Twist of fate: the tornadoes that turned two sisters into disaster recovery experts

The O’Neill sisters did not expect the tornado that hit their town in Massachusetts or that recovering from the disaster would change their lives, writes Doyle Rice for USA Today

In 2011, a pair of twisters ripped across Massachusetts, damaging the home of Morgan and Caitria O’Neill in the town of Monson, and causing the state’s first tornado-related deaths in 16 years.

One of the tornadoes, with winds estimated at 160 mph, seriously damaged their house. Almost immediately, the devastation threw both Morgan, then 24, and Caitria, then 22, into the role of disaster recovery experts.

“On 1 June, we weren’t disaster experts, but on 3 June of that year, we started faking it. We just started answering questions and making decisions, because someone – anyone – had to,” says Morgan.


What began as a way to help their community get back on its feet after the disaster evolved into, a free, easy-to-use ‘recovery-in-a-box’ website designed by the sisters to help other cities and towns organise disaster relief quickly. It can be rolled out in minutes, helping local relief organisers turn compassion into organised action, says Chris Kuryak, the project’s chief operating officer.

After a disaster, there’s a flood of goodwill. There are people who want to donate or volunteer

The website helps people manage volunteers and donations, track data about the disaster, and apply for grants and request aid through official channels such as the Salvation Army or Red Cross. It also links volunteers with victims, allowing both to alert the other of what is needed and their ability to help.

“After a disaster, there’s a flood of goodwill,” says Kuryak. “There are people who want to donate or volunteer.”

Google data suggests there is a window of about seven days to capture 50 per cent of the web searches about a disaster, explains Caitria, now a researcher at Facebook.

The O’Neills’ home following the tornadoes in 2011. Image: Recovers.og helps local people respond to disasters immediately while waiting for government and other non-profit organisations to mobilise.

The organisation now hosts more than 200 sites for communities around the world. The software has been used for both natural and manmade disasters, from wildfires in Big Sur, California, to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

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The site itself is a volunteer effort. The next goal is to transition to a non-profit organisation. “We hope to fundraise such that we can again hire a small staff to be truly on-call, helping monitor and manage the platform during large and often international disasters,” says Morgan, now 30 and an atmospheric scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

“People should know that they can rely on these sites in their time of need. If we can empower communities, with the right tools after a disaster, they can become the experts.

“This experience changed our lives, and now we’re trying to change the experience.”


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