CommunityThe Dissenter

Occupy Sandy Relief Fills Void FEMA & Red Cross Are Unable to Fill

One week since “Frankenstorm” Sandy hit the northeastern United States, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg projects twenty to forty thousands New Yorkers. Residents on the Rockaway Peninsula are complaining about the lack of help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A posting at Occupy Sandy Stories described, “Many Staten Islanders feel their borough is being overlooked and ignored by authorities.”

The denunciation of the Red Cross by Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro, covered by “Democracy Now!”, largely affirms this feeling of neglect permeating the community:

…I’ve got to tell you, as the borough president of Staten Island, of a half-a-million people, I am disappointed at some of these not-for-profit organizations that collect lots and lots of money from Staten Islanders and didn’t respond, and one of them being this American Red Cross. I have not seen the American Red Cross at a shelter. I have not seen them down south shore, where people are buried in their own homes, have nothing to eat, have nothing to drink.

And yesterday, touring the south shore with the mayor, touring the south shore with the mayor, the neighbors down there that didn’t have electricity managed to put together pots of soup, and they were distributing it to the people down there whose homes were just destroyed. And the American Red Cross was nowhere to be found. So, all the American Red Cross, all these people making these big salaries, these big salaries, should be out there on the front line. And I am disappointed. And my advice to the people of Staten Island is: do not donate to the American Red Cross. Let them get their money elsewhere…

Stepping in to immediately do what the government and private non-profit relief organizations seem incapable of doing, Occupy Sandy Relief has been on the ground. According to The Nation‘s Allison Kilkenny,  “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.”

One organizer, Michael Premo, told Kilkenny that the mobilization efforts had so far included an estimated “2,500 volunteers, 15,000 meals and 120 carloads of supplies.” The presence of Occupy, Kilkenny wrote, showed there is need for solidarity, not charity.

Reporting that Julieta Salgado, a Brooklyn College student and organizer had sent text messages out and then ended up at the Red Hook Initiative, Sarah Jaffe eloquently described why Occupy might be outperforming the Red Cross:

…There’s a particular opportunity for mutual aid in the void in the aftermath of disaster, particularly in a neoliberal state whose safety net has been shredded, where the state simply isn’t there and people step up to take care of each other (not “themselves” as our libertarian friends would have it, and not the rich handing out charity as Mitt Romney wants you to believe, but communities in solidarity). The idea of mutual aid was at the foundation of Occupy as much as the much-debated horizontalism and the opposition to the banks…

Laurie Penny wrote in another blog post:

…It’s no accident that the original Occupy Wall Street organisers were among the first to set up and co-ordinate volunteering efforts across New York. The group, which has drifted in recent months, immediately set about organising teams and transportation to the worst-hit areas.The Zucotti Park protest camp which was evicted last November and the enormous post-Sandy volunteer effort going on this week are different expressions of the same thing: overwhelming human response to crisis…

Sofía Gallisá Muriente, who has been helping with the relief effort in the Rockaways, had not seen Red Cross or “any other aid outside of Occupy Sandy.” Muriente told Kilkenny:

“A lot of people have made it very clear we’re the only ones helping them out…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.”

Muriente detailed in a blog post on November 2 what it was like to see devastation. The day for Muriente was one that turned “into a marathon of oh-my-gods and holy-shits” that seemed to be “the only empty phrases” one could “call on when you’re driven speechless by what surrounds you.” Muriente wondered, “What happened here? How is this not in the news? Where is the government? What can I do? Where do we even start? The enormity of the desperation and destruction is such, that you just feel like it’s out of your hands, above your pay grade, beyond your biggest efforts.”

The government may not have been out helping people, but it was on the scene to protect property. Muriente described an encounter with an armored Homeland Security patrol:

…We gave a ride to a neighbor and fellow volunteer that had walked 40 blocks to be with us. Suddenly, we found ourselves behind a Homeland Security armored vehicle parked on the middle of the street. Men in military uniforms and bulletproof vests climbed out holding long rifles and surrounded a group of three young black males. The guys put down the cans they were holding, put up their hands and smirked. The four women in our car looked on horrified, and I pulled out my cell phone camera as fast as I could, only to be confronted by one of the men in uniform. “There’s been looting”, he said, and I realized he was the first government official of any kind I’d seen outside of a vehicle today. Everyone else had been guarding a gas station or a cell-phone recharging generator. We were shaking with anger, and were instructed to move on…

The truth of the devastation has just gradually begun to make its way out to the rest of the nation. Like Occupy Sandy Relief, which has stepped in to fill the void created by the absence of government or private charity, journalists known for covering Occupy have stepped into fill a void created by the absence of journalism.

People like Molly Knefel and John Knefel have gone to these areas and reported on the horrific reality in the aftermath—the fact that more and more bodies are being found each day and the death toll is likely to continue to increase.

…Teresa Marie, who’s helping organize relief efforts on the ground, spoke with us over the phone on Saturday morning. “My father is pulling dead bodies out of the water, and I have friends [who have walked] out of their houses and there’s dead bodies floating up next to their feet.” She told us that the situation on Staten Island is severely under-reported, a sentiment shared by every person we spoke with. Her voice was desperate and she apologized several times for getting emotional. “We definitely need help down here,” she said. “Anything people can do to get it to us is appreciated beyond belief.”…

The Guardian’s Ryan Devereaux, another journalist like Jaffe, Kilkenny and Molly and John Knefel, who are known for their work covering Occupy, reported on the “nightmare” that residents are living.

…On Saturday night Marie Figuerosa slept in her home completely dressed and shivering. “It was freezing in here but we have no other choice,” she said. “It’s a nightmare.”

The home Figuerosa shares with her four children and her husband, Francisco, has a yellow inspection sign on the front door indicating they cannot sleep inside due to safety issues. The couple says they do not have enough gas to leave even if they wanted to. Needing to wait for officials to come and assess their losses and fearing looters might steal what they have left, they say the order is all but impossible to obey. Their children have been taken to her mother’s home in Brooklyn. The couple is staying put for the time being…

The scenes are incredibly unnerving. They are made up of sadness, despair and hopelessness. Yet, amidst it all is the bold movement that awoke the spirit of revolt in America back in September 17—Occupy.

Anyone who went out to an encampment between September 2011 and February 2012 would know that this effort to help community is not terribly unique to the movement. There may have been no superstorm for Occupy to respond to in the past year, but Occupy was connecting with community and giving back to the homeless and other groups impacted by poverty. They were mobilizing to defend homes from foreclosure. Now, residents are getting to see the true value of having a healthy social movement in a community.

*Here’s an interactive map showing Occupy Sandy Relief efforts. The map shows where residents nearby can volunteer or make donations to help those suffering from the aftermath of Sandy.


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."