At BioLite, we were fortunate; after Hurricane Sandy, the power got knocked out at our office, but for the most part, everyone was safe and sound. Hearing reports that many of our fellow New Yorkers were without electricity, we decided to take action by setting up a portable charging station adjacent to Washington Square Park – led by our team of engineers (the rest of the team was stranded on the West Coast) who just wanted to “do something to help.”
Showing up with a handwritten sign and a pop-up table, our team offered hot cups of tea and a chance to charge a mobile phone – people had been traveling all over Manhattan just for the chance to get a bar of battery.
The next day, inspired by the positive response we got by Washington Square Park, we set up outside Brooklyn Coffee Roasters in DUMBO (our stomping grounds) and by City Hall Plaza. While the police eventually ordered us to shutdown outside City Hall due to fire code regulations, it was not before we were able to charge several previously dead phones and give people the ability to connect with their friends and family.
And then the word got out about what we were doing.
It started with a post from our neighbors on Gothamist and quickly spread. Traffic spiked, emails poured in, and we depleted our inventory within a week. Several requests came in asking “Where will you pop up next?” or “Can you donate stoves to our relief efforts?” which posed a logistical challenge for us: how do we deploy these safely and effectively to the areas that need it most? Although the use of a BioLite CampStove in emergency situations has been discussed as a direct application, it had never been explored in depth and on such a large scale. In addition, we had to problem-solve for how CampStoves could function in an urban environment: people living in high-rise buildings would have to leave their apartments because they could not safely operate CampStoves inside or on a small porch.
Simply dropping a bunch of CampStoves off and walking away was not going to work – we needed a plan. Relief efforts are a crucial yet difficult task: communication is spotty, updates are infrequent, and details can often fall by the wayside. Our biggest challenge was finding someone on the ground who could help us in the day-to-day. We spent days making calls, sending emails, and researching potential outlets. Finally, we found Clayton Cubitt (or better yet, he found us).
Through Clayton, a New York-based photographer, we were able to establish a relationship with volunteers from Occupy Sandy operating in Far Rockaway. On the afternoon of 8 November, volunteers transported two of us and 18 emergency CampStove kits to one of their Emergency distribution centers in Far Rockaway. Each kit, prepared by the BioLite team, included a CampStove, wood pellet fuel, fire starters, and additional safety instructions.
We parked near the Emergency distribution center and crossed the street, ankle deep in mud. Volunteers had been asked to gather in order to receive safety training on the CampStoves. These volunteers would in turn train community members while distributing the stoves in the coming days. The weather had just dipped below freezing but the center was busy—people were picking up supplies, someone had just dropped off trays of rice and beans, and it was quickly getting dark.
As the crowd of volunteers gathered around, we got a strong fire going and began charging an iPhone. Given the destruction we witnessed on our way in, we were happy to hear how excited the volunteers were about the CampStove’s potential. Due to the storm, residents had been without electricity or heating for several days. A local chef who had been using his food truck to cook meals for residents and volunteers was particularly enthusiastic, as he had never cooked over one before. To ensure that he could use the CampStove, we filled one of his large pots and made tea. The pot balanced perfectly.
We answered some final questions and unloaded the CampStove kits into the Emergency distribution center. In the center, the crew of volunteers were settling in for a cold night. We left daunted by the recovery challenges ahead, but inspired by the energy and resourcefulness of the people we had met. The volunteers promised to keep us posted on where the stoves ended up – we’re excited to hear from them and we’ll let you know when we do.
Update 12 November: Just spoke with a volunteer this afternoon who said that residents were “super psyched” about the CampStoves and were using them to charge their mobile phones. Due to an extremely busy weekend involving cleanup and donation dropoffs, distribution of all CampStoves would be launching this coming Wednesday.