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Accounting Professor Volunteers Data-Management Skills in Hurricane Harvey Response

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As devastation struck with the rising storm surge caused by Hurricane Harvey, Shorter University Professor of Accounting Angela Sandberg wanted to do something to help. Rather than climbing into a rescue boat or donating funds to an organization working on-ground, she put her accounting skills to work.

Dr. Angela Sandberg

Dr. Angela Sandberg

“Since Monday, I have been assisting in maintaining the spreadsheets for Hurricane Harvey rescues,” she said. “Someone designed an incredible system to manage all the data. They set up a website where those needing help (or their relatives) could input their names, location, special needs, etc. Each family needing rescue was given a ticket number. Their information then populated an enormous spreadsheet on Google Docs. There were sheets for rescues needed in different towns plus sheets for shelters, hospitals, boat teams, locations where helicopters can land, etc. Each location had a Google map link.

“Some volunteers would contact people listed to see if they had been rescued or if their conditions had changed. If the line was white, they were awaiting rescue. Green meant rescued. Yellow was priority, and red was critical. Those volunteers made notes of every contact on the person’s ticket line. Other volunteers scoured social media, looking for people in crisis who probably weren’t in the system. Their data was then entered.”

Sandberg added that she was part of a final group of online volunteers. “We monitored rescue channels on the Zello app (basically a walkie-talkie system). We added people as needed and changed status as rescuers told us families were safe. Most of the folks on the boats would simply text one of us to say they rescued a certain ticket number as it was the quickest method which used the smallest amount of phone battery power.”

Sandberg, who teaches online courses in Shorter University’s Master of Accountancy program, worked from the safety of her home in Jacksonville, Ala. “The true heroes of this disaster are the people in the streets,” she said. “Listening to the rescue channels on Zello, I could hear the fear in the voices of those needing rescue and the anxiety in those driving the boats. Sure, I assisted, but from the safety of my warm, dry home. I’m so blessed to be associated with an institution like Shorter, where I know if I disappeared for a couple of days for this reason, that my actions would be supported. One of my favorite prayers is simply, ‘Use me Lord, so I may know the joy of being used by You.’ I know my colleagues and students feel the same way.”

Sandberg first got involved in this type of activity after the devastating 2011 tornado that hit Tuscaloosa and other areas in Alabama. “I created a Facebook page to assist those in my county (Calhoun County, Ala.). The purpose was to match up those who needed help with those offering to assist,” she said. “It grew faster than I imagined and had over a million hits within a month. Since then, I have served as an administrator in other Facebook groups after several other natural disasters. When Harvey hit and it was apparent that widespread help was going to be needed, I joined numerous social media groups and looked for places where I could help. As an accounting professor, maintaining spreadsheets and handling large amounts of data are my strong suit so that’s where I volunteered. Whoever designed the system for Harvey is a genius!”

She added that it is important to remember that inside a huge crisis situation are individuals needing help and individuals working to reach them. “When I think of Harvey, I will remember the frightened 72-year-old man in a wheelchair. He was alone in his home and couldn’t even open a window,” Sandberg said. “Then there was Precious, who couldn’t swim. The water was up to her chest, and she was holding her two toddlers aloft while she waited to be rescued. They are all safe. My admiration and gratitude for those out there, particularly the people in boats out saving lives, is boundless. Without their brave willingness to risk their own lives, many more would have died.”