Hurricane Sandy, the unprecedented superstorm that ravaged the Caribbean and the East Coast of the United States, left large swaths of New York City destroyed and ultimately killed 109 people in the US alone. In addition to experiencing trauma and shock, many resident now express frustration with lagging federal aid and assistance from other aid agencies like the Red Cross.
Vincent Ignizio, a New York City Councilman representing Staten Island’s 51st District, blames the gas shortage for hurting the recovery effort. Five-hour-long waits for gas have resulted in citizens’ being highly frugal with their commutes, and may be hindering aid, according to Ignizio.
“People who want to volunteer…are stymied from doing so,” he said.
And while the Defense Department recently dispatched 24 million gallons of fuel to the region, many citizens haven’t seen the military, or the Red Cross, since the storm hit. While FEMA workers were spotted recently in Staten Island, other citizens have received help from an entirely separate source: Occupy Wall Street.
Though numerous obituaries have been written about Occupy, the movement experienced a spike in activity in Sandy’s wake. Occupy Sandy, as the effort has been branded, arose quickly in the aftermath of the storm, setting up local community hubs to dispense water, food and aid, and form groups to help communities pump water from their houses and clean up the vast quantities of rubble left in Sandy’s wake. Distribution centers and volunteer hubs are now located in Sunset Park, Astoria, Brighton Beach, DUMBO, East Village, Lower East Side, Jersey City, Red Hook, Rockaway, and Staten Island. (photo of volunteer hub by Sarah Jaffe)
While federal mobilization efforts can often take weeks—sometimes months—to reach citizens, Occupy was one of the only local groups capable of quickly mobilizing to help victims. Organizing volunteers and supplies is no small task, but Occupy Sandy has been able to generate a large amount of aid. On Sunday, Michael Premo, one of the volunteers, estimated the mobilization effort included 2,500 volunteers, 15,000 meals and 120 carloads of supplies sent to recovery sites.
Understandably, residents were extremely grateful to receive any help they could get, but storm-ravaged communities weren’t the only recipients glad to see the sometimes-villainized occupiers. In a truly bizarre moment (especially to observers of the NYPD’s violent suppression of Occupy during its time at Zuccotti), FEMA and NYPD officers joined in chanting “We are unstoppable, another world is possible” with Occupy Sandy volunteers helping at Far Rockaway.
Lopi LaRoe, an Occupy Sandy volunteer helping with the recovery efforts in Far Rockaway and Staten Island, described the scene in the aftermath of the storm as being one of total devastation.
“It was decimated and really intense to see,” said LaRoe. “There’s literally a huge swath of area that’s burnt and destroyed.”
LaRoe, who said she hasn’t seen a single Red Cross worker during her time as a volunteer, described a makeshift, bustling community center that emerged in the aftermath. The Red Cross complaint isn’t an anomaly. Both volunteers and storm victims have complained about the missing familiar red roods, and have a habit of speaking about the Red Cross as though they’re phantoms. “I heard they’re out on Staten Island, but I haven’t seen them yet…”
The Red Cross responded to a press inquiry about the ongoing aid effort, stating their organization has helped people in “ten states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico affected by Sandy,” and has served more than 481,000 meals and snacks, provided more than 12,000 health services and emotional support contacts, handed out more than 33,000 relief items, and the entire Cross fleet of response vehicles—“more than 320 in total”—has been activated to distribute meals, water, snacks, and relief supplies.
But it’s clear there’s been interruption and/or inefficiency in disseminating services and aid workers. Grassroots volunteers and NYC residents have complained about the lack of Red Cross workers, and other aid agencies, on the ground.
LaRoe said she saw one military vehicle, the NYFD, and NYPD officers, but mainly in a crowd control capacity, i.e., guarding gas stations during the painfully long waits. However, C.S. Muncy, an independent photojournalist, disputed that take on events when he reported riding around with the Army Guard on Friday in Long Beach, where they were handing out food and water, pulling cars out of the sand, helping clean up debris and patrolling for looters.
Meanwhile, Occupy continues to dutifully help storm-ravaged communities.
“People were sorting donations, feeding hungry people, local residents lining up to get things they need,” LaRoe said, adding that residents seemed thankful and relieved that anyone was willing to help them.
“People are traumatized out there. They’ve come through some really intense stuff. They’ve lost their homes, some of them lost family members and pets, and they’re really emotional, and they want to tell their stories. The aid we were giving was largely material aid, but now we’re moving into trauma support, and setting up places where people can tell their stories.”
In Far Rockaway, teams are also helping people pump out water from their basements.
Volunteer Sofía Gallisá Muriente has been working in the Rockaway relief effort throughout the week, and describes a world—like in pre-storm NYC —divided by class. Certain areas have been able to slowly recover by hiring companies to clean away rubbish and pump water from basements, but their poor neighbors have had to rely on charity and loaned equipment from aid groups like Occupy Sandy.
“There’s a clear division of wealth. There’s a real segregation of wealth between the big summer homes and the poorer areas with public housing projects,” said Muriente. “In the wealthier areas, people have been able to hire help to come pump out their basement, remove the debris, remove the trees from the streets and cut them up, whereas in the poorer areas, what you see is people trying to clean up their own homes, but without access to clean water and cleaning supplies. Some of them have lost a lot of things, especially in the basements, and the people living in the basements lost it all.”
Iwan Baan, a Dutch photograph who captured the now iconic photograph of a post-Sandy Manhattan for New York magazine, echoed these sentiments when describing the image.
“It was the only way to show that New York was two cities, almost,” Baan said. “One was almost like a third world country where everything was becoming scarce. Everything was complicated. And then another was a completely vibrant, alive New York.”
“What really struck me, if you look at the image on the left, you see the Goldman Sachs building and new World Trade Center. These two buildings are brightly lit. And then the rest of New York looks literally kind of powerless. In a way, it shows also what’s wrong with the country in this moment.”
In tall public housing complexes, loss of power means elevators don’t work and residents don’t have access to clean water, so there are many people—especially seniors— trapped inside their homes. Others, Muriente added, are afraid to leave their apartments due to fears of looters and/or confusion about where they’re supposed to go for help.
Like LaRoe, Muriente has not seen any Red Cross workers, or any other aid outside of Occupy Sandy, in the parts of Rockaway she’s been stationed at.
“A lot of people have made it very clear we’re the only ones helping them out,” said Muriente. “They say they haven’t received any help from FEMA or the Red Cross. I haven’t seen the Red Cross. I’ve seen the National Guard, but I haven’t seen them distributing anything. I’ve just seen them patrolling, and the only supplies I’ve seen the National Guard give away are the things they gave away to us. Two nights ago, they pulled over and gave us a truck full of water and meals, which really startled all of us because it means they recognize we have things under control in a more efficient way than they do. It legitimizes the whole thing we’ve been doing.” (photo by Nick Pinto)
Diego Ibanez, an Occupy Sandy volunteer, confirmed Muriente’s version of events.
“The National Guard came to us and said you guys are way more organized than we are. They’re giving us stuff to hand out. We got over six hubs or collectives. Every twenty blocks, we have a new spot that we’re trying to engage with the community at. We’re not the Red Cross. We’re not FEMA, so it’s different. It’s grassroots. It’s guerilla-style. It’s a different kind of struggle, but we’re trying,” said Ibanez.
Muriente also reported seeing Homeland Security patrolling neighborhoods, and told me she witnessed armed Homeland Security personnel in military gear, bulletproof vests and holding long rifles, pull over three young black men in the middle of the dark Rockaway as they walked down the street.
“They basically pulled a stop-and-frisk in the middle of blackout, made them put their hands up, started patting them down, pulling out flashlights from their pockets, and when we confronted them about it, [Homeland Security personnel] said there had been looting,” she said. “That’s the only time I’ve seen a government official outside of a vehicle that whole day.”
Muriente added that Doctors Without Borders went to city officials to volunteer their expertise, and they were told they weren’t needed, so then they came to Occupy Sandy, who connected them with the Rockaway Youth Task Force and connected them with on-the-ground volunteers so they could go door-to-door and offer their assistance. (photo by Gideon Oliver)
“The other day, I had around five city officials from different emergency services taking down notes and asking me questions. It was unreal that I was telling them what was happening out there. It was completely ridiculous that they had no idea where what was, what was being done, where they could go, who was giving out aid. They’re totally lost,” Muriente said.
LaRoe, who has been with Occupy Wall Street since the beginning of the movement, described what’s happening now with the Occupy Sandy relief effort as “the opposite of a brain drain.”
“All of the best organizers from around the country have come to New York City [for Occupy], and a lot of them have stayed since last fall, and now we’ve all got our chops and we’ve got this great network set up, so now it’s like Occupy 2.0,” she said. “We’re able to use all the skills we’ve learned in the last year and put it into use here in an amazing way. To me, it’s like Occupy coming of age.”
LaRoe sees the Occupy Sandy effort extending beyond disaster relief, and believes this model could result in the creation of community hubs in order to empower individuals at a local level, allowing them to problem solve issues like the lack of affordable fresh produce in poor areas.
“We’re hoping to set up sustainable hubs where people in the community can go learn skills,” said LaRoe, adding that Occupy doesn’t want to fall into a disaster-relief cycle, where “aid” is strictly defined as handing out bottles of water and prepackaged food whenever the next super storm hits. “That’s disempowering,” said LaRoe. “We want to empower people to work within their communities to solve problems that they’re facing.”
Put another way: Occupy believes what’s needed post-Sandy is solidarity, not charity. Charity implies an almost superficial, short-term Band-Aid solution when what’s really needed is a serious long-term effort to bring communities together, not just during the month-long frenzy inspired by a disaster, but all the time in order to develop solutions that work for everyone instead of just the 1 percent.
This is the point SUNY disaster historian Jacob Remes, author of the forthcoming book Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, recently made to journalist Josh Eidelson:
“The best disaster relief is offered through solidarity, horizontally, through organizations that people are already members of. Sometimes that’s government. Often it’s not. Neoliberalism tries to dismantle government, but at the same time it creates this dynamic where all of the private interactions we have are economic exchanges. And that’s just as bad, especially in disaster relief.”
Remes’ proposed solution:
“I might sound like a family-values Republican here, but churches, unions — in the past, fraternal orders. Really any organization where people come together and build ties of solidarity on a regular basis can expand to doing this on an emergency basis. So we see Occupy Wall Street gearing up and doing a lot of disaster relief.”
Of course, there are always complaints about the recovery effort during the chaotic aftermath of a storm like Sandy. I’m offering the following testimony not to reflect negatively upon the entire Occupy Sandy effort, but rather to show there is significant problem with the entire temporary charity model LaRoe described, and to demonstrate that grassroots relief efforts sometimes fall into the same inefficiency trap national aid programs have been criticized over:
One volunteer named Kate Barrow complained about a relief station she volunteered at with a four-hour wait line for supplies and food. When she and her friends attempted to distribute supplies on the street, their efforts were thwarted by supervisors, who cautioned the crowd might “get out of control.”
“Because feeding people starts riots, apparently,” Kate wrote, clearly frustrated with the relief effort (Kate didn’t mention what group she volunteered to help).
Hers is not the first complaint I’ve heard/read from volunteers with the relief effort. It’s all too easy for a hub to be hijacked by small groups of people who harbor prejudices that corrupt otherwise nobel efforts.
“There were way too many racial microaggressions from the predominately white volunteers toward people of color coming from the community,” Kate wrote. “The most common was the assumption that people of color from the community weren’t volunteers, but trying to cut in line or sneak extra food or supplies, and an underlying tone that poor folks needed to be controlled or else total chaos would ensue.”
Nick Pinto, a staff writer at The Village Voice, tweeted about a similar experience at an Occupy Sandy set up at B113 Street.
“The relief response is incredibly disorganized,” Pinto tweeted. “The human response and mutual aid is inspiring. But at the same time, it is deeply disheartening to see the efficiency and replication.”
While Pinto was simply reporting the facts on the ground, it’s likely the chaos at these hubs may earn Occupy a certain degree of criticism, but such critiques would be somewhat misguided, and similar to the backlash the group received for its attempts to feed the homeless at Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011. At the time, certain media outlets bemoaned the fact that the homeless were flocking to Zuccotti once they learned of the promise of a hot meal, instead of, say, critiquing the state that permits individuals to go hungry.
What’s happening now on the ground is a patchwork recovery effort. Different organizations and aid groups are scrambling to join forces and find the most effective ways to get aid to storm victims, but the process of trying to achieve that goal can sometimes be chaotic. Muriente hasn’t seen the four-hour wait lines described by Kate, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist elsewhere.
“I haven’t seen it, but I haven’t been everywhere,” said Muriente. “What I see, for the most part, in the Rockaways, are different grassroots organizations that are handling different sites. We’re collaborating with a bunch of different organizations. There’s spaces like the one on 113th Street where Occupy Sandy is the bottom line and the guiding force, but there’s other sites where other organizations started doing the work and we’re just there to support them, providing additional resources. Everyone is doing things differently. There’s no one set formula.”
Grassroots aid efforts like Occupy Sandy aren’t perfect, but when FEMA and the Red Cross and the NYPD and the military fail to bring comfort and assistance to the communities of New York, Occupy attempted to fill the void, and for that, they should be commended.
Occupy Sandy has posted a list of volunteer locations and drop-off points.
How to help the recovery effort in Far Rockaway.