Where FEMA Fails, #OccupySandy Delivers Storm Relief
The Occupy Wall Street movement, nearly forgotten after a brief but global flourish a year ago, has found a new mission delivering emergency aid to Sandy-stricken residents of New York and New Jersey.
In what is arguably the movement’s finest hour, hundreds of grassroots volunteers came together and went to work in the immediate aftermath of Sandy’s fury, coordinating relief efforts and delivering supplies to desperate residents even as the official government response to the disaster lagged woefully behind.
The day after Sandy blew through the tri-state area, Occupiers established an operational base in St. Jacobi Church in Brooklyn. Using their renowned social media savvy and relying upon the fierce determination of volunteers, Occupy Sandy began collecting donations by the truckload and distributing them among some of the storm’s neediest victims.
Canned and cooked food, water, medicine, clothing, shoes, blankets, tools, flashlights, batteries, pet food, construction materials and other essentials have been handed out in large quantities.
When a second storm, a fierce nor’easter, menaced the region last Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shut down three mobile disaster units dispatched to aid Sandy victims on Staten Island. But Occupy Sandy volunteers rode out the storm, handing out supplies from dozens of relief centers across New York and New Jersey, teaming up with community organizations and volunteer groups to help as many people stay warm, dry and fed as they possibly can.
“It’s crazy, for a long time, we were the only people out here doing relief work,” Sofia Gallisa, a field coordinator in the hard-hit Rockaways in Queens, told the New York Times.
Occupy Sandy isn’t the only, or even necessarily the most prominent, source of aid for storm victims. Much relief has come from local religious groups like the Sikhs who served hot bowls of rice and beans on a Queens corner to members of Congregation Beth Elohim, who handed out thousands of sandwiches and hot meals. Beth Elohim is working with Occupy Sandy to distribute donated food and supplies.
“Organizations like us, and Occupy Sandy, we’re all grassroots,” Beth Elohim program director Cindy Greenberg told Metrofocus. “Where is the national crisis response? There’s nobody in the Rockaways.”
While federal relief has slowly made its way to some of the areas hardest-hit by Sandy, not all areas are being served and the situation remains dire. Thousands of people remain literally powerless and in the dark in Sandy’s wake, and FEMA is often nowhere to be found. Desperation set in long ago.
“We have no electricity, no water and some of us don’t have enough food,” Rockaway resident Melissa Lopez told the Huffington Post. “When are we going to get help?”
“We’re being ignored down here,” Queens resident Laura O’Connor pleaded. “Where can our people get food?”
“I get that it is tough to coordinate the cleanup, but it is not tough to coordinate bringing in food,” Phillip Goldfelder, who represents the Rockaways in the New York State Assembly, told the AP. “We are not asking for anything complicated. We are begging for food, begging for blankets.”
Among the volunteers who stepped in to deliver where the government and some prominent charities could not were the men and women of Occupy Sandy. As authorities struggled to get the power back on, clear storm damage and maintain public order, Occupy set up dozens of distribution centers where hundreds of volunteers cooked hot meals, sorted through tons of donated supplies and organized convoys of borrowed vehicles to deliver relief aid. The leaderless group also organized a medical committee, construction teams and even a weather center of one who broadcast weather forecasts over his computer.
“This is young people making history,” Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University in the Bronx who studied the Occupy Wall Street movement, told the Associated Press. “Young people who are refusing to let people suffer without putting themselves on the line to do something about it.”
Many of the skills that are proving so valuable in Occupy Sandy’s relief efforts were honed on the streets, in occupied public spaces and on social media sites during Occupy Wall Street’s fall/winter 2011-2012 flowering. The first few Occupy Sandy organizers were veterans of Occupy Wall Street’s two-month occupation of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, but as the word spread the group became a mix of seasoned OWS vets and fresh-faced newcomers.
The group that changed the way America talks about economic inequality and sparked a global grassroots movement of the “99 percent” dedicated to making the world a more fair place had fallen on some hard times after its brief glory period last year. A combination of cold weather, waning media interest, infiltration by pseudo-anarchist fringe elements with little interest in economic inequality and much interest in mayhem, and the resulting vilification of the movement by the media and conservative politicians all helped render Occupy all but forgotten. It wasn’t that the OWS had gone away. In fact, Occupiers have been fighting hard for positive change in everything from the way people bank to the way they eat. Occupy Our Homes has even saved many homeowners from foreclosure, perhaps the movement’s greatest success stories until Occupy Sandy.
From helping homeowners stay in their homes to assisting those who’ve lost theirs to Sandy, one of the most interesting constants about the Occupy movement is its leaderless structure.
“You see a need and you fulfill it,” Diego Ibanez, 24, told the AP. “There’s not a boss to tell you that you can’t do this or you can’t do that. Zuccotti was one of the best trainings in how to mobilize so quickly.”
While critics decry Occupy’s lack of organization, it was the movement’s fluid, leaderless structure that allowed it to mobilize and respond more quickly and dynamically to Sandy’s challenges than many government agencies and larger, well-established charities. As storm-stricken residents wondered where their government was and former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani slammed FEMA as “as much of a failure now as it was at the time of Katrina,” Occupy Sandy was delivering hot meals, batteries and blankets in the hardest-hit areas. Occupy medics and nurses went door to door to check on the sick and the elderly.
Indeed, a photo of Occupy Sandy volunteers feeding FEMA workers from the back of a truck making the internet rounds– there’s even a meme– has illustrated the disparity in response between agile Occupy Sandy and the cumbersome federal government.
Even as the federal government steps up its emergency response to the storm, there are places where residents say they are being ignored. Eric Moed, an architect and volunteer aid worker with Occupy Sandy, called the situation in public housing projects in Coney Island, Brooklyn a “humanitarian crisis.” There is still no power and often no water in the projects, and sick and elderly residents are at risk of death without food, water or heating in the frigid autumn nights.
“I’ve been on the ground here for four days. I’ve seen zero FEMA people,” Moed told the Huffington Post on Monday. “Occasionally a Red Cross truck will come through with hot meals. But there’ll be one truck for 15-20 buildings.”
“People literally have no power, no food, no water, no bathrooms– they’re defecating in buckets. And there is no one to answer for it,” Moed added. “The needs are so dire and so desperate at this point that we’ve just been down there trying to get that stuff documented and taken care of.”
“I think we wouldn’t be able to survive without them,” Queens resident Kathleen Ryan, who was waiting in a makeshift pharmacy for Occupy Sandy volunteers to get her diabetes medication, told the AP. “This place is phenomenal. This community. They’ve helped a great deal.”
Indeed, Occupy’s response to the Sandy disaster may very well be the movement’s finest hour. But members of the group shy away from such accolades.
“We always had mutual aid going on,” Occupier Carrie Morris told the AP. “It’s a big part of what we do. That’s the idea, to help each other. And we want to serve as a model for the larger society that, you know, everybody should be doing this.”
To donate to or to volunteer with Occupy Sandy, click here.
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