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Enough Is Enough: Occupy Sandy and Pursuing Environmental Justice in Our Most Vulnerable Communites

Supplies piled on tables at an Occupy Sandy center.

Supplies piled on tables at an Occupy Sandy center

Marybeth Onyeukwu works for FDL and went to New York to coordinate with OccupySandy organizers.  This is her report.

Admittedly, before heading to New York to learn about the OccupySandy relief effort, I did not fully appreciate or understand the Occupy Movement as a whole. All I could glean from the mainstream media coverage on Occupy Wall Street (OWS) it was a movement demanding accountability of the one percent – that small elite of society that controls about half of the nation’s wealth through extortionate and insidious means. I was intrigued to hear the same movement responsible for leading the battle cry against a plutocratic society has now become one of the key players in Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.

Once I arrived at St. Jacobi Evangelical Lutheran Church, I was immediately thrown into the operation. My first stop was orientation where I was able to get a general understanding of the logistics behind Occupy Sandy. St. Jacobi serves as one of the two major distribution centers that receive donations that will immediately go out to the recovery sites most affected by Hurricane Sandy.

From the time I arrived to the time I left there was a constant stream of supplies and volunteers circulating through the distribution center. After spending some time helping unload donations, I began to hear the frustrations and outrage over the lack of government support. Residents are still without electricity, heat or running water -three weeks after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the northeastern coast. Juan Guzman, community member and volunteer, is the most vocal critic of the city’s poor handling of the situation.

Where is FEMA? Where is the Red Cross? Nowhere. I strongly believe in the power of the people because there is no red tape attached there. The government -there’s always red tape. So the process is always slower.

I have only one question. Why? Why is the process always slower? Why do our systems fail to respond in times of dire emergency? It is morally reprehensible that residents are left stranded by a government mandated to serve its people.

Eventually, I was able to make it to Far Rockaway Queens. Almost immediately, the devastation begins to engulf you. The streets are filled with debris. Piles of sand stand at least six feet tall. Homes are destroyed. Police help to direct traffic. People wrap around a local community center and food trucks to receive hot meals. Ocean Bay apartments are being powered by generators. You can see where the flood waters reached – about five feet above the ground.  We arrive at a church, St. Gertrude’s on Beach 38th street – a recovery center where residents receive much needed aid. I was able to speak with one of the onsite coordinators, Diana, who recounts for me the story of a man who lost everything he owned in the flood waters. To listen to the heartbreak is almost unbearable.

Occupy Sandy Relief banner hangs over relief supplies.

Occupy Sandy St. Jacobi Relief Center

Unfortunately, disasters like Hurricane Sandy make glaringly obvious the income inequalities that exist within cities. As a member of low-income community in Washington DC known as East of the River, I know of all too well the feeling of abandonment. Washington DC is one of the wealthier cities in the nation. The median household income in the district is $100,000, while at the same time 1 in 5 children live below the poverty line;, almost double that of the national average. It is a forgotten community within arguably the most important city in the world. A place where thousands of interns, activists and organizers come to “change the world,” but almost none are aware of the gross disparities happening right in the nation’s capital.

Businesses are given free reign to pursue the Almighty Dollar without any regard of the communities they affect.  The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in DC is tragic, but  unfortunately an accepted reality by those gripped in the tentacles of an oppressive system. Likewise, on a macro level, it is this same philosophy of reckless disaster capitalism that has culminated in Hurricane Sandy. As corporations are given free reign to burn fossil fuels that release toxic carbon emissions in the air system, with little to no regulation, our planet’s temperature continues to rise causing sea levels to surge. As sea levels increase, we will continue to witness extreme and dangerous weather patterns including catastrophic hurricanes such as Sandy.

As someone who is tired of seeing my city and other cities around the country bear the grunt of inhumane business practices, I say it is time for Occupy volunteers to start using their resources and expertise to stop dangerous environmental policies that ultimately end up devastating our communities. We have the unique opportunity to pressure officials to enact stronger environmental policy that will protect the planet, and subsequently, future generations. Now is the time to do it, while the public interest is high and while the effort has the people power to do it.  Let’s be honest.  It will take more than an ad hoc coalition of various organizations to complete the task of restoration.  I echo the sentiments of Juan Carlos, St. Jacobi’s community center director:

We are letting them off the hook, by doing the work they are supposed to do.

Yes, we are letting our elected officials off the hook. We must demand our representatives start doing their jobs. It is not enough to make statements of commitment. We need action. We need long-term solutions that will finally address the issues of environmental justice, especially the most important issue of our generation -climate change. Our planet is undergoing a severe crisis that unfortunately leaves our most vulnerable communities to suffer the consequences of an irresponsible and exploitative business model.

It has been 3 weeks since I have visited Far Rockaway Queens and not much has changed. Families are still without electricity, heat or running water.  In fact, the situation has only worsened. People are living in mold infested homes with no other choice but to use ovens for warmth. Very few have the option of retreating to a relative or friend’s home. Soon these homes will be condemned and many will face the threat of homelessness.  To add insult to injury, Mayor Bloomberg’s office has ordered the 489 Midland recovery hub in Staten Island to stop its operation. One word: Abominable. It’s almost as if he is waiting for the media to stop paying attention then bulldoze these communities in order for vulture capitalists to begin “reconstruction” efforts that ultimately end up displacing thousands of people.  Again, enough is enough. It is time for us to make our voices heard.

All photos by Marybeth Onyeukwu.

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Marybeth Onyeukwu

Marybeth Onyeukwu