Ben Smilowitz, a student at the University of Connecticut Law School, never figured he’d start an organization monitoring disaster relief.
That’s what happened, though, after he volunteered to help Hurricane Katrina victims and witnessed large gaps in response firsthand.
As a first-time Red Cross volunteer placed in charge of managing a high-volume service center on the Mississippi coast, Smilowitz would receive requests for emergency response or relief—needs as simple as ice or mosquito control and as tricky as medical attention, food stamps and housing.
He couldn’t get the relief organization to respond.
Despite the fact that Smilowitz was placed in charge of distributing thousands of relief checks, he could not obtain computers or a tech team to automate even some of the recordkeeping. Worse, volunteer nurses, medics and other health professionals were stymied by Red Cross insurance policies.
Result: Smilowitz launched the Disaster Accountability Project.
The group tracks reports of service gaps through a telephone hotline and issues updates on its blog at www.disasteraccountability.com. Its work has extended through hurricanes Gustav and Ike. After Ike, the group received nearly 100 hotline calls and recommended changes to the Federal Emergency Agency.
On his web site, Smilowitz traces how a feedback loop deserves credit for improvements in emergency response between an Air Florida crash outside Washington, D.C., 27 years ago and a US Airways water landing in New York earlier this year.
The law student plans to keep up his project. “I have a lot of convincing to do,” he says.
Lesson: Ask how you can make your organization more responsive through a feedback loop of information and accountability.
— Adapted from “The watchdog,” Dave Thomas, The National Jurist.