You don’t speak FEMA? That’s OK — you can still help your community bounce back from a disaster.

Last June, a tornado tore the roof off my life — but to my surprise, recovery did not end with a blue tarp patching the holes. Shortly after the EF3 passed through Monson, Mass., I was pulled into the local organizing movement that sprang up organically. People with needs, donations, axes, stories and casseroles began congregating at a church downtown that had sustained some damage in the storm. Unfortunately, no one knew where to send them, how to match needs with offered aid, or how to request help from the larger community.

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Recovers.org’s Caitria O’Neill and Cooper Taylor of the Community Life Church help locals after a tornado hit Forney, Texas.

Innovation with a twist

I played a very specific role in Monson’s recovery. I didn’t wield a chainsaw, or make sandwiches for work crews like the excellent ladies running the kitchen at the church. Instead, my sister Morgan and I provided infrastructure. Using a Frankenstein mashup of free web tools, we created a system of communication, databased needs and resources — matching them in real time, and became the hub of the community’s recovery effort. I didn’t know the first thing about community disaster recovery, but didn’t need to. Instead, I knew the community.

After Monson’s transition into long-term recovery, I launched Recovers.org to build the organizing tools we needed to run the community side of recovery. Our site, located at [TownName].Recovers.org, can be ready to go before an emergency. Tools like volunteer and donation item databases, social media aggregation, case management and a wicked simple website for community produced information.

Who, what, how?

The official side of emergency management is incredibly good at disaster relief work; the first few days involves accounting for individuals, chopping through trees to utilities, and providing crowd control. Unfortunately, the police chief cannot handle a truckload of donated clothing, the fire chief can’t manage vans of Boy Scouts who want to repair mailboxes, and the FEMA rep really doesn’t have time to listen to your problems with insurance coverage. The community rises to fill these gaps, but churches, libraries, PTAs, YMCAs and soup kitchens are poorly equipped and untrained for such situations and don’t interface at all with the official relief effort. Worse, these grassroots efforts do not learn from each other.

Community recovery looks different in every area, because whomever decides to take charge is creating systems of communication and mutual aid on the fly in an extremely stressful situation, with no help from people who have done this before. Is that efficient when there are towns and cities across the United States that have already done what you’re doing — or when there’s a town just two states away which is about six months farther along into recovery? They’re doing smart things that took time to figure out, and you could be as well.

Can you imagine we’re just starting to realize this now?

From better tools to best practices

The tools are just step one — how can we connect people organizing now with the people who have gone through this before? In New Orleans, the Broadmoor neighborhood built an unstoppable recovery machine. Rebecca and Genevieve Williams, who ran the Joplin, Mo., disaster recovery Facebook page, are now putting together a manual of best practices for community recovery. The information is out there, and we commit to bringing it to the people who step up in other communities, along with the tools to do it well.

I didn’t speak FEMA, but now I do. The tools we are building can help the various moving parts of recovery work together more efficiently — not just in one area, but across the country and around the world.

Please reach out if you are interested in learning more about community-powered disaster recovery, or the tools we’re building to enable it: Support@recovers.org, or (413) 219-5613.