Sean McIntyre · designing tech to create great things

Hacking FEMA

Nov 10, 2012

More than a week after Hurricane Sandy, the hardest-hit New York City neighbourhoods are now in full recovery mode. Houses need to be gutted, mold needs to be prevented, and businesses need to be rebuilt. People need money really bad.

There are lots of opportunities for recovery hacking in post-Sandy New York. I like to get out in the neighbourhood to help, so I found the following advertisement from Jessica Lawrence very appealing: REGISTER TO HELP WITH PUBLIC WIFI PROJECT - In the coming days, we may be called to support a significant public wifi setup project in partnership with the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center.

After filling out volunteer forms and an introductory conference call, I volunteered to spend a Friday with the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC), a 501(c)3 non-profit founded in 2009 and operated by volunteers. I met the core of the ITDRC team, Joe and Debbie Hillis, at the IKEA in Red Hook, Brooklyn. They secured a location at IKEA to set up public WiFi networks, computers with Internet access, and SIP phones for the purpose of recovery. My job was to help set up the computers.


Joe and Debbie drove up from Fort Worth, Texas to volunteer their recovery services to the Sandy victims. The Hillis’ didn’t drive to New York in a car, they drove in a custom bus they purchased from a fire department in Florida. The bus was converted into a tactical disaster response unit fully-equipped with five built-in computer workstations, a dozen CB radios, a server rack, and enough storage space to lug around equipment so they can quickly deploy temporary IT stations.

The Hillis’ are amazing and humble people, devoted to helping others through technology in very direct ways. They arrived right after the hurricane and expect to stay in New York through Thanksgiving, if not Christmas. They have been sleeping on the floor of their bus and work on this relief project full time. They are constantly talking with their colleagues on other New York sites and from across North America, coordinating remote efforts to configure their systems on the ground. They also are well-connected with other efforts on the ground in New York and try to find ways to help each other out.

(Please vote for the ITDRC to give them a chance to win $5000 worth of fuel.)

ITDRC bus workstation

The interior of the bus was incredible. Debbie proudly explained to me that the space was designed not only for working, but to prevent thefts, to be easily cleaned after 16 hour work days, and to balance the functional and storage space.


Most of my day was about hacking FEMA (for the better). We were situated in a temporary FEMA centre where disaster victims could speak to FEMA agents to apply for financial assistance. The terminals we set up in IKEA were there to give people a chance to find support by themselves and to use the option of applying online rather than waiting in line or on the phone for the next available agent. On top of that, ITDRC provided something that FEMA did not have onsite that day: an IT support team.

ITDRC computers

The environment was a strange mixture of tension, grief, and excitement. At one point I was trying to fix a FEMA agent’s computer as I sat across from a lady with tears streaming down her face, speaking on the phone in Spanish, who had clearly lost everything. Tragic.

The day was incredibly inspiring. I plan on going back to work another full day next week, and to help with other projects the ITDRC have up their sleeve. I hope you consider volunteering as well!

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