Community Resiliency in 2011 Tunkhannock, PA Flooding

Steve McHenry, Director of the Susquehanna and Wyoming Counties (PA) Chapter of the American Red Cross chapter, discussed his role in responding to the catastrophic flood beginning on August 28, 2011 as a result of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee over a several week period.  Although the storms created damage throughout the East Coast of the United States, the interview focused on the impact of the disaster on the small Pennsylvania town of Tunkhannock (population 1,764) and the surrounding area.  McHenry also made some observations about the Red Cross chapter’s neutral role on the well-water contamination controversy in Dimock, PA saying that the topic is “now just down to the legal system”.

McHenry described the traditional government-centric command and control response to the area’s flooding crisis.  Emergency responders and the Red Cross faced significant challenges to get to flood victims with roads, in some cases, being washed away.  He described an incident where Red Cross volunteers finally got through to a community only to find that the local volunteer fire department was already feeding up to 900 meals.  He called the resiliency of the people “phenomenal” saying he could describe hundreds of examples of everyday citizens stepping up to help others.  He partly attributed this response to the rural character of the victims who exhibit these qualities of everyday through self-reliance and occasional neighborly reciprocal assistance.  In times of local disasters, these individuals spontaneously work together to address immediate threats to life followed by stability, recovery and restoration.  McHenry believes that the community has “only gotten stronger” because of the disaster and expressed optimism that on-going planning efforts will improve community resiliency in the future.

Even though he believed that not many people accessed Twitter during the disaster, Facebook was used extensively by the local Red Cross and United Way to provide information and request donations.  McHenry posted on Facebook their need to have dozens of blankets from the shelters washed to be re-used later that evening.  He was stunned by the response when several individuals showed up in less than ten minutes to take the blankets home to wash and dry.  However, the nature of this disaster necessitated that electricity outages inhibited social media communications until the power was restored.

The American Red Cross always recommends that residents have emergency preparedness kits available in the event of  disaster.  Given the importance of communications through social media today, do you think they should recommend the inclusion of an extra phone, tablet, and laptop batteries in the event of a power outage?

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About kevdesouza

Dr Kevin C. Desouza is the director of the Metropolitan Institute and an associate professor at the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech. Before joining Virigina Tech, he was an associate professor at the University of Washington (UW) Information School and held adjunct appointments in the UW’s College of Engineering and at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. At UW, he co-founded and directed the Institute for Innovation in Information Management (I3M); founded the Institute for National Security Education and Research, an inter-disciplinary, university-wide initiative, in August 2006 and served as its director until February 2008; and was an affiliate faculty member of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy. He holds a visiting professorship at the Faculty of Economics, University of Ljubljana. He has held visiting positions at the Center for International Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, the Groupe Sup de Co Montpellier (GSCM) Business School in France, and the Accenture Institute for High Business Performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA). In the private sector, he founded the Engaged Enterprise and its think-tank, the Institute for Engaged Business Research. Desouza has authored, co-authored, and/or edited nine books and has published more than 125 articles in prestigious practitioner and academic journals. His work has also been featured by a number of publications such as Sloan Management Review, Harvard Business Review, Businessweek, Washington Internet Daily, Computerworld, and Human Resource Management International Digest. He has been interviewed by the press on outlets such as Voice of America, Manager (Slovenia), among others. He is frequently an invited speaker on a number of cutting-edge business and technology topics for national and international, industry, and academic audiences.

6 thoughts on “Community Resiliency in 2011 Tunkhannock, PA Flooding

  1. Social media is a quick, relatively reliable, and accessible resource that can be leveraged effectively in order to combat various natural disasters. Communities and localities are connected, not just be geographic locations- but by shared interests and common goals as shared via Facebook and other social networking outlets. In this instance, however, it seems that Facebook merely accelerated the response of an already resilient community, rather than directly spurred the response of its members. Therefore, requiring individuals to have an extra tablet, iPhone, batteries, or a Facebook account may be a good idea, but not necessarily mandated.
    The rural, self-sufficient nature of this community is reason for its resilient and effective manner in which it dealt with this potentially devastating disaster. The “long term recovery committee” which meets regularly, is composed of normal citizens without “expertise” or crisis management skills. The Red Cross, the United Way, Wal-Mart, Lowes, Churches, etc. all contributed via donating their own available resources. The problem, primarily, was efficiently coordinating the response efforts and allocating the resources in the most effective way possible. They were simply discovering the needs of one another- and met those needs. The FEMA requirements were cumbersome, daunting, and humbling. Thus, the first line of defense is at the smaller levels: in families, neighborhoods, churches, communities, schools, etc. Again, their self-reliant nature was the driving force in their successful response.
    “The core to surviving,” mentioned McHenry, “is truly the heart of the people.” Those community members gave thanklessly, without expectation of anything in return. Comparing that to a larger-scale crisis in a large-scale city like New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina completely devastated the city. The large population, varying interests, and “every-man-for-himself” mentality, contributed to the chaos and confusion of that crisis. Smaller communities, although they lack the resources larger communities have, possess a greater ability to sustain themselves and deal with crisis because of their connectedness and willingness to help.

  2. Before getting to the main question posed by this blog, I want to take this opportunity to address the diminished capabilities of the Red Cross. “He described an incident where Red Cross volunteers finally got through to a community only to find that the local volunteer fire department was already feeding up to 900 meals.” The above statement stood out to me as I was reading the blog and I wanted to address the new challenges the ARC faces since their reorganization of last year. The ARC’s budget was cut and they have had to continue to serve the communities with fewer resources and less volunteers, thus decreasing their value to affected communities. During some discussions I have had with emergency managers from Fairfax and Prince William Counties, they have expressed their diminished confidence in the services provided by the ARC. The ARC is technically obligated to provide certain services to these jurisdictions through Memorandum of Agreements (MOA) that are in place, but the emergency managers of these jurisdictions don’t rely solely on the ARC to provide the services. The emergency managers’ attitudes are that if ARC assistance arrives it would be supplemental to the efforts already in place by the jurisdiction.
    During disasters, a lot of emphasis is put on family and individual preparedness kits. The FEMA-sponsored website,, has excellent guides on how people can prepare their emergency disaster kits to include special items that could be appropriate for different situations such as when your family includes infants, elderly, special need people, etc. explicitly explains that the emergency kit must contain items that would help people deal with potential weeklong interruptions to basic services such as electricity, gas, water, sewage treatment and telephone. does place emphasis on needs when power outage occurs. People who require power for medical or other assistive devices should consider how they will maintain the use of these devices if there is a loss of power. Keep extra batteries for small devices (i.e. hearing aids or cell phones) and consider obtaining and learning how to use a generator for home use and carrying a charger when away from home, especially when loss of power may jeopardize health or safety. ( doesn’t explicitly mention the social media aspects when recommending extra batteries for phones, but a functioning smartphone would allow people to participate in social media during power outages. Perhaps, ARC emergency preparedness kits can take an example from the FEMA website and recommend tools and methods for the continuation of operations for items of importance for people to deal with during a power outage.

  3. I grew in Northeast PA; Tunkhannock is about 45 minutes from my hometown. Flooding was worse than the 1972 Agnes Flood and the comparisons were continually made on Facebook during Hurricane Irene. I watched it all play out on Facebook as I was unable to head back to help out.
    Some areas have already thrown in the towel. Some residents are waiting still for the federal government to purchase their homes right on the river so the closest homes are not directly on the riverbanks.
    Facebook accounts – as mentioned in the video – were created to provide information about the need for supplies. Updates were provide not only by the owner of the account, but by posts from others asking for assistance or providing information where help was needed. I don’t know if my county’s Red Cross or the county had their own Facebook pages, but I followed the initial pages which were set up as the storm was happening. It was an interesting way to watch everything happen.
    People were posting pictures on Facebook which enabled me to watch the flooding as I didn’t have access to the news back there. The communities came together to assist each other. These are small communities; some had populations under 1,000 residents. It is definitely not the size of New Orleans or New York City. But it exemplified a sense of community where families were helping other families. While you will always have people complain about response and recovery efforts and the complaints they did not get enough help, for the most part, the communities helped each other.
    I was back in northeast PA a few weeks after the storms and flooding. It was incredible. I drove through one of the small communities and the community had tables of food outside as everyone was helping each other clean out the homes and businesses. It was great to see the community come together. Businesses were closed due to the damage, but those that were open were providing food and supplies to the workers.
    I find it interesting Steve McHenry said he hopes the organizations come together afterwards to continue to build their relationships. Has he facilitated the efforts to spread out the training to ensure everyone is better prepared? I’d be curious to see what steps he has taken no only for the Red Cross but how he might be incorporating other organizations so they can train together and be better prepared to respond together and better support the community.

  4. Absolutely, extra phone, table, and laptop batteries should be included in emergency preparedness kits. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere and all you need is to find a McDonald’s or Starbucks operating on a generator and you’re up and running. Following recent disasters, we have seen how vital our smartphones and devices are to communications. Cell reception seems to fail first due to either damage or an overloaded network, thus, leaving social media and the internet the best and only means of communication. Furthermore, social media has brought together entire groups of people to respond to specific needs. Advancements in technology and the way we communicate have allowed social media to play integral roles in emergency management and response to disasters. Individuals thousands of miles away from disasters can now aggregate their shared expertise via technology to help on the ground first responders. The examples of CrisisCamp and the Ushahidi team come to mind. Briefly, CrisisCamp brought together technology volunteers to build tools, search and translate data and solve unique challenges brought forth by the crisis. Projects supporting the Haiti earthquake included expanding long distance Wi-Fi connectivity, a mobile translation application specifically for the locals, and using other technology communities to create post-earthquake maps because the extensive damage made the pre-earthquake maps obsolete. For example, at CrisisCamp Boston, a team of volunteers helped the Ushahidi team (a non-profit software company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping) repurpose an existing “RT” ticket tracking system to help improve workflow information to be mapped in Ushahidi system. What took a four-person team to produce 30-40 messages in a day, using RT system, the Ushahidi team was able post 150 new reports to increase efficiency of the workflow.
    I also believe these types of initiatives aid in community resiliency because it creates a lager, global community tasked with specific goals and focused deadlines. As seen in CrisisCamp, citizens in the community need not even be in the same city or country to belong and aid in community resilience. These communities are created by shared skills, and they pool together their collective knowledge to create unimaginable outcomes. No longer are we bound by our proximity, finding a community with common and shared knowledge and skills are no longer limited to our immediate surroundings. Finding a community where one “fits in” and is accepted is only a mouse click away. No matter what happens in one specific disaster area, the World Wide Web will always be online. Not being able to tap into this resource because your battery is dead seems silly and a complete void of preparedness.

  5. Hurricane Irene caused damage up and down the east coast in August 2011. The small town of Tunkannock PA was flooded and social networks were used in a traditional manner similar to web sites. A Facebook site asked for donations to help in disaster relief. The high level of first response was listed on Facebook as well. One first responder organization came upon a neighborhood and found another first response organization already providing assistance.
    This is an opportunity to use social media and networks with different organizations at a more mature level. Traditionally first responders have different two way radios that do not talk to each other. Further, emails do not go out because that is not what people think of in a traditional command and control structure of a local government. It is phone calls and two-way radio communications to fire, ambulance, police, and disaster relief non-governmental agencies. This is a lot of one agency-to-one agency communications. You have to change channels, or radios, to talk to the next organization. The communications are short due to the need to have communication channel availability for many different organizations. The phone systems are only useful if the lines are not cut, the cell towers are up, and people are at their phones.
    If you setup communications for first responders to go to a private shared web site for disaster recovery there would be a central repository in the cloud that is not affected by local outages. Personal and work email, personal and work phones would get messages to respond, and to deploy to separate neighborhoods. You could respond via SMS text, tweets, email, or private web portal posting. This would be low cost to implement. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to build your own system, you utilize cloud based disaster management shared services for a fraction of the cost. The different organizations, paid and volunteer, government and non-government, could select their own devices (bring your own devices BYOD). This would allow for each organization to have control of their resources, and still participate in the response network. This could prevent organizations from overlapping where they deploy. In the past ambulances would call on the radio and tell their dispatcher where they were. The dispatcher would then update a computerized map. Today you can have GPS built-in to every commercial vehicle, and it is in every personal cell phone. A message could go out from the central command and control. This site of commanders could be anywhere because the collaboration systems are completely mobile. That allows for you not to be tied to a particular building or vehicle or agency.
    Cloud based shared services for disaster management and recovery is the future of bringing together volunteers, paid staff, and the public at a fraction of the cost of traditional services. The return is several orders of magnitude greater than the investment because you would get near real-time information of locations, status, and resource levels.

  6. In a perfect world, I think that people should have extra batteries to be able to keep their mobile devices up and running. Constant and dependable communication, especially in times of an emergency, is critical. The reality of this is that many people have a hard time keeping water, first aid kits, and regular batteries in an emergency preparedness kit. Many people throw candles and matches in a drawer hoping that the biggest disaster would simply leave them without power for 20 – 30 minutes.
    A possible solution could be the inclusion of a “backup mobile power and battery charger” like the one shown here: They make several versions of these chargers that have the ability to power up and/or charge many different types of mobile devices. This seems to be more practical because it could accommodate more than one device and would probably appeal to people more than purchasing several different extra batteries for their devices. Some people change cell phones annually along with their other devices so the idea of constantly purchasing device specific batteries becomes financially burdensome.
    This could also become a solution for agencies responsible for emergency management. Keeping a cache of these types of devices could help first responders, volunteers, and citizens during long term events since they could be distributed for use on a wide variety of devices.
    To touch on emergency preparedness kits, they are only valuable if they are include necessary items and are readily available at the times that they are needed. Some people that possess these preparedness items have them stored all over the place. This is not convenient if you need to grab them and go in a hurry. I keep a disaster kit at home and at work which is in a container that can be easily picked up and carried. I also keep a “go” kit that I carry everywhere which also means it is in my vehicle if needed. I may be poked fun at for always carrying my “satchel”, but it is always available.
    Lastly, McHenry talked about gathering support over social media quickly to have blankets washed and re-used. The social media can work well to gather support quickly in time of need, but we shouldn’t let that make us become complacent. Preparing and preplanning should continue, and with lessons learned from this, we should be making more networks of partnerships and volunteers in advance in order to have a more efficient coordinated response should this or another event happen again.

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