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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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Elizabeth Torres, a Coney Island resident and mother of six, expressed outrage at the response from FEMA and the government. "This is our fourth day, and FEMA has not been here for us for nothing. They came scouting, looking, but did nothing." She claimed that the only aid FEMA had provided so far was posting trucks full of dog food on street corners the previous night. (In some situations, pet food is a common form of relief that FEMA provides for pet owners who can't obtain more.) "How dare they come and throw us dogfood?" Torres asked. "What are we, dogs? We're people, not animals."

Anne, a former resident of New Orleans who was involved in reconstruction efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and is now a volunteer in Coney Island, predicted that even after large-scale FEMA efforts began in the coming days, grassroots relief work would need to continue. "And if it didn't, I would say that would be really sad," she said. "Even if FEMA was up and running in full force and had a wow factor to it, I would be really disappointed if community members didn't pull together on a grassroots level to do things for themselves."

In some neighborhoods, the distinction between storm relief and economic assistance is blurry at best. For residents of high-rise apartments in Coney Island, homes that were not affected by flooding, clothing donations served as relief from people's poverty. Neighbors furiously rifled through the supplies, some joking that they didn't need them because of the storm--they just needed them. 

The areas that have established recovery zones are among the poorest in Brooklyn: Far Rockaway, Canarsie, Howard Beach, Coney Island, Staten Island. Distribution centers, meanwhile, have been inundated with clothing donations, the first and most massive type of donation in a crisis response. It's a great excuse for concerned citizens to clean out their closets, and it offers hours of sorting work for volunteers, but it doesn't always fit the disaster needs of the communities that are being served. In this case, though, it fits the permanent needs of the community.

Muslimah had contacted a local mosque which she said might be a good place to set up our recovery center. We trekked several blocks up Neptune Avenue and found Masjid Bab-Us-Salam in a three-story house on the corner of 36th street, a mountain of garbage on the curb and a freshly cleaned yard. We could hear the imam inside finishing his Jummah holiday sermon. Soon the service was over, and a tall man named Shareef came out of the basement and met with us. Muslimah, who knew members of the mosque and told Shareef that she was from the neighborhood, offered volunteer help for the mosque and asked if the group might be able to use the front yard to distribute food and supplies, and if they could store supplies inside. The mosque had electricity, but the flood waters had left a six-foot watermark in the basement, and destroyed the enormous prayer-rug the members worshipped on. Everything had a thin layer of mold. After consulting with the imam and some other mosque members, Shareef returned with the green light, and a new recovery center in Coney Island was born.

On the surface, the process of setting up a recovery center seems simple, but it involves volunteers, many of whom are strangers to each other, rapidly establishing trust with people whose lives have been devastated by the storm. Storm victims must then agree to let volunteers use their homes, restaurants or places of worship to provide help to them and to the community, a feat by any account, but one which has become an everyday occurrence as dozens of recovery centers have been established.

"Basically we have been connecting with community members as well as community organizations by going out into the community and knocking on doors, trying to talk to people on street corners," Michael Premo told me afterward. "This particular site, we were trying to get here for the last two or three days, and met this sister from the neighborhood at our distribution center in Sunset Park, and came out here to her community and she introduced us to the Masjid."

This kind of work involves constant communication, communication breakdowns, sometimes equal parts skill and luck. On the ground, it can involve standing for hours in the freezing cold handing out supplies while navigating difficult race and class dynamics in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Other volunteers work standing ankle-deep in freezing cold water, clearing flooded basements with sump pumps. In Coney Island, the wind was a particular hazard, blowing huge clouds of dirt and dust into the air from deposits left by receding flood waters.