Meet the Airbnb disaster chief matching relief workers with empty beds

Kellie Bentz is familiar with post-disaster accommodations. She spent months, sometimes with no available bed, living in a crowded church basement as she coordinated volunteers as part of the Hurricane Katrina response in New Orleans in 2005.

Now, she’s one of the professionals spearheading a new Silicon Valley group working on harnessing the programs and reach of technology driven companies in disaster relief.

Bentz, 33, has already amassed a considerable amount of knowledge, primarily with nonprofit organizations, on how to respond to disasters. But as of May, she’s been doing so as the first head of global disaster relief at Airbnb, the online platform for finding and renting homes.

Her formative experience came in New Orleans, where after completing her year with the community service nonprofit Americorps in Atlanta, she was asked to start up a volunteer network in response to Hurricane Katrina for the HandsOn Network. There, she built a project management system and coordinated housing and meals for thousands of arriving volunteers.

Disaster response specialists and researchers came from around the world to learn from the response to Katrina, many of whom Bentz made lasting connections with. She went on to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, followed by Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

“Then I  realized I guess I do kind of have a niche skillset that I was building,” she said.

And she liked the work.

Bentz went on to work for Points of Light, a nonprofit organization focused on volunteering, and then for Target running global crisis management. In 2015, she began receiving emails from friends suggesting she apply to a brand new job opening up at Airbnb. She applied and — after a lengthy hiring process that included nearly 20 interviews — she got the job.

Now she’s helping develop ways for Airbnb to harness its 1.5 million hosts in 34,0000 cities to be able to respond to disaster.

“Immediately when I walked in, it was like this is where I am supposed to be; it felt like it was sort of a convergence of my background,” Bentz said. “With Points of Light I was focused on how do you direct people’s time, talent and resources before, during and after a disaster and so now I’m looking at that from a company perspective.”

The main way Airbnb does so is by activating its response tool in the area impacted by a disaster. Homeowners or hosts with listings on the platform receive a message that allows them to opt in to opening their property for free to either those affected by the disaster or to relief workers for a period of one day to three weeks. Airbnb also waives its fees. The idea itself came from the hosts on Airbnb in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in the United States.

Since then the tool has been activated after the Nepal earthquake in April 2015, following the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 and most recently after the Brussels attacks. The company looks to step in especially in situations where all hotels are full in order to give relief workers a bed, rather than a floor, to sleep on.

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