University of Maryland

College of Agriculture & Natural Resources

Extension Network Pays Off in Sandy’s Wake

University of Maryland Extension educators cross disciplines and state lines to direct relief effort
Flooding outside the Worcester County Extension office following Hurricane Sandy
Image Credit: 
Megan O'Neil

Sometimes it truly is all about who you know. Luckily for the town of Crisfield, one University of Maryland Extension (UME) educator knew the right person to call at just the right time.

Located on the Tangier Sound, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay, the small town of Crisfield in Somerset County is known for its picturesque setting, its seafood and for its distinction of being the southernmost town in Maryland.

After Hurricane Sandy blew through on October 29, it was also a town in need of some help.

Megan O’Neil, a University of Maryland Extension finance educator who lives in neighboring Worcester County but also serves Somerset and Wicomico counties, was closely monitoring Facebook feeds all along the east coast as Sandy raged ashore.  “I definitely fully and completely stepped out of my role (as financial educator) into more of an emergency management volunteer,” O’Neil said.

She noticed the following post from Crisfield volunteer coordinator John Phoebus’ Facebook page:

“NEED IMMEDIATE HELP IN CRISFIELD MD. HURRICANE HELP NEEDED : can you help? Who knows how to integrate Google Maps API with a blog website so we can start pinpointing where people need help in Crisfield for the volunteer effort? I need a volunteer programmer.”

“I thought, ‘I know I can’t go there physically but maybe I can help virtually,” said O’Neil.

O’Neil immediately reached out to contacts she’d developed through eXtension.org – an online network of extension specialists and services from land grant institutions throughout the country. One of those contacts was Shane Bradt, a geospatial specialist with University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. Within minutes, Bradt was on the phone with O’Neil offering to set up an online map to help direct volunteers where services were needed most.

Throughout the frantic evening, O’Neil and volunteer coordinator John Phoebus exchanged the following text messages:


Megan (8:50 p.m.): “I have a GPS Extension expert imma bout to fwd your plea… communicating with 5 people.”

John (8:51 p.m.): “Oh awesome! I’ve got a hundred volunteers and need to coordinate the efforts.”

Megan (9:29 p.m.): “I have a lead in New Hampshire stay tuned”

Megan (9:39 p.m.): “Shane from NH calling you.”

John (10:06 p.m.): “He just did. This is amazing. You’re amazing. Thank you!”
           

Megan (10:07 p.m.): “Shane says, ‘And if I can help more and you need to get in touch with me directly at some point, feel free to call my cell phone. Don’t worry about waking me up.’ He means it. I promise!

Megan (10:09 p.m.): “Extension is not just cookies and cows anymore.”

John (10:13 p.m.): “You’re making a believer out of me.”

Megan (10:14 p.m.): “!”

Mere minutes after getting in touch with John in Crisfield, Bradt was able to remotely set up a website with an embedded map to help volunteers pinpoint problem areas and delegate manpower.

“I told him: ‘That is just beautiful,’” O’Neil recalls.

Meanwhile, O’Neil’s home Extension office in Worcester County was completely flooded in Sandy’s wake. She and other county Extension employees will not be able to return to the building and will have to look for a new permanent place to work. In the meantime, they’ll just continue to do one of the things they do best: Improvise.

“We’re problem solvers. I mean, our slogan is ‘Solutions in Your Community.’ You just do whatever you have to to find those solutions,” O’Neil said.

Contact Sara Gavin at 301-405-9235 or sgavin@umd.edu.

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