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How Occupy Sandy's Relief Machine Stepped Into the Post-Superstorm Void

Occupy Sandy evolved rapidly in the wake of the hurricane, all without a formal organization: just people helping people.
 
 
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Some were standing, some were sitting, some with their backs to the altar on the thick red velvet cushions that are usually reserved for knees on Sunday morning. Tammy Shapiro, an Occupy Wall Street and Interoccupy organizer, faced several dozen volunteers and organizers who crowded to the front of St. Jacobi's church in Sunset Park for their nightly debriefing. It was Friday, November 2, and Occupy Sandy was wrapping up its third full day of work.

Incense and loud drumming filtered up into the chapel from the basement, where a community dance group was practicing an indigenous ceremony. Half the room was gazing intently at their phones, firing off text after email after tweet, while others looked tired. The church's pastor, Juan Carlos Ruiz, stood in front of the altar with his elbows on the wooden railing, presiding over the small gathering. He too was frequently startled by his ringing phone, which seemed to go off at regular intervals throughout the meeting. Everyone had a slightly crazed look in their eyes.   

Shapiro ran through the agenda for the debrief: "We want to start mapping out our sites, where are we, talk about mapping out our roles, what we've had going on, but also what we need."  Occupy Sandy, which began Wednesday as an amorphous effort by members of Occupy Wall Street, the environmental group  350.org, and a host of community groups to offer relief to devastated areas of the city, had taken a very definite form over the last 72 hours.  Bases like Jacobi church were created to bring people together and concentrate efforts, while satellite locations were established in areas crippled by the hurricane, in Far Rockaway and in Staten Island. Both types of hubs had been wildly successful at collecting and distributing aid and mobilizing volunteers, and now the links between them were being strengthened.

Danielle Kohn, an OWS organizer, ran through some of the estimates she had made in order to scale up the volunteer efforts and anticipate needs in the coming days. She laid out the following:

  • Thursday, Nov. 1. Meals: 5-6,000. Volunteers: 400. Cars: 25.
  • Friday, Nov. 2. Meals: 10-11,000. Volunteers: 700. Cars: 50-60 (including several bio-diesel buses).
  • Saturday, Nov. 3. Anticipated meals: 15-16,000. Anticipated volunteers: 1,500. Anticipated cars: 80-100.

The numbers were astounding; the group was nearly doubling every day. By Friday night, Occupy Sandy had set up 37 pickup/dropoff locations all over the city where people could leave supplies, food, water, or clothing to be brought to one of three distribution centers: St. Jacobi church in Sunset Park, the Red Hook Initiative in Red Hook and a community center in Gerritsen Beach. By Saturday morning, the group expected to add three more distribution denters: one in Clinton Hill, one in East New York, and a second, with a massive kitchen, in Sunset Park.

All this without a formal organization. Just people helping people, networking and growing. From the distribution centers, recovery centers were being established in the hardest-hit areas. Earlier in the day, I tagged along with organizers Michael Premo, Jana Powell and Chepe on a run to Coney Island's Neptune neighborhood to see first-hand the process of setting up a recovery center.  

With gas running low and four-hour lines at the pumps, I decided to volunteer my car, with just above a half tank of gas, for the group. We packed the car with blankets and hot food, bread pudding, pasta, salad, and lentils, along with hundreds of individually wrapped pb&j and turkey sandwiches.

Muslimah, a young volunteer from the Neptune neighborhood, piled into the car with us at the last minute, saying she wanted to get back to Coney Island to help out her community. As we drove around the Belt Expressway, frighteningly close to the water, Muslimah recounted going back to her home for the first time and seeing that all her living room furniture had floated to the other side of the room. This, along with the reports of looting, gave the impression that Coney Island had become a very desperate place. 

We arrived at 33rd and Neptune Avenue, where the distribution of food and goods was already underway. Tables had been set up on the street corner next to an NYPD generator, where residents gathered to charge their phones. A group of volunteers had come out on an exploratory mission the night before to begin assessing the neighborhood's needs and start providing basic services--warm food and blankets. A relationship with the Tenant Association president had been established, and when we arrived, she was our main point of connection with the community. We unloaded our supplies and began distributing them.

After a little while, Coney Island city councilman Domenic Recchia arrived with a palette of bottled water and boxes of rotten bananas. He spoke charismatically and posed for a few pictures. He summoned police officers to organize the messy line of residents that had formed, and then he was gone. The volunteers continued distributing the food and clothing and left the bananas to the flies.