It was a beautiful sight -- throngs of volunteers lining up outside a local church on Sunday, Day Five of the local recovery initiative spearheaded by Occupy Sandy. The number of willing helpers had tripled over the last three days alone, a response as dizzying as it was encouraging for the coordinators at the relief hub in St. Jacobi Lutheran Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York.
Occupy Sandy is an offshoot of the Occupy Movement, which, until now was by some pundits given up for dead. In collaboration with Occupy Sunset Park, 350.org, recovers.org and interoccupy.net, it emerged to meet the essential needs of storm victims while larger charities were already turning away willing volunteers, just a few days after the storm. It began organizing local relief efforts so that supplies could be immediately sent to the most devastated areas -- beginning with Red Hook and The Rockaways. To their own surprise the Occupy activists found themselves doing so with an efficiency and speed that was sometimes outpacing government relief organizations. While the latter focused on essential infrastructure -- pumping out subway stations and restoring transportation and power -- independent groups were able to reach isolated areas by building community solidarity and mutual aid on the local level. Both entities were needed, as was becoming ever more apparent.
This grassroots coalition mobilizes the way it knows best, by the standard means of organization for 21st century movements the world over: via social media. Website OccupySandy.org, facebook page Occupy Sandy Relief NYC, and twitter account @OccupySandy have enabled organizers to rapidly rally help and coordinate much-needed items, such as flashlights, batteries, blankets, cleaning supplies, masks, gloves and non-perishable foods. Laptops for operations are in as much demand as are vehicles for distribution. This is a people-powered disaster relief platform designed to help coordinate rapid response. Command central at the church office was cramped and chilly, but I was amazed by the group's ability to organize and improvise as the day unfolded, and I discovered that their leaders, specialists, and planners meet each night to tweak the system, while the media crew are tweeting their followers with updates.
On Friday Nov. 2nd, 2012, two days after the storm, when its after-effects became more apparent as flood waters receded, activity at St. Jacobi increased ten-fold. Word of drop-off points had spread, mostly through social media, providing an accessible way for locals to help. Occupy Sandy has set up at least 37 pick-up/drop-off locations, including its primary distribution/volunteer centers: The church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Crown Heights and St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park. Other volunteer centers have been set up in Clinton Hill, the Lower East Side, Rockaway, Staten Island, Coney Island, and an additional one with a kitchen planned for Sunset Park.
While an ad-hoc steady stream of volunteers came and went at St. Jacobi, mucking-in wherever they spotted a need, coordinators quickly navigated an impressively efficient yet flexible system of communication and training. Eventually tasks were allocated and name tags assigned, but the volunteers -- most of whom were in their 20s and 30s -- initially just rolled up their sleeves and found something to do once they realized the next person was as green as they were. Clothes needed to be sorted into categories, supplies needed to be brought in and out, and peanut butter/jelly sandwiches needed to be made -- by the thousands.
As cars with gas and drivers became available, they were loaded up to make one of numerous delivery runs. By Saturday, Nov. 3rd, this effort totaled:
- approximate meals: 15-16,000,
- approximate volunteers: 1,500,
- approximate cars: 80-100
At the main sorting area in the church basement, spirits were high and volunteers sang as they worked -- and work they did -- long shifts into the night. Facilitators made sure to remind everyone to eat, and hydrate. Such was the enthusiasm of individuals who came to lend a hand, a motivation only intensified by the sense of overwhelming need as reports flooded back of more residents isolated without food, fresh water or electricity.
Reports also emerged of the military giving Occupy Sandy their own supplies, since the volunteers, being on-the-ground, knew better where to distribute them. While glad to know their efforts were being felt, activists were perplexed and frustrated to learn that some neighborhoods had not seen a single aid worker before they arrived. Complaints about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Guard rolled in. What took them so long? The latter had been seen in some areas right after the storm, but yet were completely absent in others. Was the area just too large to cover? It does beg the question, if local volunteers were able to reach the vulnerable outer boroughs, why not the National Guard with their far greater resources, manpower and infrastructure. Is it any accident that the areas neglected were poor working class neighborhoods. Pointing fingers without having all the facts is not helpful; The East Coast has never been impacted by a storm on this scale. However, questions will be asked, as well they should be, and one can only hope that the national discourse on climate change and disaster response will improve.
Adding to the volunteer' difficulties was the shortage of fuel, yet, somehow gas-filled cars are still arriving on site, and volunteers continue to show up bearing the supplies that were requested through the twitterverse and via tools such as http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/. At one point we ran out of bread at the church; a request was sent out and within half an hour a truckload of bread arrived to the sound of cheering volunteers eagerly waiting to prepare more sandwiches. Some of the volunteers, like Tamy, had been unemployed for months and while job searching gave her spare time to Occupy. Others were students. I had guessed all the volunteers were locals, but one of the guys I tag-teamed with on the sandwich assembly line told me he was on vacation from Germany, yet was more than happy to give up some of his vacation to help the storm victims. This motley crew was full of surprises.
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By Sunday the outpouring of supplies and offers of help had become almost overwhelming. Boxes filled the basement, and volunteer lines stretched around the block necessitating a registration table and orientation briefings. There is an infectious energy generated by that level of generosity.
As the role of Occupy Sandy takes shape, a group which looks to be here for some time given the factors involved -- widespread power outages, clean-up, re-construction and impending weather -- some ask how Occupy morphed into disaster relief. “Whereas many may have dismissed the Occupy movement since the Zuccotti Park eviction and the months of protests, the same movement may have found a new and slightly redefined home in the public eye, as a community-building organization” leading technology entrepreneur Anil Dash tweeted.
Ethan Murphy, who was organizing the food at St. Jacobi and had been cooking for the Occupy movement over the past year, explained that there was no official decision or declaration that occupiers would now turn to hurricane relief. It was more of a natural overflow. “This is what we do already,” he explained. “Build community, help neighbors, and create a world without the help of finance.” Orientation leader Ian Horst said, “We know capitalism is broken, so we have already been focused on organizing to take care of our own (community) needs.” For him, Occupy Sandy is political ideas executed on a practical level. As it turns out, helping others is a spiritual ideal as well, so collaboration with local churches is only natural.
A week after the storm, numerous additional distribution and/or drop-off locations had been established, such as the one at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Over the weekend, teams of volunteers showed up with pitch forks in tow, and various other cleaning supplies, for temporary storage at the church. "We have the space, and continually desire to practice hospitality to serve our community," said the church's pastor, Rev. David Rommereim. The Good Shepherd's own stated vision is, 'Care for the earth and all her residents with compassion, understanding, respect and a commitment to justice, peace, and equality starting with our own community.' The volunteers expressed as much gratitude for the space, as did the church who were thrilled to be able to share it. It is a symbiotic partnership of mutual collaboration and mission.
Back on the field, after my husband, Tony, returned from a run to Far Rockaway, we were given a clearer picture of just what the field workers are up against. "It looks like a war zone," he said. There is dust everywhere and not enough masks to go around; who knows what is in this conglomeration of dust and sand. Now mold from the prolonged dampness is setting. We wondered if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) been there, after another volunteer reported feeling quite sick after a day helping with clean-up.
Other teams were sent out canvassing apartment buildings to assess needs, while a logistics and medical team were established. A patient needed admitting to the hospital, but the local hospital had just been closed due to lack of power. The nearest alternative was over an hour's drive away! Of necessity work slowed as early darkness fell on this cold November afternoon, and it became apparent that flashlights were also in short supply. The environment was dark, dusty and emotionally draining. Tony pointed out, "You don't realize the affects of working all day in a building without light or heat, just a small lamp powered by a generator, it was depressing. Nonetheless, the spirit of volunteers is inspiring and residents are being reached one-by-one, that's what keeps you going."
Two weeks later many are still without power. Some who could not or chose not to evacuate for a variety of reasons, remain stranded in apartment buildings without working elevators. One of my co-workers, whose house in Canarsie was flooded, said "In some zones looting is a problem, and on top of this there are opportunists out there posing as fake FEMA agents."
Disaster can bring out the best and the worst in people. But there is a positive aspect to this -- neighbors helping neighbors; humanitarian altruism, grassroots organizations like Occupy Sandy building communities; numerous other relief groups springing up overnight; churches, like St. Jacobi, serving in the best possible way by opening up their space for those who need it most, adding ‘salt and light’ to a broken world, offering hope and light after the storm.