Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern seaboard of the United States, government has been unable to restore normal living conditions to the worst-hit areas, all located a few miles from the financial center of Manhattan. It is incredible that a country which is spending untold billions to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan does not have the resources to get relief to people living in the nation’s symbolic center. Those who are suffering most are, as always, the poor and underprivileged.
Hurricane Sandy was just one of a series of extreme weather events this year, the kind of events which are likely to become much more frequent as a result of global warming. It hit the headlines primarily because it affected a highly populated area of the U.S., but its aftermath highlighted the fact that the municipal infrastructure in parts of New York City has for years been allowed to disintegrate. As a result, three weeks after the storm thousands living in the housing projects of Red Hook in Brooklyn, as well as the Rockaways in Queens and Staten Island (where many first responders also live) are still without electricity, heat, hot water, and medical support.
Photographer Matt Richter has been documenting relief efforts in the area’s public housing. He told Gothamist last week: “The sick and elderly are trapped on the top floors of high-rise buildings in cold, pitch-black apartments without anyone to check on them or anyone to talk to. Mothers cannot feed their children because all of the local storefronts have been destroyed by flooding and looted. Diabetics and asthmatics have run out of medicine. Residents are heating their homes using gas stovetops and poisoning themselves.”
Many have observed that FEMA and the Red Cross were slow and ineffective in getting relief to these communities, while members of the Occupy movement were able to mobilize and coordinate volunteers almost immediately. Individuals who had been active in the Zuccotti Park occupation acted the day after the storm to find out what people needed, then set up distribution centers at church premises in Brooklyn, from where volunteers have been taking supplies to Red Hook and the Rockaways. Occupy’s horizontal structure appears to have facilitated an inclusive and flexible response to the disaster.
In the Rockaways, according to Gothamist, “volunteer manpower—a precious resource in the Hurricane Sandy recovery—continues to be misdirected or squandered by those in charge of official relief efforts. ‘The city hasn’t reached out to us at all,’ said Matt Calender, a Rockaway resident who helps direct a bustling relief effort from a house on Beach 96th Street. ‘The Red Cross gave us 500 blankets the other day. FEMA talked to us. But that’s it. We station volunteers here, but we also send people downtown, where there is immense need’.”
Slate reported: “Unlike other shelters that had stopped collecting donations or were looking for volunteers with special skills such as medical training, Occupy Sandy was ready to take anyone willing to help. … Ethan Murphy, who was helping organize the food at St. Jacobi’s and had been cooking for the occupy movement over the past year, explained there wasn’t any kind of official decision or declaration that occupiers would now try to help with the hurricane aftermath. ‘This is what we do already,’ he explained: Build community, help neighbors, and create a world without the help of finance.”
John Knefel writes in Truthout: “One of Occupy’s defining features is horizontalism, or non-hierarchical organization, which replaces traditional methods of control with, in theory, mutual affinity and respect. The media often refers to this as “leaderlessness” and calls it a weakness, and when trying to interpret Occupy through the narrow lens of corporate-captured electoral politics that may be a fair criticism. But the premise is completely incorrect. … The fact that volunteers can be trained and assigned to tasks quickly – tasks they aren’t compelled by any strict authority to do and so therefore take ownership of almost immediately – is a virtue rather than a fatal flaw.”
The Red Cross and FEMA are hamstrung by bureaucracy and turf issues. FEMA field official Katherine Ordway told Time magazine: “It’s dark in those apartments and people are cold …They’re coming here wanting us to fix the problem in their homes, but we can’t. Restoring power and heat is not a FEMA issue. And that’s very frustrating.”
Occupy Wall Street framed their actions as the community self-adjusting to the crisis. What it also shows is that when communities are faced with rebuilding after a disaster, the philosophy of Occupy coincides with their modes of recreating social order. People who are protesting the control of banks and corrupt politicians over their lives can relate to those who have lost it all. One of the organizers of the relief effort, PhD student Pamela Brown, told Democracy Now: “organically, Occupy was able to organize very quickly on the ground and provide real relief to people, provide food and clothing. People were donating all of these things. And the Red Cross wasn’t really able to reach out to people in the way that was necessary to distribute those goods. … One of the things that Occupy has been amazing at with Sandy has been actually going to people, talking to them and saying, ‘What is it that you actually need?’ and providing that.”
While Occupy could not move large quantities of equipment and materiel to large areas, it can mobilize volunteers and concerned citizens in a way that the government cannot. A Time article considered: “Being among the first to move made Occupy a vital part of the city’s hurricane relief infrastructure. As a result, this radical nonstate movement finds itself in the unlikely position of coordinating with government institutions it might otherwise be in conflict with. … Ultimately, Occupy Sandy is an ethos, a grassroots, on-the-fly approach to disaster relief that, in certain areas of the city, has filled a void left by overwhelmed bureaucracies. It’s an approach adopted by numerous local groups and individuals throughout the city, and Occupy is in large part an attempt to link volunteers and donations to those efforts.”
The New York Times ran a story that contrasted the middle-class values of the volunteers with those of the working poor who are the recipients of aid. Naturally, any social interactions will not be free of class antagonisms. However, the fact that these interactions are taking place at all is a step to finding solutions to the daily struggles that project-dwellers face. What is needed is the inclusive and pluralistic ideology of the Occupy movement to facilitate equality and mutual respect.
As in New Orleans after Katrina, relations of power get rebuilt after disasters. But with Occupy Sandy, there is an opening for them to be challenged. The Occupiers are right to prepare for resistance against the opportunist interventions of financiers who seek to capitalize on crises by encouraging debt dependency, like the 2-year disaster loans small businesses are being advised to take or people’s borrowing against their retirement savings. Against the faceless world of finance capital and a government that serves it, Occupy Sandy is mobilizing the power of human and American solidarity—the recognition that, as Lincoln put it, united we stand.