It looked like a war zone. Hundreds of cars littered the streets and sidewalks; large boats had made it far inland during the hurricane and with their torn bodies, rested in the middle of dusty streets. Almost every building had a large pile of trash in front of it – furniture, carpets, cabinets, clothes. The electricity was still out and is not expected to be on until Christmas. Hurricane Sandy was not kind to the Queens neighborhood of Far Rockaway. The hurricane has affected everyone in some way. Two of my mother’s coworkers lost their homes to the hurricane. They were the lucky ones. Two students I know lost their mothers.
Shortly after the hurricane hit, members of Occupy Wall Street, with assistance from the climate justice group 350.org and recovers.org, established Occupy Sandy Relief to go into neighborhoods like Far Rockaway where the government response was sluggish at best and provide relief. Community organizations and Occupiers banded together and overnight established dozens of relief centers and supplies drop-off sites. The two major hubs for Occupy Sandy Relief are located at churches in the Clinton Hill and Sunset Park neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Thousands of volunteers show up daily at these two sites and others and are dispatched all over the city to deliver food, gut houses and walk up twenty or more flights of stairs in buildings still without power to provide food and blankets to residents. Occupy groups and supporters across the country started to ship in supplies and donations. Occupy Utica set up two drop-off sites, one at The Other Side on Genesee Street and another at Trinity Church.
The support was overwhelming. Occupy Utica activists and others accepted and sorted donations every day for the better part of the week. Rebecca Lloyd Wittman, a local lawyer, spearheaded a campaign to bring donations to Occupy Sandy Relief and bring food from local restaurants, bakeries and cooks down to Far Rockaway after getting inspiration from a group 100 Cooks for a Cause. Truckloads of supplies headed down to New York City all week and much help was provided by Occupy Albany and John Ryan from the local veteran’s group Forty and Eight in Oriskany. He commandeered his organization’s truck that looks like a locomotive and is only used for parades. An exception was made for the vehicle to help those in need. To date, five supply runs have been made to New York City and New Jersey.
Two groups headed down to Far Rockaway on November 10 to gut houses that took in three feet of water and serve food. Luck would have it that two members of Occupy Utica did extensive relief work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They put their experience and skills to work and one, Joe Bepko, is still in New Jersey doing relief work. Although Occupy Utica is not collecting any more donations at the moment, we are encouraging people to make donations on the Occupy Sandy Relief website and stay informed on our blog.
When I arrived at St. Jacobi Church, one of the main relief sites, Friday night to drop off supplies, the place was packed with all kinds of donations. Over a dozen people worked late into Friday night sorting and I thanked them in my broken Spanish for what they were doing. The next morning, I arrived at the Clinton Hill site with over 100 other volunteers to be dispatched to Far Rockaway. When I reached my destination it was a struggle to hold back tears. Far Rockaway is simply not recovering. That neighborhood, and a number of others, has been largely ignored by the government. The residents of the homes that we gutted thanked us profusely for helping out – it was the first help of any kind they actually received. The Red Cross however did stop by one of the houses and dropped off a bucket with bleach but gave the residents inaccurate information on mold remediation. It makes me wonder where exactly the many millions of dollars raised by the Red Cross in the past two weeks for relief work have gone. No wonder the borough president of Staten Island called for a boycott of the organization.
One resident broke down in tears in front of us. She and her husband are two of 100,000s that have been abandoned by the government and many like them are having a rude awakening that this government can invade and occupy foreign countries over night and can bail out corrupt financial institutions at the drop of a hat to the tune of $13 trillion but are unable and unwilling to give the same attention, planning and resources to the people of New York and New Jersey. The National Guard, city officials and FEMA have actually gone to Occupy Sandy Relief briefings and sat down with Occupy organizers to get advice on how to effectively respond to this disaster, especially in neighborhoods like Red Hook where Occupy has taken the lead in relief work. The message should be clear that people are more capable, more efficient and more knowledgeable in addressing the needs of their communities. Out of the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy people are discovering that mutual aid and autonomy are rebuilding communities in a much different way than the government can ever imagine.
Brendan Maslauskas Dunn
(This story was written November 12. Photos taken by Trinh Truong.)