They came in three. Hurricane’s Irma, Jose and Maria battered their way through the Caribbean and Southern Florida last summer, with 185mph winds causing an estimated $67 billion worth of damage. Many homes, schools and hospitals were ripped apart, with communities working desperately hard to ensure people remained safe. One important way of ensuring people were prepared was getting potentially life-saving information to those in the path of the storms.
That’s why U-Report, UNICEF’s messaging platform, gave updates on the situation and advice on how to stay safe to thousands of U-Reporters. Within days, 25,000 people accessed this information using Facebook and Viber Messengers.
However, as the scale of the storms became apparent, it was clear to UNICEF staff that more was needed.
UNICEF recruited volunteers using the UN Online Volunteer platform run by United Nations Volunteers programme (UNV) and trained them to respond to messages via U-Report. Seven volunteers were recruited and responded to an incredible 8,000 messages in 21 days.
How important was this information? According to a 15-year-old U-Reporter in the Dominican Republic, it was critical:
“I don’t know how to explain myself, but in my 15 years this is the first hurricane I’ve ever been through, and it really scared me,” she said. “But I don’t know how to tell you that the information you sent me was some of the best information I got, and I shared it with my whole family by telephone.”
We caught up with some of the great volunteers hear about their experiences:
“There were times when they arrived in great numbers. I felt a need to make sure I got them the information they needed to survive when people were asking it was important for me to answer. I was good in my bed and they weren’t.”
At times, he said, it could be very hard to see the problems people were going through. “I was seeing messages like ‘my house was destroyed’ or ‘my brother is in hospital’. These were the worst because I had a feeling of powerlessness. I’d share these with the skype group we had and the regional lead would help answer these.”
But, he knew his efforts were worthwhile. “I felt really good because I was doing something useful. Maybe one of my messages helped a young person or family to stay safe.”
“It was intense,” said Naroutiatou, who is currently studying in Norway. “The times questions are received can be late due to the time zones, but the most difficult part was reading the messages from young people wondering where they would eat or sleep. But it felt great to help provide information and I hope it provided a comfort to them.”
“I also learned my limits and saw other people’s opinions on the issues. That was a good learning experience,” she said. “In the news there’s not as much detail versus reading it yourself, and it makes you appreciate what you have because tomorrow it can be swept away.”
Like the other volunteers, it was an unforgettable experience for Nouriatou. “It humbles you to see it. For them I hope it provided some comfort. People were grateful and someone said ‘thanks you for making me feel important’.”
She also came across tough questions but knew that was part of her role.“Some of the questions asked by the U-Reporters can be hard to read. But this is why I applied: to help people.”
For all the volunteers, working with U-Report was a truly memorable experience because their work helped to protect and save lives. Asked if she would do it again, Emmanuelle did not hesitate: “Of course I would do it again!”
Innovative, people-powered solutions like U-Report and online volunteers demonstrate how people can come together anywhere, and at anytime, to help those most in need. “Even from home you can change the world and make a difference,” said Loïc. And these volunteers certainly made a difference.
Find out more about how UNICEF worked to protect families during Hurricane Irma: https://blogs.unicef.org/blog/hurricane-irma-u-report-works-protect-children/