Front Porch Forum launches regional disaster response boards

Reminiscent of the site’s statewide influence during Tropical Storm Irene and Covid-19, Front Porch Forum is again playing a big role in local crisis communication.

VTDigger

July 23, 2023
By Paige Fischer

Sandwiched between selectboard announcements and posts from people looking for tailors, people are notifying their neighbors of mutual aid efforts using a red-flagged disaster response board on Front Porch Forum.

Among the flagged disaster posts are residents searching for their lost Adirondack chairs and missing roof pieces grabbed by the high waters.

Other posters use the board to offer help. One resident in Orange County offered up their tractor, then followed up with a clarification: “the tractor was not free, my time on my tractor was.”

Front Porch Forum is a hyperlocal for-profit website and newsletter with over 230,000 active members, almost exclusively Vermonters, according to Jason Van Driesche, the site’s chief of staff. The website got its commercial start in Burlington in 2006 and rapidly expanded to the rest of the state following Tropical Storm Irene.

A cornerstone of many Vermont communities, the site hosts reports on anything from lost cows to major state and federal government updates. Young mothers have even used it to offer up excess breast milk to other parents in the community, said Paul Costello, Vermont Council on Rural Development’s former executive director, and an early supporter of the resource.

In the aftermath of last week’s catastrophic flooding, the site is once again being used by town leaders across the state to help neighbors in need.

“In times like this, when a disaster hits, Front Porch Forum has two roles,” Van Driesche said. “It has the immediate role of being a tool that people use for all the things they use it for regularly, and it also is part of what has made communities work together in the first place.”

The regional disaster response boards, which launched Monday, took about a week for the company to create, he said. The board, which appears in the upper-right corner of the website’s homepage, allows people to connect to a broader network.

Typically, members can post only in the forum of the town in which they reside, and are restricted to viewing posts from nearby forums, Van Driesche explained. The new regional disaster response board, however, allows people to post in neighboring forums as many times as necessary.

The moderators, whose role is to reduce spamming and keep discussion civil, have been working overtime to ensure the boards are effectively monitored, he added.

People have been using the disaster response boards to organize donations, exchange dehumidifiers, advertise struggling businesses, send news updates and request bubble wrap.

In the Orange County disaster response board, a church offered a free community meal and a resident crowdsourced advice on repurposing wood from a freshly fallen tree on their property for a new bridge.

“I am thinking about coordinating an event that is like a giant free yard sale for people that lost all of their belongings in the flood,” a Montpelier resident wrote in a post to the Washington County disaster response board. “This would ideally be an event for people in the Barre Montpelier area that can not afford to go and buy all new bedding, clothing, dishes and everyday things.”

These kinds of neighborhood outreach posts are not unprecedented or unusual, though they have kicked up in volume due to the fallout from the flooding. Van Driesche said the website had received over 10,000 posts during the 10-day period following the flooding and estimated roughly 15% of those posts were disaster related.

“Front Porch Forum is a very trusted resource,” said Brian Lowe, the current executive director at Vermont Council on Rural Development. “Their disaster recovery board elevates and consolidates posts so people can easily see where there might be needs they could be helping address.”

The council works to identify town leaders and form a coalition called Vermont Community Leadership Board, Lowe said. Many of those town leaders are Front Porch Forum members, so the organization works with the company to understand community needs

This partnership has been historically helpful to Front Porch Forum’s growth and development.

In 2011, the council received a federal grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to expand internet access to rural parts of the state, and they offered Front Porch Forum as part of a package to towns that applied for assistance, Costello said.

“When you look at the challenge of people knowing what each other are doing and coordinating, (Front Porch Forum) is one of the strongest things going in local communities to spur democracy,” Costello said. “This is just a fundamental thing that needs to be available to communities to be able to respond to disasters.”

After Tropical Storm Irene, the council received a second grant that allowed Front Porch Forum to increase its coverage to the entire state of Vermont and by 2013, the company had grown to host forums in every community in Vermont.

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