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The Post and Courier, December 12th, 2015

Dec. 12, 2015, midnight · 0 comments

Trident United Way’s CharityTracker system comes to rescue in October flooding

By Ira Dreyfuss

Special to The Post and Courier

Charleston, South Carolina

Dec 12 2015 12:01 am

Carol Mullinax and her four children had done what they could by themselves to get through the damage from the thousand-year rains and flooding that started in October.

But when the rural Berkeley County family had to abandon their home, they received assistance from faith-based and other agencies in the tri-county area whose use of online coordination of disaster response has made them national pacesetters.

Mullinax and her family in Cross got food and a place to stay until their doublewide mobile home was dry enough to move back into and they could start cleanup and repairs.

Their needs were logged into the CharityTracker system hosted by Trident United Way. The system lets an agency operate a secure registry of people who come to it in need, keep track of the aid it gives, coordinate help with other agencies when a client’s need is beyond its capacity and spot duplication of services or if there are clients who might abuse their generosity.

“I am impressed with the way in which the Charleston community and other communities have been using that type of software,” said Dr. Katherine Rowan, an expert in crisis communication and a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“It looks like the software and effective use of it is allowing use of resources and anticipating needs that we simply wouldn’t see without hard work and coordination, and this impressive software,” she said.

Online coordination

How Mullinax and her family were helped marks a major change from the scatter-shot approach that still characterizes much of the nation’s volunteer-based responses to disaster.

While major organizations such as the American Red Cross have the staff and software to coordinate their work, smaller groups and individual volunteers generally do what they can with what they have as far as they can see the need.

Cases like this are where online coordination shines, said L. Ron Pringle, executive director of Tricounty Family Ministries, a large ecumenical organization that provides food, shelter and other assistance to people in need.

“An organization out in rural communities was able to post information,” he said. “Any organization that’s able to meet that need can contact them. If they need volunteers, they can ask for that, and volunteers are dispatched,” Pringle said.

Mullinax first tried to stay in her home, even though the flooding was so bad that her 16-year-old twin daughters had to wear garbage bags up to their thighs just to walk to the school bus stop. But after November’s rains added to the damage, and her leaking roof began to make the electrical wiring wet, the family had to leave home.

Mullinax visited Cross Elementary School, where her two younger children attend.

Amy Forte, a counselor with the dropout-prevention nonprofit Communities in Schools, contacted Trident United Way, which had previous data on Mullinax in CharityTracker.

Trident United Way provided funds for Tricounty Ministries as it allocated money for temporary housing, so the family got temporary places to stay, with this aid and food aid tracked in the database.

Help in a crisis

The Mullinax family was far from alone in needing help. At Cordesville First Baptist Church in Moncks Corner, Anne Turner volunteers with the church’s food pantry. Soon after the flooding started, the church faced a needs crisis. Pastor Alan Bagwell “had people stranded knocking on the door, so we had people sleeping in the church,” she said.

Because flood victims who came to the food pantry were entered into the database, they could get help well beyond what her small pantry could offer.

“Some of them needed assistance with power bills or with repairs or different things like that,” Turner said. “That’s where Tricounty Family Ministries and other organizations like that have been able to help. We have tried to help people in the local community with power bills, but financially, we can feed a lot more people with what we could pay one person’s power bill.”

Tracking cases

Using a shared program has another advantage because it discourages fraud and abuse of the system, Turner said. For instance, if a person gets groceries from one food pantry one day and shows up the next day at another, a staffer at the second pantry will see the record of the earlier visit.

“We will tell them, ‘If you went to a food pantry yesterday, today is not an emergency,’” she said.

Trident United Way has more than 300 agencies and faith-based groups using CharityTracker.

In addition to clients picked up directly from these member organizations, people in need who call Trident United Way’s 2-1-1 call center could be directed to agencies that use CharityTracker.

The 2-1-1 call center alone fielded more than 2,800 requests from the tri-county area for help in the 30 days after the storm hit, Trident United Way reported.

Trident United Way had experience using the system, which it brought to the community about eight years ago as a shared point at which agencies could work together on clients’ non-disaster needs, said Cathy Easley, director of integrated community systems for the social services agency.

When disaster struck, staffers at Trident United Way and the agencies already knew how to coordinate using the software, and were ready to go.

“When we realized how bad it was, part of what CharityTracker has is a bulletin feature, and we began sending bulletins saying please let us know what were people needing and what were the agencies needing to serve them,’’ Easley said.

Rowan warns that coastal areas can expect to use online disaster response again.

“With climate change and other factors, we have increasing threats for a variety of extreme weather events,” she said. “There is no question that we need to be coordinated and smart about how we respond.”

Here's a link to the original article.

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