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Getting out there and doing it

My World's on Fire
Getting out there and doing it
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #42 • View online

Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!
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ERCOT
Alert: Due to a combination of high gen outages typical in April & higher-than-forecasted demand caused by a stalled cold front over TX, ERCOT may enter emergency conditions. We do not expect customer outages. Declaring an emergency would allow us to access additional resources.
On Tuesday afternoon, ERCOT, the operator responsible for providing power to more than 26 million Texans, sent out a warning of “potential emergency conditions.” It was followed by another tweet requesting Texans reduce their electrical use heading into the evening.
Almost exactly two months after Texas’ grid flirted with total collapse, stranding millions in the dark amidst freezing conditions, those tweets went over pretty much as well as you’d imagine. People responded with concern, frustration, and anger, many still reeling from their experiences in February. This time, though, ERCOT was able to end its “energy conservation appeal” just a few hours later.
The real impact of the winter storm and infrastructure failure is still unknown, and, as with manydisasters, it’s likely whatever official statistics are reported will undercount the true toll. So, I’ve been reaching out to non-profits in the area to get a better idea of what their experience was like providing aid during the storm and in the time since to better understand the situation on the ground. Originally, I planned on putting a few voices together in one newsletter, but I found each conversation really interesting on its own – so, get ready for some Q&As!
Today, you’ll hear from Matthew Marchetti, one of the founders of CrowdSource Rescue (CSR). It’s a unique organization, created out of Marchetti’s realization during Hurricane Harvey that there was a need for a site that could pair people who needed to be rescued with those who had the capacity to help in their area. His idea has since helped thousands of people in Texas and beyond, serving as a resource during evacuations, emergency response, and longer-term recovery efforts. Along with volunteers, CSR now works with local emergency response efforts and non-profit organizations.
I hope you’ll read to the last few questions, when Marchetti muses on the difficult balance between the need for grassroots energy and the stability of bureaucracy in dealing with disasters. It’s a tension I’ve come across a lot in my reporting – the enthusiasm people have to help and how that can sometimes complicate the protocols in place – and I appreciate his honestly on how that’s been tough to navigate, particularly as the organization has pivoted to deal with different types of disasters.
Colleen Hagerty: With this year’s winter storm, I’m curious to know what the process of responding looked like for you now that CSR has been around for a few years and has some relationships with volunteers as well as organizations.
Matthew Marchetti: A lot of it was just lessons we already knew from the hurricane, but then – and this is why it was complicated, because with a hurricane, you’ll deal with these cascading issues where you don’t have power, the city is inaccessible, or both. With this, it was – the city was inaccessible. And there’s no power. And there’s no water also.
And it’s also happening all at once across the whole state. Whereas a hurricane is just sort of geographically contained within a couple hundred miles of the coast, and so the rest of the state can help. With a new hazard that, you know, half of us haven’t even seen snow before, it is extremely complicated, and we had to basically learn the lessons on the fly.
Our plan basically developed into – we had all these generators, we had started off with five and then by the end of it we had about 75 – basically taking generators and then getting the space heaters and dropping the generators off at nursing homes or [to] people with medical equipment or seniors and vulnerable residents in general.
“You know, half of us haven’t even seen snow before.”
But we didn’t have enough space heaters, you can’t buy any space heaters at this point, and so we’re just at the point where we’re on Twitter and where we’re emailing our volunteers like, ‘If you have a space heater, let us know your address, and we’ll come pick it up.’ I guess I say that because it was just one of these interesting things where any other time we would just say, ‘Hey, if you have a space heater can you come over here and drop it off?’ versus now we’re having to logistically map out not only the supplies we’re dropping off but picking up individual supplies – an otherwise $30 space heater, and now, it’s so valuable that we will have a team just picking up space heaters, you know, traversing the ice and half the city to get one.
CH: And, of course, Covid-19 preceded the winter storms – how much work you were doing to mobilize for that as well over the past year?
MM: A tremendous amount. We pivoted to basically food pantry deliveries and home deliveries. And that’s why we’ve been activated for what feels like three years, even though it’s really only been a year. But yeah, it’s been about 800,000 meals delivered, we’re partnered with the Houston Food Bank mapping out food insecurity requests. So we get a request from somebody without transportation or they’re immunocompromised or they can’t get to a pantry for XYZ reason. We have a volunteer go to the pantry, pick up food, and then drop it off at their door.
Let me back up some – the logistics of our hurricane rescue are not as complicated as you would think. It’s essentially: there’s flooding over here, you have a boat, go take the boat over there, help people in the flood. Versus a last-mile delivery setup is much more complicated, but I also think that pivoting to food insecurity and last-mile direct deliveries helped us in an operation like the freeze where it’s all about the logistics, where all of a sudden everything has become incredibly complicated.
CH: Now that you are on the other side of that emergency situation and getting close again to hurricane season and still in the midst of the pandemic, what does it look like day-to-day for you right now? Is there anything from the past couple of months that opened your eyes or changed your scope moving forward into hurricane season?
MM: I think in some ways we’re almost undergoing an identity crisis, where it’s like, are we disaster response organization or are we a food insecurity organization? Because, particularly with the food insecurity stuff, in a year we have helped more people, we’ve given more people food and water than we’ve ever helped rescue in four years. That’s about 90,000 versus rescues are about, I think, 56,000. But I still think at the end of the day, we’re talking about the same thing.
Pre-Covid, there were still a lot of issues with food insecurity, that was still a problem. Covid made it 10 times worse, and we’re still going to see those after effects for years to come. So our plan is to continue with that.
“The crises we face – it’s not just hurricanes anymore.”
At the end of the day, there are people who need help, and there are volunteers who can fulfill that request, and CSR can play a role in the middle in there and help make sure those interactions happen. You know, again, in blue skies, where we’re giving food and water to a bed-ridden 85-year-old or in the middle of a hurricane when somebody’s stuck on the roof of their house, those interactions need to be facilitated for the betterment of all of us. And I think it helps people, it inspires resiliency, there’s less suffering.
We are of multiple minds recently because the crises we face – it’s not just hurricanes anymore, now we’re in a pandemic, now we had a blizzard, and I think in every disaster organization, you’ve had to pivot. You’ve got to do something, it’s too big to not.
CH: I know there have been a number of mutual aid groups and other sorts of organizations that got started this year much like yours originally did. I’d love to hear any advice or thoughts you have for someone who might be in those early stages.
MM: Recently, a call got held between a couple academics, couple community activists, and some of the larger non-profits. We’re not on the call, I didn’t even know about it at the time, but I just get a message from somebody, like, ‘Do you consider yourself tired right now?’
This is, like, two weeks after the freeze. We’re sleeping around three hours a night. And what had happened was, on this call, they were talking about organization, they were talking about plans and all that, and somebody was just like, ‘No, the groups like CrowdSource Rescue, they’re the ones out there getting it done and they’re not tired.’ And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Yeah, we’re fucking exhausted.’
There’s just this thought of, ‘No, we don’t need to organize, let’s just get out there and do it.’ And you should get out there and do it. Sometimes, in the disaster world, we spend way too much time sitting around talking about what we should do instead of just getting out there and doing it. One time, I was on this email thread, it’s like 30 emails about, ‘We need to get food and water to this particular house,’ and we get in on the end of it, and it’s like, we’ll just go do it, we don’t need to sit there and talk 9,000 ways about which organizations should do it.
There’s this conflict between organization, communication, and rubber-meets-the-road work. And it’s very critical to find that balance – I think CSR remains nimble because we’re always looking at that balance.
CH: I feel like this really does touch on some of the tension that exists between all of these agencies, and for people either within those places or people who are just looking for help, I think it’s really helpful to understand how that balance works or sometimes maybe doesn’t work.
MM: You have to be very conscious about it, because CSR in 2017, there was no organization, there were no policies, there was no nothing, no training. There was just – here’s the map, go out and do it. Versus now, we do trainings, we have activation rules and policy rules and here’s how we do this in a storm, here’s a standard operating procedure.
The thing I always think is that each individual rule has a reason, but we never want to add so much policy and so much inflexibility in our organization that we then become the organizations that we set out being like, ‘Well, I don’t know about that, that’s a weird rule.’ You’re in crisis response, you have to be nimble, and you never want to over-strap yourself, but at the same time, it’s recognizing the policies and rules are there for a very good reason. We don’t want to get sued, or when you have more responsibility, there’s a certain standard of care that is expected.
So, yeah, I think you’re exactly right, there’s constant conflict and both sides need to recognize where it’s not, ‘Let’s just go out and just be grassroots – no organization, no communication,’ but at the same time, we can’t be at the other side. Each response model kind of has its own flaws, and it’s very tricky, but you can try and blend that as much as you can – being nimble while still being somewhat organized, communicating with your partners, and having a base-level standard of care.
“Just never lose the spirit of what you’re actually going for.”
Not that every grassroots organization should do this, by the way, because I think we cannot do it without the grassroots organizations, and we also cannot do it without the organizations like the Red Cross. CSR is never going to compete with some of these multi-million dollar or billion dollar agencies. I guess we all kind of have our role.
So anyway, the long rant is maybe, for the grassroots groups, don’t be afraid of some organization or some formalization. Just never lose the spirit of what you’re actually going for.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Thank you again to Matthew for taking the time to speak with me!
Calling all emergency management subscribers
… to weigh in on an article I’m working on! I’m looking to speak with emergency management professionals about their experience dealing with work-related burnout and any strategies they’re found useful to cope during particularly stressful times (such as all of 2020). Interested? Respond to this email.
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