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Katrina Recovery:
Citizens Taking Action

Municipalities embroiled in controversy over donated goods, 501c3 organizations stymied by their own rules, government’s lackluster performance.  While all of this is going on, private citizens have formed their own private online army to hook up the “we have” with the “we need”.

(Editor's Note: From the first hours after Hurricane Katrina, a grassroots effort to provide assistance has employed the Internet in ways never before used. This is one such story.)

By Mark Proulx - Special to GCN    Filed 2/7/07

Literally days after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Citizen Action Team was borne out of the need for private citizens to have a way to easily participate in the disaster relief process. 

Frustrated by being told to "just give money", a group of people from Boston decided to start sending emergency supplies to the Katrina ravaged gulf.  It became immediately clear that a real-time needs assessment was required to be able to both reach the people falling through the cracks and to harness the energies of tens of thousands of people that wanted to help gather supplies. 

Terra Friedrichs, one of the founding members of Citizen Action Team, gave GCN an exclusive interview into just how CAT and the relief database works.

“Originally there were 4 or 5 members who started this…a PR consultant who was a full-time mom, a community activist who was also a songwriter, a truck driver, and me,” Friedrichs said.  “I used to work for Fortune 10 companies and have a solid grounding in how to develop business models, so we have the education necessary to work with and satisfy a large number of user groups.”

“After about three or four days of watching the news and seeing the problems down on the Gulf Coast, I had an epiphany.  I knew I needed to do something.  So I got on the blogs, the telephone, NPR and started talking about it to everyone.  Pretty soon, we had many people who wanted to help.”

Within a very few days after this loose-knit band of private citizens were spurred to action, they had trucks loaded with donated supplies rolling to the Gulf Coast, Friedrichs said.

The challenge was to find a way to keep people gathering while only sending what the survivors wanted/needed.  So an online relief supply tool was created to track and communicate the needs and availability of relief supplies.  The team eventually created volunteer management tools and a live helpdesk...all using volunteer labor.

Before the online tool was created, they had several versions of manual and semi-manual tools.  The key to the whole thing, Friedrichs says, was figuring out “how” to build a database that actually serves the needs of different levels of organization, incredibly changing situations and has lasting power.

“It wasn’t until the people on the blogs asked me for my information and I started getting calls from my short two-minute presentation on NPR that I decided that I couldn’t handle the number of inquiries…so it had to go online.”

www.reliefdatabase.org

Today it continues.  The CAT volunteers believe that keeping their operation alive is important because it allows for multiple supply chains into a disaster zone to address the needs community groups that fall through the cracks of the traditional relief systems.

CAT believes strongly in making sure that donations go to the right place at the right
time.  To do so, they believe that it is necessary to give volunteers effective direction and has devised a method by which private citizens can be connected directly to survivor disaster relief service groups in a peer-to-peer fashion in an effective way.
 
Friedrichs says that her organization openly provides contact information of the people on the front lines that wish to be contacted by volunteer gathering teams.  The community groups on the front line can then direct the volunteer gathering teams by listing their needs online in their "facility record". 

“Our database is essentially like the Survivor Database on Gulf Coast News.  People willingly put their information in regarding the supplies and donations they have.  Any organization that has a need can sign up for free to put their names and contact information in, and do a search for the specific items they need, as an additional means of support, complementing local municipalities or other relief organizations.”

When asked about how this effort is funded, Friedrichs answered, “We do what we do on a volunteer basis.  If someone wants to be there to help people navigate through and use the database, we make it known that it’s the volunteer’s responsibility to keep their own office and have certain set hours to be available. So far, it’s worked out incredibly well because we have people who are dedicated to doing this.”

“Any funds that are donated,” says Friedrichs, “have to be made out to the United Way of Tri-County and mark in the memo line CAT Hurricane Relief Fuel Fund. We have a very specific and innovative arrangement with the United Way that is sponsoring a Humanitarian Shipping Pilot initiative.  ALL monies go towards fuel.”

“We have a partnership with Tim Barrett and his company Barrett Industries, and his friends at UPS freight, whereby if we follow the Teamster-developed rules, we get to ship at a humanitarian rate that barely pays for fuel.”

“UPS Freight can do this because we are willing to fit into the ‘excess space’ in the shipping system. It might take a few days to get somewhere, but we can ship a pallet of goods from Massachusetts to the Gulf Coast for only $50.”

“Because of this unique partnership,” Friedrichs said, “the fuel funds are effectively turned into two or three times the value because all shipped items are donated. So instead of spending a donors money on lots of expenses, we multiply the value of their money.”

http://www.reliefdatabase.org/ReliefDbase~CATDonations.html

Friedrichs says that her group does not handle any donated monies, nor does she or the others have anything to do with the donated supplies.

“All we do is pack the goods, label them and deliver them to the warehouse, then help figure out who gets them. This way, we stay arms-length to any politics.  Quite frankly, I don’t want to get in the middle of any petty squabbles. We are here to help get goods to the people who need it and we don’t care to be involved in any politics. Period,” said Friedrichs.

“We are providing a service…a much needed service,” she said.  “We created a sophisticated and simple database that allows people with donated goods to list what they have and we also allow those who have desperate needs to list themselves personally and organizations so people have a ready-made needs list immediately.”

The relief supply database "facility records" can be created by any humanitarian organization, whether a 501c3 or not. To Friedrichs, it doesn’t really matter.  Anyone who has a need or has goods to donate are welcome to use the database.

If the community groups prefer to go through a central supply distribution warehouse, this is fine. By listing that preference, removing their physical address from the database, and listing the preferred delivery location, CAT can deliver supplies to that preferred location. If an organization needs nothing from CAT volunteers, they just remove all of their needs from their "facility record".

What about the potential for abuse?  According to Friedrich, her group was built on the idea of trust and giving and helping others.  She readily admits that there may be the potential for abuse.  “But we can’t just not do anything just because of a few bad apples,” she says.

“We hear from people everyday who can’t get supplies because they aren’t a ‘formal 501c3’ or they don’t meet the criteria for receiving donations. We feel we have the ultimate potential ‘super database’ that lists not only faith-based operations, 501c3’s, but smaller groups and private citizens who have needs.  We publish these needs, that’s all.  We believe in the honesty of good people to take matters in their own hands once they have the tools to work with.”
 
The CAT relief database provides an option, which is often critical for relief groups that fall through the cracks of the traditional relief supply systems.  They believe that it can be very useful to have multiple supply chains into a disaster zone and certainly shown that they are effective.  In certain circumstances, Friedrichs admits, this does not make sense, so they leave it to the front line groups to decide if they want to receive relief supplies directly or not. 

A network of relief volunteers around the country has been built through the integration of hundreds of smaller community groups like volunteer groups, churches, professional groups, etc.  and they have prepared detailed guidelines for volunteer etiquette, packing/labeling and delivery. 

CAT is preparing to help anyone, anywhere in the country get the relief that is needed in a national disaster, by giving the private citizen the direction he/she needs to help the front line, and all with guided volunteer efforts.

“We want to make it so an ‘army’ of private citizen volunteers can address any emergency situation,” says Friedrichs. “With a database like this in place, we should have everything we need to cover the next disaster.”

Terra Friedrichs can be contacted at terr@citizenactionteam.org or at +1 978 266 2778.

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