Sand is still being swept out of open doors down the narrow church hallway when we arrive. I walk in a narrow file with six other medical volunteers, carefully balancing the box of glucometers and other supplies on my shoulder. “Where do you want us to put the clinic?” one of us asks the wiry parish superintendent in a yellow safety vest. “Come this way,” he gestures rapidly, turning briskly on his heel, and dodging through the jostling crowd of frantic activity choking the hall. We weave after him among the dozens of others criss-crossing through narrow doorways carrying brooms, drills, and boxes of food. There are volunteers who drove here to help, like ourselves, as well as those who live only a few blocks from this place. For now, all of us are set firmly together to the task of building an ad-hoc relief center to serve this neighborhood. Outside, residents are piling the contents of their homes into the streets, from personal possessions to the waterlogged plaster of their own walls, to be carried away by itinerant garbage trucks.
We have arrived in Far Rockaway, a far strand of Queens whose point stretches south into the face of the Atlantic. When Hurricane Sandy hit this urban beach-side neighborhood, the storm surge swept across the entire width of the narrow peninsula, drowning the first story of every building here in five feet of water or more. For dozens of blocks, the carcasses of storm-struck cars litter the streets beside the rubble of displaced structures. Vast phantom stretches of intact boardwalk lie draped over inland roadways; the occasional upward curvatures of its wood-slatted spine suggest the contours of the lost vehicles crushed below. A mixture of coastal mist and toxic dust cloaks the battered streets and hides the upper stories of public housing high-rises. Driving through the surviving town, the silhouettes of National Guard Humvees occasionally emerge out of the haze, their empty gun turrets lumbering above the roof lines of self-directed traffic. For the first week following the hurricane, little to no relief reached this area, and residents were largely left on their own. Now, alongside volunteers from Occupy Sandy, they have taken charge of providing for one another.
As a part of a small team of volunteers from Boston, I have traveled down repeatedly to join the recovery effort. What we found was an emergent ecosystem of citizen-run relief, expanding outwards upon a wellspring of goodwill from hundreds of New Yorkers who have volunteered and donated supplies, and facilitated by core groups of Occupy Wall Street activists. Those activists began Occupy Sandy as a provisional community response to the storm, but as the first week passed with FEMA and the Red Cross failing to make an appearance in many of the affected neighborhoods, it became increasingly apparent to residents and organizers that we would have to help one another, because no other help was forthcoming.
Many of the core organizers, mostly veterans of Occupy, have quickly found that their unique experience running a self-directed, cooperative mutual aid network during the occupation of Zuccotti Park is now an indispensable asset in helping communities recover from Hurricane Sandy. The federal bureaucracies and nonprofit organizations which are nominally responsible for the relief effort are accustomed to top-down mobilizations and a tightly managed response, and were not able to adapt as effectively or move as rapidly into affected neighborhoods as the autonomous and cooperative efforts of Occupy Sandy. Established organizations’ procurement-based supply lines couldn’t process mountains of items donated from individuals’ pantry shelves, and their professionalized workforces couldn’t absorb the thousands of “untrained” residents who wanted to help their stricken neighbors. Occupy Sandy could do those things, rapidly orienting and dispatching new volunteers, collecting masses of supplies, and setting up community relief hubs in which local residents took leading organizing roles.
At 520 Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, a cavernous Episcopal cathedral serves as one of the two major nerve centers of Occupy Sandy. Here, donations are collected from around the city and increasingly across the country, as new volunteers are rapidly oriented and briefed before being dispatched to communities in Coney Island, Far Rockaway, Red Hook, Astoria, and Staten Island to distribute survival supplies, perform medical checks, and help residents clear out their waterlogged homes before black mold can take root.
Several hours after our small team arrived at the church in Far Rockaway, we had set up our generator and connected it to the existing wiring in the two rooms which were to serve as the community clinic. Our medical volunteers were a mix of Boston and New York area street medics, as well several nurses from NYU and one physician. With a bare-bones clinic established and serving walk-in patients, a number of us set out in pairs to perform door to door check-ins. I paired up with a nurse from NYU, whose hospital was flooded during the storm and which is just now beginning to re-open. Walking the streets and talking to neighbors, we were able to bring people necessary medications, advise people on how to stay warm in the cold, and distribute hand warmers and food.
Well into the night after our fist relief trip to the city, my friends and I walked back towards our bus to Boston, all of us dead tired from the long days behind us. We wandered through the eerily blackened towers of downtown Manhattan, where thousands of feet of obsidian glass shimmered above us in the new moonlight. The dark offices, host to powerful multinational law firms and their clients, were empty, but the streets below them were a hive of well-lit, official activity. Troops and federal workers came and went from the gaping entrances to these buildings’ subterranean garages, all of which had been rigged with improvised lighting to facilitate the uninterrupted effort to pump seawater out of each parking lot, around the clock. It was an impressive sight, watching dozens of soldiers and emergency workers clean out the concrete caverns where nobody lives.