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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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Occupy Sandy volunteers hand out supplies at St. Jacobi's Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Photo Credit: Tom Hintze

 

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.

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.

But the work of volunteering is nowhere as difficult as the work of cleaning up for those who have lost everything. In Staten Island, where there are boats in the street, docked in parking lots next to porches, people are removing all of their possessions from their houses because of mold and piling their things up on the curb. Gaetano Santo, an Occupy Sandy organizer who helped set up a recovery center there, said the relief effort is in the early stages.

"I think there's a lot of need just getting supplies to people and knowing what people actually need," he said. "So many people are holed up in their houses that canvassing is going to be really crucial now. And because people are holed up, it's hard to really get to them. We took cars out from a church that was helping out and we took all this food from there and drove around honking the horn and yelling out the window that we have food and clothes and water. But it's only so effective. If you actually know what's needed in an area, you can be really useful."

This task is made even more challenging for volunteers with the electricity on Staten Island still down and cell-phone communication nearly impossible in the hardest-hit places, where the recovery effort is still in the early phases. Occupy Sandy estimates that thousands of volunteers will hit the streets this weekend, canvassing, cooking warm meals, pumping basements, and beginning the slow and painful process of gutting houses before they can be rebuilt. As the group becomes more organized, fast-paced relief work will transition into long-term reconstruction, a prospect that many volunteers, for now, seem to welcome.

Tom Hintze is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @@thhintze.