via The New York Times:
By ALAN FEUER Published: November 9, 2012
ON Wednesday night, as a fierce northeaster bore down on the weather-beaten Rockaways, the relief groups with a noticeable presence on the battered Queens peninsula were these: the National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Police and Sanitation Departments — and Occupy Sandy, a do-it-yourself outfit recently established by Occupy Wall Street.
This stretch of the coast remained apocalyptic, with buildings burned like Dresden and ragged figures shuffling past the trash heaps. There was still no power, and parking lots were awash with ruined cars. On Wednesday morning, as the winds picked up and FEMA closed its office “due to weather,” an enclave of Occupiers was huddled in a storefront amid the devastation, handing out supplies and trying to make sure that those bombarded by last month’s storm stayed safe and warm and dry this time.
“Candles?” asked a dull-eyed woman arriving at the door.
“I’m sorry, but we’re out,” said Sofia Gallisa, a field coordinator who had been there for a week. Ms. Gallisa escorted the woman in, and someone gave her batteries for her flashlight. As she walked away, word arrived that a firehouse nearby was closing for the night; the firefighters there were hurrying their rigs to higher ground.
“It’s crazy,” Ms. Gallisa later said of the official response. “For a long time, we were the only people out here doing relief work.”
After its encampment in Zuccotti Park, which changed the public discourse about economic inequality and introduced the nation to the trope of the 1 percent, the Occupy movement has wandered in a desert of more intellectual, less visible projects, like farming, fighting debt and theorizing on banking. While several nouns have been occupied — from summer camp to health care — it is only with Hurricane Sandy that the times have conspired to deliver an event that fully calls upon the movement’s talents and caters to its strengths.
Maligned for months for its purported ineffectiveness, Occupy Wall Street has managed through its storm-related efforts not only to renew the impromptu passions of Zuccotti, but also to tap into an unfulfilled desire among the residents of the city to assist in the recovery. This altruistic urge was initially unmet by larger, more established charity groups, which seemed slow to deliver aid and turned away potential volunteers in droves during the early days of the disaster.
In the past two weeks, Occupy Sandy has set up distribution sites at a pair of Brooklyn churches where hundreds of New Yorkers muster daily to cook hot meals for the afflicted and to sort through a medieval marketplace of donated blankets, clothes and food. There is an Occupy motor pool of borrowed cars and pickup trucks that ferries volunteers to ravaged areas. An Occupy weatherman sits at his computer and issues regular forecasts. Occupy construction teams and medical committees have been formed.
Managing it all is an ad hoc group of tech-savvy Occupy members who spend their days with laptops on their knees, creating Google documents with action points and flow charts, and posting notes on Facebook that range from the sober (“Adobo Medical Center in Red Hook needs an 8,000 watt generator AS SOON AS POSSIBLE”) to the endearingly hilarious (“We will be treating anyone affected by Sandy, FREE of charge, with ear acupuncture this Monday”). While the local tech team sleeps, a shadow corps in London works off-hours to update the Twitter feed and to maintain the intranet. Some enterprising Occupiers have even set up a wedding registry on Amazon.com, with a wish list of necessities for victims of the storm; so far, items totaling more than $100,000 — water pumps and Sawzall saw kits — have been ordered.
“It’s a laterally organized rapid-response team,” said Ethan Gould, a freelance graphic artist and a first-time member of Occupy. Mr. Gould’s experience illustrates the effort’s grass-roots ethos. He joined up on Nov. 3 and by the following afternoon had already been appointed as a co-coordinator at one of the “distro” (distribution) sites.
via The New Yorker:
Belle Harbor, Queens, about halfway along the Rockaway peninsula, is four blocks across at its widest point—a splinter of East-West streets on a spit of land between the bay and the sea. Now that land is beach again. The roads are so densely packed under sand hardened into foot-high ruts and deep puddles that they seem like dirt paths, never paved. A car is suspended diagonally across the sidewalk of one of the main roads, its rear impaled on a low wall. A mangled wood fence lies in the street. In front of nearly every house is a massive pile of debris—chairs, tables, mattresses, torn bits of cloth, and garbage bags stuffed, presumably, with smaller, flimsier, more rotten things. Some of the houses have been inspected for safety by the city and have paper signs posted on their doors: green for safe, yellow for partly safe, red for not safe at all. Cloth and wood signs along Rockaway Beach Boulevard yesterday: “F.U. Sandy, Survivor beach party … BYO … GOD BLESS USA, Rockaway”; “U LOOT, WE SHOOT.”
At the St. Francis de Sales church on B-129th Street, the church hall has been taken over by Occupy Sandy—an offshoot of the still-active networks of Occupy Wall Street. Supplies have been driven here from all over Brooklyn: back there are piles of blankets; on the tables here are diapers, baby food, and cleaning supplies; over there, clothes (grownup, child, baby); more than a hundred pairs of shoes lined up neatly on the bleachers. Residents of the neighborhood wander around the hall, filling bags. In the front entranceway, Occupy volunteers are unloading cases of bottled water from a truck, handing the heavy cases one to the next, a bucket brigade to the back of the church. The volunteers move fast but the job lasts more than half an hour—it’s a big truck. In front of the church, long tables have been set up on the sidewalk, where volunteers are serving hot food and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
The Red Cross doesn’t accept individual donations of household goods—these things, it says, need to be cleaned, sorted, and repackaged, and all that takes up more time than they’re worth. It asks for financial donations only. But Occupy, as you would expect, has a different style. For instance: as soon as it was safe to go outside after the storm, first thing Tuesday morning, Michael Premo and a couple of people he knew got in a car and drove over to Red Hook. Premo is a freelance artist who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and just turned thirty. He was at Zuccotti Park every day last fall, though he never slept there, and after the park encampment was disbanded he kept in touch with the movement. There are big neighborhood assemblies in Sunset Park and Red Hook, smaller ones elsewhere in Brooklyn. Many meet each week, organizing around local issues—rent strikes in Sunset Park, anti-gentrification in Crown Heights.
Premo worked in New Orleans after Katrina, and he had a sense that right after a disaster, a city’s efforts were focussed on search and rescue, rather than on providing supplies. He thought this was a gap that Occupy could fill. He knew some people at Red Hook Initiative, a community center on Hicks Street, so he and his friends drove over there and asked what was needed—food, light, blankets. Food most of all. He and some other people got back in the car and drove to the Rockaways. He isn’t sure when they got there—probably Tuesday evening. Houses were still on fire. They walked around and asked people what they needed most.
Meanwhile, organizing was going on: we need to make food, we need a kitchen. The Red Hook Initiative has a kitchen but it’s too small. Phone calls. There’s a church on Fourth Avenue at Fifty-fifth Street, in Sunset Park, St. Jacobi, whose pastor likes Occupy—they have a big kitchen. They also have a hall that can be used as a headquarters to receive donations. Done—meet there. Get in the car. Somebody set up a Web site, there needs to be a short, clear list of what is needed and where to take it. Make sure it stays updated. Phone calls. We need volunteers to sort donations. We need sandwiches made. We need tinfoil to wrap the sandwiches in. We need people to drive out to Zone A to deliver supplies. People are running low on gas, not everyone can get to Sunset Park. Phone calls. Satellite drop-off centers for donations established in Fort Greene, Park Slope, Williamsburg, and Bed-Stuy. Phone calls. Coördinate with people in Manhattan—CAAAV, an Asian-American organization on Hester Street, is asking for volunteers in Chinatown. Can anyone get to Chinatown? The people at Good Old Lower East Side need volunteers to knock on doors in housing projects to see if old or sick people need help—they’re doing it between twelve and six every day and they need as many people as they can get (we’re sending hundreds). Someone needs to go out to the Rockaways and figure out a distribution center. Maybe St. Francis de Sales. It’s on 129th Street. Remember, phones don’t work there. Neither do traffic lights.
On Rockaway Beach Boulevard, a Polish woman walked away from St. Francis de Sales carrying full bags. She and her son had a place to stay right now, with her husband’s family in a Polish building, but they couldn’t stay there for much longer. She wasn’t sure where they would go next. She had lived in a basement—everything was ruined. She knew that a lot of other people were in the same situation. She knew that. But what got her was, on the street where she was staying, some people had clean driveways. Not just cleared of debris—no. Perfectly clean. Swept. Clean as a floor inside your house. That was what got her.
An earlier version of this post misstated the volunteer policy of the organization New York Cares. Those who wish to volunteer in the group’s Sandy-related projects do not need to attend an orientation session beforehand.
Photograph by Adrian Fussell/Reportage by Getty Images. See a slide show of more images of Sandy at Photo Booth.