How social tech is powering a Keys volunteer-relief effort

A month ago, Taylor Fontenot had never driven a boat. Then Hurricane Harvey hit South Texas, and he found himself pushing a kayak through neck deep murky water, helping his friends and neighbors escape the hurricane that was flooding their homes.

“From the first Sunday of Harvey to that Thursday… we got maybe three hours of sleep, constantly moving in water, getting people out (of flooded homes) non-stop.”

Now Taylor is sitting in a camouflage painted skiff next to his partner, Tom Bird. The vessel is tied to a dock at the Caribbean Club, Key Largo. The two 20-something Texans have been burnt to a crisp by the tropical sun, yet their only concern is on the mission at hand: helping people with hurricane recovery in the storm-ravaged Lower Keys.

Taylor and Tom joined hundreds of other volunteers – from as far as Portland and as near as Summerland Key – to help in Irma’s aftermath. They’re fueled by a combination of the zeal to do good, adrenaline addictions and a desire to help their neighbors get back on their feet. And they’re part of an impressive civilian relief effort that has benefitted from new technology and social media platforms.  

“Is this the first time a llama has been on one of your boats?”

It is Thursday, Sept. 14, the fifth day after Irma, and Taylor and Tom are putting their newfound nautical skills to use by transporting water, food, and fuel past the police checkpoint on Mile Marker 74, which effectively cut off the Lower Keys for a week after the storm.

Taylor’s vessel was bought with crowdsourced donations garnered from his Facebook friends. So was his gas. In fact, the charity of others has been keeping him going since the Sunday that Harvey Hit.  Since then, Taylor has become an unofficial disaster relief worker.  A GoFundMe page started by a friend and titled “Help Taylor save lives in Texas” raised more than $4,000 for his efforts in Houston. The page describes how Taylor lost his job at a gym after refusing to go back to work because he was so concentrated on saving lives.

“The response from the community (in Houston) was absolutely amazing. Everything we distributed, everything we used to help people with, all our meals, this boat, all of it was donated,” he explains.

Crowdsourced disaster relief is nothing new. It was used effectively during the response to the 2013 tsunamis in southeast Asia and Japan that killed more than 500,000 people. But getting hundreds of people to help map the small villages of a stricken area in order to coordinate rescue efforts is one thing. Quitting your day job and living off donations in order to function as a one-man charity is another.

And about that llama. The makers of Taylor’s boat, Waco Manufacturing, gave him a discount on the vessel when he told them it was going to be used for hurricane rescues. After saving a llama from Irma’s floodwaters in Naples, he took a picture and tagged the boatbuilders in a Facebook post for a clever form of product placement.

“I’ve never met any of these people.”

As Taylor anxiously waits for another captain to get ready so they can both make the 100-mile run down to Big Pine Key, radio messages buzz on his phone, which is opened to the walkie-talkie radio app Zello.

In the app’s radio chat-rooms, volunteer dispatchers like Surrey Westrupp are coordinating a massive logistical effort. Westrupp, a former queen of Key West Fantasy Fest (the community’s equivalent of Carnival) is now a horse groomer in Tennessee. Here, everyone is a volunteer.

The dispatchers have no formal training, but it’s their job to organize responses to people in distress. Much like a 911 operator, the dispatchers use Zello to talk to those in peril or to those who have lost touch with a relative or friend in a disaster situation and gather as much information as possible. They then pass that information along to volunteer disaster response teams. Some dispatchers also take it upon themselves to move relief supplies like water, non-perishable food, and fuel into affected areas.

The barrier to entry for being a dispatcher is low. Surrey was arrested for drug charges in Key West back in 2011. But running for Queen of Fantasy Fest taught her how to raise money and keep track of it, since the winner of that contest is always the biggest fundraiser.  Being a dispatcher lets her natural organizational talents shine.

“After the storm, I was coordinating distribution, and on day five after Irma all of a sudden I had six boats and two trucks to fill, and I was finagling people through checkpoints,” she explains.

“I’ve never met any of these people,” she says. Yet she moves them, and the desperately needed goods they carry, like pieces on a chessboard.

A hyper local connection:

By Friday, Sept. 15, Surrey has hooked up with Summerland Key resident TJ Cooper. Almost 1.5 tons of supplies, ferried on an old drug-smuggling skiff based out of Key Largo, and piloted by Captain James Wyse, are loaded onto the flatbed of TJ’s pickup among the debris of the devastated Dolphin Marina on Little Torch Key. TJ, who normally works as a boat captain and lobster fisherman, will spend the rest of the weekend distributing food and making wellness checks on those who stayed behind. His knowledge of the local terrain will prove invaluable to the civilian relief effort.

A resident of Summerland Key since 1999, the short, limber TJ describes his home idyllically: “We’re like a family down here. Everybody knows everybody.”

Cellular reception to the area has been restored by the time Wyse’s boat arrives at Little Torch Key, and TJ is anxiously waiting in his pickup truck for the supplies. Surrey has sent TJ a list of more than 20 houses to check up on and deliver supplies to.

She and the other dispatchers using Zello have also been using CrowdSource Rescue, a barely month old site that went viral during Hurricane Harvey. The website lets users create a “ticket” if they or someone they know are in trouble. Tickets are displayed on a Google Earth map, and are assigned a number, and a category, like “wellness check” or “medical emergency.” A brief line of text appears under the ticket explaining what the person needs.

One ticket that Surrey saw during after the storm read: “I am doing this on behalf of my father who we lost contact with during Irma and he stayed in his travel rv with low medications and barely any food and water. Has had strokes prior and is an alcoholic.”

Asked how he found himself acting as a volunteer relief worker, TJ says: “I put a call out (on Zello) saying I was in Big Pine, and I am free to go make a couple check-ups, and next thing I knew I had like 20 people looking you know, who wanted me to go look at their house and check up on things.”

TJ’s route will take him to the blown-out home of an elderly couple who has run out of food. He will feed them. TJ will check up on the pets, boats, roofs and windows of those who have yet to return to the Lower Keys. At one point, debris in the road will blow out two of TJ’s pick-up truck’s tires. Surrey will mobilize a four-man search party to find him and patch the flats in under three hours.

By Saturday, the dispatchers will have taken the operation to the air, commandeering the derelict Summerland airport with the help of Aerobridge, a disaster response group. Dozens of small planes will land, filling a hangar with water, food, charcoal, and anything else those who passed through the eye of Irma might need.

The checkpoint will come down Sunday morning, and Keys residents will start streaming back to their homes to inspect the damage. Taylor Fontenot will be stationed at the Hyatt on Marathon, handing out supplies to residents returning to homes without power, and in many cases, roofs. Surrey Westrupp will have helped organize and supply an additional seven locations where locals will find free food, water, and even gas.

TJ Cooper, however, will be focused on the timeline beyond the immediate recovery. “We’re looking at a year or two before things get completely back to normal.”

By Mario Ariza
Mario Alejandro Ariza is a Dominican immigrant who grew up in Miami. A Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Miami’s Master in Fine Arts program, he is currently working on a nonfiction book about South Florida and Sea Level Rise. On a day with a good swell and northeasterly breezes, you’ll find him surfing on South Beach (yes, there’s actually surfing Miami.)