After Irene: How a Hyperlocal Is Helping

In the Catskills, the Watershed Post is coordinating relief efforts

In the Catskills region of upstate New York, where flooding from Hurricane Irene wiped out entire towns, a hyperlocal site called the Watershed Post is helping to coordinate relief efforts and trying to connect people who are stranded. This local news web site defines its coverage by the bucolic area surrounding New York City’s watershed. But the area is a “news desert” too, and the damage and destruction people are experiencing has the editors of the site, Julia Reischel and Lissa Harris, scrambling to keep up.

Watershed Post is using a live blog not only to aggregate official updates, but as a forum for witnesses to share information. It’s a service that was desperately needed in the severely damaged, and isolated, area of the Catskills. Residents are using it to find loved ones, or announce people’s location to family members, while also warning readers of bad roads, closed bridges, and other hazards. The blog went live on the site Saturday night and has become a go-to source for many local citizens; multiple posts are coming through every minute.

The blog is being run on an advertiser-supported free live-blogging service called CoverItLive, but the Watershed Post’s version has been so inundated with posts that the ads were interrupting user access. At the request of Reischel and Harris, CoverItLive suspended all advertising for the Watershed Post’s live-blog today.

Meanwhile, Reischel says, they are getting an avalanche of phone calls from area residents who are asking the Watershed Post to help them get a rescue team out to a loved one’s house. “We’re sort of becoming this relief organization,” says Reischel, who, along with Harris, has been constantly working the phone—providing locations to emergency responders, letting them in on reports of people stranded, and updating local residents with real time information on the sort of details that come up when an entire area is flooded. For example, the problem of washed away medications was the subject of a recent post. An area pharmacy offered to deliver prescriptions, and a local physician, Dr. Holly Llobet, offered to write and fill them: “Anyone who needs medication, whet (sic) they’ve lost it in the flood or bec (sic) the CVS is no longer there, I am donating my time to write prescriptions,” said Llobet in a phone conversation with Harris, which was then posted on the blog.

The Watershed Post—covering five counties and fifty towns in the Catskills since last year—is run from Reischel and Harris’s home, and Resichel says they are staying in rather than going out to report, not only because it’s dangerous to drive, but because they “have so much information coming in, and most of it desperately needs organization,” says Harris. “We feel that we are the most useful here.”

Reischel says while the Post is pretty well informed on the communities that are flooded but have power, she is trying to focus on areas that do not yet have electricity. She says the people who have made it out of these no-phone or no-Internet areas are reaching out to the Watershed Post, “frantically requesting information. They feel cut off.”

The biggest need lies in coordinating people who are stranded. “I cannot stress enough, scores of people are stranded,” says Reischel. “They are isolated in their homes and they are terrified.”

Fore more on the Watershed Post, read CJR’s News Frontier profile.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , ,