counter-point to the Franklin Project called "Dodge the Draft America." Also, there is a link to the Aspen Institute "National Service Summit" program that outlines the weekends events and gives an attendee listing.

TIMES cover article: Can Service Save us?
Counter point to the Franklin Project:
Aspen Institute's National Service Summit Program: