Last October Superstorm Sandy slammed into the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., leaving a trail of destruction that stretched from Florida to Maine. More than 100 people died and 300,000 homes were destroyed. Total damage reached $75 billion, much of it in the New York-New Jersey area. On the first anniversary of the storm, we look at a collaborative project between frog and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, aimed at finding innovative approaches to disaster relief.
Sandy was a late-season, post-tropical cyclone that had already caused havoc as it churned up the coast. Yet the full extent of the storm’s impact on the densely populated New York area was difficult to predict. When the storm finally came ashore, power was knocked out over one-third of Manhattan and other boroughs, trees were downed, subways flooded and homes reduced to rubble. “The city looked like a war zone,” recalls Dino Sanchez, an associate creative director at frog’s NY studio in Lower Manhattan.
Many office buildings across New York City were within the storm’s blackout area, including frog’s studio. Sanchez quickly enlisted other frogs and friends to help, and they spent the next month gutting houses and ripping down water soaked walls. It was part of a broader community effort of people coming together, regardless of their background. “It didn’t matter where you lived, or how you lived before the storm, or your income level,” Sanchez explains. “Everything was wiped out. Everyone’s needs were the same. In that sense, the storm was a great equalizer.”
Volunteering was a start, but the frog team wanted to do more. Having worked on disaster relief projects with UNICEF and with a long history of social-impact and experiential design, frog was in a position to bring about broader, longer-term impact. A one-day workshop, hosted by FEMA and UNICEF, led to frog’s engagement to explore the challenges faced by the federal agency and develop concepts focusing on Disaster Relief Centers (DRCs), the places where survivors go first for food, shelter, medical aid and the vital information they need to get through the crisis and begin rebuilding their lives.
For the most part, formal DRCs are established only after FEMA is deployed, which can sometimes be days or weeks after a disaster is declared. Before that, as witnessed during Sandy, community groups mobilize and set up ad hoc disaster recovery centers as a first response. These improvised centers – in tents, trailers, RVs or whatever is available – are informal and often rudimentary, but they are usually the first to address immediate survivor needs.
One concept developed by frog is to leverage this organizing principle and empower communities to begin the recovery process before FEMA can arrive, through Community Disaster Relief Centers (CDRCs). These are pre-planned, community-run centers established in well-known locations that can be activated as soon as a disaster occurs. Each pre-selected location is equipped with the necessary equipment and materials – tents, tables, generators, Wi-Fi and coordinated, easy to understand signage – to begin operations immediately.
The centers are activated by designated community members once a crisis occurs and manned by community marshals. Soon, the CDRC becomes a hub for local relief efforts and “a beacon for resources that everyone needs,” says Cobie Everdell, an associate creative director at frog who worked on the project.
A related concept developed by frog is the Virtual DRC, a model that enables a relief worker equipped with a tablet PC to locate and register survivors who cannot find their way to a CDRC. This “roving DRC” concept provides mobility and flexibility for FEMA to make sure all survivors are accounted for and to assess their needs. Taken together, these two initiatives are part of a disaster relief eco-system that targets the immediate, informal needs of the community and “empower[s] communities to be more resilient,” says Desi Matel-Anderson, the former head of FEMA’s Innovation Team, who worked on the project. FEMA is currently field-testing the Community DRC and Virtual DRC concepts. If you experienced Hurricane Sandy firsthand, and want to share your stories, please leave a comment below.”