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Imagining a ‘Just Recovery’ From Superstorm Sandy

Three months have passed since Hurricane Sandy battered New York and trashed the New Jersey coastline, and she hasn’t left. She’s still stalking the landscape strafed with mold and broken homes, and local activists worry that the government’s promises of tens of billions of dollars in federal funding will flood the storm-battered regions with further political turmoil.

Beyond the initial trauma of power outages and waterlogged houses, longer-term struggles still loom over communities like the Rockaways and the Staten Island coast. With recovery funding finally trickling down from Capitol Hill after weeks of gridlock, activists hope the resources won’t be exploited by predatory businesses and politicians, but rather channeled toward creating more inclusive, healthy communities.

In some ways, the grassroots recovery advocates have gotten a head start. Many of the early relief efforts have been radically volunteer-driven, and the Occupy Wall Street offshoot Occupy Sandy has often proven more effective and efficient than the bumbling “official” response by FEMA and other authorities. But how will the Occupiers fare in the impending scramble for contracts, grants and loans while businesses, organizations and government agencies all try to impose corporate visions for reconstruction on the storm-ravaged landscape?

Last weekend, the People’s Recovery Summit brought together a group of organizers and community members to discuss their ideas for a just recovery at the Church of St. Luke & St. Matthew in Brooklyn—the organizational hub of Occupy Sandy relief projects. Small committees drafted lists of concerns and goals: People wanted to see resources prioritized forpoor communities, immigrants, people of color and other vulnerable populations. Wary of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina (which became notorious for corruption and wholesale displacement of poor and black residents), some called for maximum transparency in the planning and financing process. Some wanted assurances that contracts would go to local businesses, or perhaps promote grassroots worker-run cooperatives. Generally they wanted power to be distributed “horizontally”—avoiding the top-down hierarchies controlled by large charities and corporations.

But one young Brooklynite and Occupy activist interjected with a mix of eagerness and frustration, “When are we really going to talk about things that are more concrete,” instead of just “vision?” He noted that the authorities have benefited indirectly from the labor donated by volunteers, but would the volunteerism lead to more local hiring as recovery projects get serious? “If you’re to make us work, at least pay us,” he said.

But what kind of jobs are we talking about? With the media’s attention already dissipating, can Sandy still spur a sea change in the dynamics of public investment and labor in an über-capitalist city?

One thing that’s clear is that conventional disaster responses have been insufficient and sometimes even counter-productive, especially for residents struggling to clear the scourge of mold from their homes and businesses. Residents have reported inconsistencies in the city’s“Rapid Repairs” program, which is supposed to fast-track the rebuilding.

Cynthia Scarcella, an activist with Make the Road New York and resident of Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, said at a rally at City Hall:

I have not been able to return home to Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, since Hurricane Sandy because my house is infested with mold and completely uninhabitable… Contractors can be expensive. I’ve tried calling Rapid Repairs and have relied on the help of volunteers to help me clean, but the mold keeps coming back.

Deep-rooted inequities surface in the recovery work as well. According to Eli Kent, director of organizing for Laborers International Union of North America Local 78, which represents mold remediation workers, respect for basic labor standards might vary widely from worksite to worksite: [cont’d.]

Originally posted at In These Times

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