This Rapid Response Research Grant (RAPID) will investigate emergent citizen groups that evolved after the landfall of Hurricane Sandy in October, 2012 in the coastal areas of New York City and New Jersey. Sandy has been called a superstorm by many in the media and may be the second most expensive weather related hazard in the United States following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It is very common for citizens and survivors to be the initial responders to a disaster before the established organizations such as local emergency management personnel, FEMA, and the American Red Cross can aid affected communities. Following the model of disaster-related organizations describing task and structure from the Disaster Research Center, these informally organized emergent citizen groups provide aid and disaster assistance before the traditional established organizations could arrive and help survivors. In the past, many of these emergent groups were mobilized by more traditional means of communication such as in-person or by land-line telephones. However, nowadays many communicate by cellular telephones, smartphones, texting, and social networking websites such as Facebook or Twitter. This study will examine the mutual aid and disaster relief by these new emergent groups along with their collaboration with extending and established groups such as faith-based organizations and the American Red Cross. The research will (1) identify these emergent groups (2) study their communication methods and collaboration with other agencies, and (3) describe the type of aid distributed, and the roles of these groups in disaster response. Two primary methods will be utilized with the first being field research with interviews of group coordinators and other volunteers. Second, communications such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other online forums will be retrospectively analyzed for content. The expected results of this study could help establish how new emergent groups aided with new communication technology can enhance community response and recovery which could lead to more resilience for future events.

Results of this research could be used by established organizations and communities for future disasters to get aid to survivors in a timely manner. It is important that community members be involved in both preparedness and response to help make a quicker recovery for the citizens. This can involve having the various organizations participating in disaster planning. In addition, this project can add to the field of disaster research for both theory and applications by investigating traditional means of response supplemented with new communication technologies.

Project Report

In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeastern United States and became the second most expensive U.S. weather disaster ever, behind Hurricane Katrina (2005). Local citizens (including survivors) are among the first to respond during and immediately after a major disaster, frequently before established organizations such as local emergency management personnel, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the American Red Cross. This project studied newly formed citizen volunteer groups that responded to Hurricane Sandy. We used a Disaster Research Center (DRC) group classification system as a starting point. The DRC describes tasks and structures of established, expanding, extending, and emergent groups in times of disaster. "Established" organizations, such as the fire or police department, use an existing structure with routine tasks, while "expanding" ones like the Red Cross temporarily grow in size, but perform their usual tasks. "Extending" groups such as churches and civic organizations, in contrast, have purposes not related to disaster response, but respond when called on to help. Finally, spontaneous citizens volunteer groups organize "emerge" to help victims, and so are brand new in every way. This research identified emergent volunteer groups, and their innovative communication and organization methods; collaboration with local communities and various disaster relief response agencies; type and level of aid distributed; and overall impact on disaster response. Two primary research methods were used, including 1) interviews with citizens’ group organizers, volunteers, and officials from established groups such as FEMA, and 2) both real-time and retrospective examination of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other online forums. Interview transcripts were analyzed using text "mining" software. There were 18 total groups examined: 11 were new volunteer groups, 5 extending, and 2 expanding. Interviews were conducted in the New York Metropolitan area (Rockaways, Brooklyn, Coney Island, Staten Island, and Manhattan) and New Jersey. Results showed that when citizens volunteer groups teamed up with existing groups such as churches – which provided critical physical space – and used innovative communication and organization methods, their effectiveness was greatly magnified. Particularly in the key period immediately after the disaster, these partnerships filled a critical gap before other traditional aid organizations could respond. They enabled rapid, unprecedented use of eager volunteers, creation of large, sophisticated good distribution networks, and early, effective community needs assessments. This early response was particularly important for more vulnerable groups such as the elderly, infirmed, housebound, children, and others less able to help themselves. But citizens’ coalitions also provided substantial help even after local government, the Red Cross, FEMA, and other traditional response organizations were fully mobilized. Volunteer groups self-organized, often using innovative flexible work routines, fluid membership, diverse traditional media and new communication methods, and cutting edge organizational software tools. One group alone, Occupy Sandy (OS), absorbed 60,000 volunteers – more than even the Red Cross, the traditional volunteer organization. Occupy Sandy used consensus-oriented "horizontal leadership," with no traditional top-down leadership hierarchy. Despite some disadvantages, this enabled high levels of group adaptation to changing conditions and needs, and greater volunteer buy-in. Groups like OS also emphasized community self-empowerment or self-help, contrary to traditional organizations’ ways of aiding disaster victims, which encouraged greater community participation in their own response and recovery. Group members went door-to-door in communities to find out what services or materials were needed rather than citizens going to a location to request aid, and enlisted motivated disaster survivors to help lead local response efforts. Social media and other internet sites magnified communication and overall ability to provide help. In addition to over $1 million in cash donations, Occupy Sandy received substantial material donations – ranging from cleanup materials to expensive generators. Despite fuel and transportation shortages, through the innovative use of Amazon Wedding Registry, targeted goods were bought online by donors and delivered by UPS or Federal Express directly to the specific places that needed them. Scarce transportation resources could thus be used instead for getting people and food supplies to key locations. In the first month after the hurricane, food, clothes, and cleaning materials along with information were the major resources discussed in social media. After the first month, services such as cleaning and mold remediation increased. Information on long-term recovery became the main topic after six months. This study shows how innovative volunteer efforts can provide early, substantial relief aid, especially early after larger, regional disasters, using modern communication technology, organizational methods, and community empowerment approaches. These groups can also help enhance community resilience for future disasters. The typology of established, extending, expanding, and emergent groups is still a useful model, and this project has significant broader implications for future enhanced disaster preparedness and response education and collaboration – through use of effective volunteer mobilization and community self-help, in combination with traditional government- or non-profit organization aid.

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University of Akron
United States
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