Morgan O'Neill: How Do You Help Your Town Dig Out From A Disaster? Morgan O'Neill was 24 years old when she and her sister spearheaded the effort to rebuild their town after a tornado. Later, she developed a way to help other communities rebuild after disasters.
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How Do You Help Your Town Dig Out From A Disaster?

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How Do You Help Your Town Dig Out From A Disaster?

How Do You Help Your Town Dig Out From A Disaster?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So even in the least-organized situations, there has to be someone who makes things function, someone like Morgan O'Neill.

MORGAN O'NEILL: Hi, Guy. Oh my god, I'm nervous.

RAZ: Morgan grew up in a place called Monson, Mass.

M. O'NEILL: There are two pizza places, one grocery store, probably three liquor stores. We don't even have a stoplight.

RAZ: And a few years ago, on one summer day, a big storm...

M. O'NEILL: The sky was a very funny color.

RAZ: ...Was about to change Monson forever.

M. O'NEILL: Apparently, hail had started falling, sizes bigger than anyone had seen before. And my dad and my brother were driving home at the time. And my brother even turned on his camera to capture a movie of the hail because it was just so impressive. When they finally got home, you can hear the change in the sound on the camera. You can hear this roar.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS NEWS BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The tornado's hit about 19 communities here in western Massachusetts.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Parts of Monson remain a barren landscape.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: A wind-driven storm of historic proportions.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Yesterday's tornado tore up downtown Monson. Dozens of buildings were just ripped apart.

M. O'NEILL: Everything got scrambled. Homes turned into piles of matchsticks, left in, or next to, holes where basements belong -you know, just basement hole after basement hole after basement hole. You could just walk up to someone's from step and jump into their basement if you want because nothing's going to stop you. There's no home there anymore.

RAZ: Morgan and her sister, Caitria, told the story about what happened to their town on the TED stage. You'll hear Caitria's voice first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALKS)

CAITRIA O'NEILL: So tornadoes don't happen in Massachusetts. And I was cleverly standing in the front yard when one came over the hill. After a lamppost flew by, my family and I sprinted into the basement. Trees were thrown against the house. The windows exploded. When we finally got out the back door, transformers were burning in the street.

M. O'NEILL: We live across street from a historic church that had lost its very iconic steeple in the storm. It had become a community gathering place overnight. The town hall and the police department had also suffered direct hits, and so people wanting to help or needing information went to the church.

C. O'NEILL: We walked up to the church because we heard that they had hot meals, but when we arrived, we found problems. There were a couple of large, sweaty men with chainsaws standing in the center of the church, but nobody knew where to send them because no one knew the extent of the damage yet. And as we watched, they became frustrated and left to go find somebody to help on their own.

M. O'NEILL: So we started organizing. Why? It had to be done.

RAZ: Morgan and Caitria set up a table and told people where to go and what to do. And accidentally, they became the leaders.

M. O'NEILL: It just was crazy to us that we showed up and spontaneously decided to give orders, and that was fine.

RAZ: Coming up, how two twenty-somethings got a town knocked down by an EF3 tornado back on its feet. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - getting organized. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about how and why we organize.

M. O'NEILL: Yeah, I mean, who would you say is in charge in this situation?

RAZ: This is Morgan O'Neill, who we just heard from before the break.

M. O'NEILL: It's not clear.

RAZ: After a tornado hit her hometown of Monson, Mass., Morgan and her sister, Caitria, decided to step up because nobody else was going to.

M. O'NEILL: We had a volunteer emergency manager who was out of town at the time, unfortunately. And that person would be the most obvious one in charge. We had selectmen who had never dealt with anything like this before. We had a police department that could barely hold onto public safety, which of course is number one. And so it was just - it wasn't even obvious who was supposed to think about telling people what to do. And so we came up to the church, and we said, hey, we want help out. We want to bring you infrastructure.

RAZ: I mean, did anybody question you? I mean, like, no one was like, wait a minute, who put you in charge?

M. O'NEILL: OK, so sometimes I would wear shirts from high school. And so, my sister and I, we looked very young. And sometimes people would ask me, oh honey, are you going to graduate this year? And they would mean graduate from Monson High School. But in the same breath, they would agree to do what I had just directed them to do.

RAZ: Wow.

M. O'NEILL: It was remarkable how having an air of confidence and looking like you're in charge will allow you to tell anybody to do anything.

RAZ: Yeah.

M. O'NEILL: And so we were very rarely questioned.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALKS)

M. O'NEILL: Everyone's donating clothing. We should really inventory the donations that are piling up here.

C. O'NEILL: Yeah, and we need a hotline. Can you make a Google Voice number?

M. O'NEILL: Yeah, sure. And we need to tell people what not to bring. I'll make a Facebook account. Can you print fliers for the neighborhoods?

C. O'NEILL: Yeah, but we don't even know what houses are accepting help at this point. We need to canvas and send out volunteers.

M. O'NEILL: We need to tell people what not to bring. Hey, there's a news truck. I'll tell them.

C. O'NEILL: You got my number off the news? We don't need any more freezers. And six pounds of juice boxes arriving in one hour?

M. O'NEILL: The insurance won't cover it? You need a crew to tarp your roof?

C. O'NEILL: Someone get me Post-its.

M. O'NEILL: Someone get me Post-its.

(LAUGHTER)

C. O'NEILL: And then the rest of the community figured out that we had answers.

M. O'NEILL: I can donate three water heaters, but someone needs to come pick them up.

C. O'NEILL: You sent me to that place on Washington Street yesterday, and now I'm covered in poison ivy.

So this is what filled our days. We had to learn how to answer questions quickly and to solve problems in about a minute or less, because otherwise something more urgent would come up and it just wouldn't get done.

M. O'NEILL: We didn't get our authority from the Board of Selectmen or the emergency management director or the United Way. We just started answering questions and making decisions because someone - anyone - had to. And why not me? I'm a campaign organizer. I'm good at Facebook. And there's two of me.

(LAUGHTER)

M. O'NEILL: I think that what we did would have been impossible without a way to talk with people on the Internet, because whenever the church needed something, we would ask the Internet for it.

RAZ: Technology played a big part in the relief effort. They used that Facebook page to get the word out.

M. O'NEILL: Please bring ice. Please don't bring clothes. Right now we need lunch meats.

RAZ: Google Docs to keep track of volunteers.

M. O'NEILL: We can search for it. We can sort it.

RAZ: And that Google Voice number that served as a hotline - that was basically Morgan's personal cellphone.

M. O'NEILL: We put it on Facebook. The news picked it up. We handed it out on printed pages. And, you know, it's good that this existed, but it was also awful for me to have the town's hotline in my pocket, you know?

RAZ: Because your phone was constantly ringing.

M. O'NEILL: Sixteen hours a day. Oh my god, it got so bad.

RAZ: Oh, man.

M. O'NEILL: At some point, one of the days well into the recovery, I could barely speak anymore. I was just so overwhelmed with, you know, these micro-decisions I was having to make every six seconds, you know? People are asking you a million things, and someone just has to decide something.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALKS)

C. O'NEILL: The point is, if there's a flood or a fire or a hurricane, you - or somebody like you - are going to step up and start organizing things. The other point is that it is hard.

M. O'NEILL: Lying on the ground after another 17-hour day, Caitria and I would empty our pockets and try to place dozens of scraps of paper into context. All bits of information had to be remembered and matched in order to help someone. After another day, in a shower at the shelter, we realized it shouldn't be this hard.

C. O'NEILL: In a country like ours, where we breathe Wi-Fi, leveraging technology for a faster recovery should be a no-brainer. Systems like the ones that we were creating on the fly could exist ahead of time. And if some community member is in this organizing position in every area, after every disaster, these tools should exist.

M. O'NEILL: So we decided to build them - a recovery in a box, something that could be deployed after every disaster by any local organizer.

RAZ: That recovery in a box turned into recovers.org. It's a website Caitria and Morgan co-founded where any town can adopt their system to organize its own relief effort right away, right after disaster strikes. And about 50 communities have used it - from Dallas, Texas., to Seward, Ala. And Morgan says the idea behind their effort is that any community can come together like theirs did - as long as they have the right tools.

M. O'NEILL: I don't think that it's possible for two little humans to do it themselves at this - even this small-scale of a small town. And so there was a lot of autonomy. This church where people worked out of was impressive. It ended up basically spontaneously forming different departments. Like there was clearly the incredible force in the kitchen, where this team of women that'd shout at you if you came into the kitchen because you're going to be in their way, but they would pump out a thousand meals every couple hours. And then there were all of the volunteers downstairs who had basically filled the basement with a small Walmart. And that took a lot of autonomy. We certainly weren't micromanaging. I don't want you to think that we made every decision. We just made lots of the arbitrary ones that hadn't yet been made.

RAZ: I mean, do you think that you are able to organize people easier than others? I mean, do you think it's something that's inherent or is it something that you can develop?

M. O'NEILL: I want and need to believe that anyone can do this. And I think that people just rise to challenges. And I hope, you know, when people see something wrong or something bad that they speak up and do something about it. The only thing you need is to believe that you can positively impact a crappy situation, whether it's with a chainsaw, or with your hands, or with, you know, a loud voice like mine.

RAZ: Morgan O'Neill. You can see Morgan and Caitria's full TED Talk at ted.npr.org.

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