It’s been a harrowing six months since Hurricane Maria hit Freddie Rodriguez’s small town of Juana Díaz near Puerto Rico’s southern coast. An infection from an exposed nail in the storm’s rubble put Rodriguez in the hospital for a stretch. Eventually he returned home to find that a tree had crushed his roof. That’s when community news correspondent Nashaly Alvarado encountered Rodriguez. For the past few months she’s been collecting hurricane recovery news stories and sharing them through “Information as Aid,” a social media-based recovery-focused news feed.
Alvarado’s story about Rodriguez ended with a quote: “Lo unico que pido es ayuda para remover el arbol.” (“The only thing I ask is help removing the tree.”) This hyperlocal story got more than a million views, and put a spotlight on the ongoing issues facing many Puerto Ricans as they fight their way back towards normalcy.
Rafael Torres read the story and, like many, responded with a comment on Facebook. Unlike all the other readers, Torres also showed up at Rodriguez’s home with a chainsaw. He and Rodriguez removed the tree and fixed his roof. An online story had turned into offline action.
Journalist Justin Auciello was in San Juan when Maria hit; the hurricane left five feet of water in his house two blocks from the ocean. After securing a place nearby for him and his wife to stay, Auciello hit the streets of San Juan and rural areas surrounding the city, to see how people around the island were faring without electricity, water, and other basic resources. He also wanted to figure out how they were getting information about their situations. The answers became more dire as he got further from San Juan.
To document the situation, Auciello began working on an information ecosystem assessment with Internews. The resulting document showed a desperate need for recovery-focused news and information island-wide, and for ways for communities to share their circumstances and questions.
The ensuing Information as Aid project is a partnership between Nethope and Internews, managed by Auciello. After Maria struck, Nethope responded to provide online connectivity for organizations and isolated communities. Internews joined the effort to ensure that once people got back online, verified information about the response and recovery could be easily found.
Information as Aid publishes a variety of recovery news and information on a dedicated Facebook page, which has become a primary platform for more than a third of Puerto Rico’s three million residents. The unique service connects affected communities with responding organizations and volunteers, and provides a platform and amplification for the voices of affected community members.
Twelve local citizen journalists from around the island serve as the “eyes and ears” for island residents. These community correspondents were recruited and trained in basic newsgathering and community engagement techniques by the Information as Aid team, and they then began gathering information and producing reports. Their reports are first shared in a private Facebook group, where an editor reviews and offers suggestions. When ready, the posts are published to the public “Information as Aid – Puerto Rico” page.
In just a few months, the Information as Aid team has reached nearly half of the population of Puerto Rico on Facebook (more than 1.5 million), and averages a reach of up to one million people each week.
Information as Aid readers are not just consumers of valuable recovery information – they are also participants. The page is a vibrant community of daily interactions and engagement. Posts are about everything from how to conserve water, to recovery messages from local mayors, to stories about community members looking for help to repair homes. 22 year-old correspondent Alvarado says this work has given her an opportunity to help her community recover. “I’m creating new experiences and creating new knowledge,” she said.
Coverage from rural correspondents has helped struggling families receive much needed attention and assistance. In one instance a citizen reporter heard from community members about a man who lost his house in the hurricane. He was living in his car, and was attacked and robbed one night. Community members who read Information as Aid’s reporting reached out to the man with food and clothing, and a social worker arranged with the island’s Department of Housing to provide him with temporary housing.
Auciello has previous experience in community collaboration and reporting in disaster situations. He led a massive community reporting and organizing effort in New Jersey that spanned Superstorm Sandy’s impact, response, and recovery. Justin’s hyperlocal news site Jersey Shore Hurricane News (JSHN) continues to provide “news you can use” related to the recovery along the Jersey shore, and also general information that helps local communities build up resilience. Through this work he has partnered with Internews’ Listening Post Collective to expand his audience reach.
Auciello is taking the JSHN experience and applying it to Puerto Rico. The objectives are enabling communities to get the right information at the right time, and providing community-generated data and news to guide targeted actions by local leaders and humanitarian actors.
“I know first-hand the desperation of looking for information during a disaster – how do I help my family, find drinking water, save my house from flooding?” Auciello said. “I never want people to feel forgotten or suffer for something so basic as lack of information.”
Auciello says the Information as Aid Puerto Rico news feed has more than just vital information, it’s also intended to instill some hope and inspiration for the millions of locals still figuring out their next steps post-Maria. For success, he recommends a balanced approach of hard news, soft news, actionable journalism, and some inspirational examples of recovery. The growing audience for his page suggests this formula is a successful, and needed, effort.
“Journalism ultimately should be about empowering people and providing a service. It’s incredibly vital to provide people with actionable information to make the right decision at the right time,” says Auciello.
(Banner photo: The Information as Aid Citizen Reporters team. Coverage from our rural correspondents has helped struggling families across Puerto Rico receive much needed attention and assistance.)