- NYC 11/11/2012 by ALAN FEUER (NY TIMES)
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.
OCCUPY SANDY was initially the work of a half-dozen veterans of Zuccotti Park who, on the Tuesday following the storm, made their way to public housing projects in the Rockaways and Red Hook, Brooklyn, delivering flashlights and trays of hot lasagna to residents neglected by the government. They arranged for vans to help some people relocate into shelters. When they returned to civilization, they spent the night with their extra bags of stuff at St. Jacobi Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
“They asked if they could crash here,” said Juan-Carlos Ruiz, a community organizer there who knew the Occupiers from their previous endeavors. “Those few bags became this enormous organic operation. It’s evidence that when official channels fail, other parts of society respond.”
When newcomers arrive at St. Jacobi — or at its sister site at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in nearby Clinton Hill — they undergo an orientation course during which the volunteering process is explained and people are quickly introduced to the movement’s guiding spirit. There is sensitivity training (“We’re here to listen and be human”) and door-to-door training for those going into stricken communities.
All participants are asked to write their first names on a piece of masking tape and to place it somewhere prominent on their bodies. The informal atmosphere results in classic Occupy exchanges: “If you have a car, you should cluster up and go see Alexis in the shearling hat.”
Occupy Wall Street is capable of summoning an army with the posting of a tweet, and many of the volunteers last week were self-identifying veterans of the movement, although many more were not. Given the numbers passing through the churches, both fresh-faced amateurs and the Occupy managerial class — a label it would reject — were in evidence.
The St. Luke’s kitchen sits in the basement of the church, beside a well-stocked pantry of donations that on Tuesday morning was overflowing with cans of kidney beans, bottles of chocolate syrup, gallon jugs of corn oil and enormous quantities of organic Arborio rice. The peanut-butter-and-jelly team was busy making sandwiches at a table. On the crew that day, there were a Yale University student, a chef on medical leave from an institutional kitchen, a tourist visiting from Luxembourg, a budding fiction writer and an independent radio producer with her 9-year-old son, Zachary.
“We’ve made everything so far,” Susie Lindenbaum, an actress, said. “Rice and beans. Beef chili. Rosemary noodles. A big bread pudding and vegan collard greens.”
Upstairs, contributions arrived around the clock, coming in by telephone or received in person by runners who hauled the goods from cars parked at the curb to a basement sorting space where everything was organized according to handmade signs (“Shoes Here,” “Drinks & Water Here”). Volunteer drivers shuttled these supplies to more than 20 “field sites” in the hardest-hit locations: Red Hook, the Rockaways and Coney and Staten Islands.
“The long-term needs are where the real problems are,” a veteran of Occupy Wall Street said. “Where we’re headed now is into cleanup and rebuilding.” Here, the Rockaways.
Volunteers at field sites in the most hard-hit areas bring flashlights and hot meals to residents.
The Occupiers sometimes say a disconnect exists between the highly functioning distro sites and the more chaotic centers in the field. On election night, for instance, the television network Comedy Central donated 11,000 prepackaged pieces of apple pie, and volunteers who were headed in the morning to Red Hook and beyond were ordered not to leave without an armful. Most of the pies did not make it to their destinations — not that Ms. Gallisa, the field coordinator working in the Rockaways, would have wanted them. By Wednesday afternoon, with the new storm rolling in, she and her outreach team were scurrying among their various storage sites, trying to secure their own supplies.
Bridging the gap between the churches and the field is Andrew Smith, 27, who early last week was holed up in the St. Luke’s organ loft working on a list of crucial chores for the next big project: neighborhood reconstruction. On a giant pad of newsprint, Mr. Smith had jotted down two words: “Guts Logistics” — Occupy Sandy was getting into the renovation business. Under this heading, there were three numbered tasks: “1) Remove damaged materials. 2) Let buildings air out. 3) Mold remediation.”
“The long-term needs are where the real problems are,” said Mr. Smith, an experienced Occupier who two months ago helped to plan the protests marking the first anniversary of the Zuccotti occupation. “Where we’re headed now is into cleanup and rebuilding.” Volunteer brigades were scheduled, he said, to deploy to damaged areas on Saturday and Sunday. A budget for further reconstruction was already being planned.
Indeed, after he finished his to-do list and took the subway south to St. Jacobi, a woman poked her head out from the Staten Island War Room and called to him loudly as he went by, “Andy, we need more construction workers!” Acknowledging her request, Mr. Smith went up to the second-story communications room, where a six-person team was working on the protocols for accepting contributions on the phone.
After listening for a moment, Mr. Smith tendered a suggestion and the man in charge — the name on his masking tape was Peter — sighed in exasperation. “Look,” Peter said, “the amount of self-organizing here, it’s coming a bit too fast. I’m losing track, all right?” One of his colleagues asked him if he had eaten yet that day; Peter replied that he had not. Mr. Smith reached into his backpack and handed him a sandwich.
Then one of the hot-line operators rushed into the room. It seemed the Red Cross was sending them — them! — a tractor-trailer full of fresh wool blankets.
“A tractor-trailer?” Mr. Smith exclaimed.
Utterly exhausted, he laid his forehead on the shoulder of the Occupier beside him.
Pictured below: Orientation at An Occupy Sandy collection-distribution center in Brooklyn.