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May 12, 2013

Is this enough?

Caitria O’Neill remembers her reaction to hearing tornado warnings on June 1, 2011. She went to the grocery store, she said, “because I live in Massachusetts, and we don’t get tornadoes.”

By the time she got home, hail the size of baseballs was falling. Even as she watched a lamppost blow past, what was happening didn’t register.

Fortunately, her father got her inside and into the basement before the tornado blew out the windows, ripped off the roof and knocked their house slightly off its foundation.

O’Neill, then 22, and her family emerged to devastation. Her town of 8,500 people, Monson, Mass., had just withstood an EF3 tornado that destroyed more than 60 buildings including town hall, damaged 200 others, and would lead to one death.

Pressed into service, O’Neill helped organize volunteers gathering at a church across the street. What she observed about the process inspired her and her sister Morgan, an MIT graduate student, to start an online software company, recovers.org, to help people prepare for disasters and respond more effectively.

Tech time

In a world that can be app-addled, it’s tempting to dismiss the idea that technology will solve all problems. Yet, technology has changed the way Americans get ready for disasters and respond to them — with more precise forecasts, personalized weather warnings and more efficient recovery efforts. And it will continue to help us be more prepared.

Recovers.org is a fledgling company with a Web-based software that helps individuals and communities plan for emergencies, and then after a disaster matches victims’ needs with volunteers and donations. Its technology can’t compare to major breakthroughs in forecasting that occurred in the 1990s, like Doppler radar, which lets us “see” tornadoes before they form. Or the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory model, the first computer simulation to successfully merge information about the ocean and atmosphere to predict hurricane courses and intensities.

But Brian M. Brooks calls the Web software “a godsend.” The city manager in Forney, Texas, Brooks used recovers.org when a tornado outbreak destroyed about 20 houses, a business and a school in his East Texas community on April 3, 2012. Coordinating with Community Life Church, the city set up a registry of people who needed help and people willing to volunteer goods or services. Cooper Taylor, the church’s mission director, said the website greatly reduced unwanted donations and storage problems.

Recovers.org is one example of technology pushing preparedness and recovery into the hands of communities and individuals. Even small towns now use established databases and GPS mapping tools to do things like track private storm shelters. Communities can respond to disasters differently, too. The same GPS technology can be used to plot downed trees. At least one company sells a system that tags trees and other debris with bar codes to ensure haulers don’t overcharge local governments and FEMA.

Specific technologies don’t always succeed, of course. “The challenge with any software is the plan is only as good as people’s buy-in and people’s knowledge of how to implement it,” said Andrew Sachs, vice president of government services at Witt O’Brien’s, a consulting firm that specializes in public safety and crisis management.

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