BOSTON (CBS) – Just weeks after she graduated from Harvard University and returned home to Monson, Massachusetts, an EF3 tornado ravaged Caitria O’Neill’s hometown. Her family’s house was among the casualties directly in the tornado’s path.
In the nights following the twister, O’Neill and her sister Morgan found themselves sleeping on the floor of a shelter and showering in public school bathrooms. They watched as aid organizations came and left, but there was still a lot of work to be done.
“The large aid organizations don’t stay,” Caitria explained, even if people are still in need of things.
A few months later, Hurricane Irene followed, with much of the same result.
The O’Neills saw volunteers wanting to help and donate, but running into organizational and logistical hurdles. After speaking with people in other disaster ridden towns, Caitria O’Neill realized she could create “a tool for tasks of organizing” in times of need.
She launched Recovers.org.
The local start-up has already been hugely successful, and is one of 125 finalists in this year’s MassChallenge, a competition that awards promising entrepreneurs world-class mentorship, free office space, access to funding, media and more.
“We needed a way to add infrastructure to the community response,” recalled O’Neill.
The O’Neill sisters began to build an online recovery network that would fix, “the logistical circus of people trying to help.”
They tapped Alvin Liang to create the software side of the website, while Caitria and Morgan focused more on the business aspect.
The idea was for a site that allows individual towns facing natural disasters to set up their own databases through a “TownName.recovers.org” URL format.
In a matter of hours, once the site is set up, outside individuals can post donations and can offer to volunteer. Victims can respond to offers or post their needs.
“There were $30,000 worth of donations within the first four days,” she said.
O’Neill notes that after the initial buzz, interest fades. But Recovers.org’s database stays active and allows affected people to continue to post needs and responses.
“This site gives people the tools to recover since the database stores all previous offers of donations,” she said.
O’Neill credits MassChallenge with helping them get their idea going.
“We are not business people, we had the idea and now we need expertise of business people build base for sustainable company,” she said.
As MassChallenge a finalist, Recovers.org will participate in a 3 month accelerator starting on June 25. At the end, the top 10-20 startups split $1,000,000 in cash awards.
O’Neill says if she’s fortunate enough to win, she hopes to add staff and resources who will be able to respond even more efficiently to disasters in the future.
Kendyl Murtaugh is a Fordham University student interning with the CBS Boston Digital media team.