Sandy, Occupy, and the City’s Failures


It has been more than a week since Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and in much of the city, life has returned more or less to normal. Power is restored in Lower Manhattan, the subway lines running into the center of the city have largely restored service, and most people are back at work.

But at the periphery, in parts of the city where policy-makers and reporters and wealthy elites don’t live or work, the picture continues to be different.

In Staten Island, in Red Hook, and in the Rockaways, life is anything but normal. The devastation of the storm was severe—the winds and the storm surge tore houses apart, flooded streets and buildings, and set fires that raged through whole neighborhoods.

The media duly broadcast scenes from these areas of destruction, but for days after the storm, the dominant consensus in the media appeared to be that Sandy had been a doozy, sure, but New York was bouncing back, thanks to the thorough planning and rapid response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, New York City’s Office of Emergency Management, and the Red Cross. Mayor Bloomberg flooded the airwaves with frequent press conferences, projecting competence and reassurance.

In Red Hook, those reassurances didn’t mean much to residents of the neighborhood’s massive housing project. The Red Hook Houses were without electricity, heat, and clean water for days before the New York City Housing Authority began pumping out basements, a couple at a time, and slowly restoring power. A few days into the disaster, the National Guard began dropping off water and food in nearby Coffey Park, but residents said there was no official effort to do a real needs assessment. Food and water were abundant, but the elderly and the infirm were still stranded in apartments on high floors and in need of medication.

“They forgot about us,” one resident told the Voice. “We’re like on some other planet.”

In the Rockaways—where the storm surge rushed clear over the island, pushing beaches into homes and roadways, knocking out power, and filling every basement, storefront, and vehicle with saltwater—the situation was even more dire.

The most visually spectacular damage was in the gated community of Breezy Point, on the Rockaway spit’s western tip, where more than 80 homes were consumed in a massive fire. Slightly farther east, in the middle-class neighborhood of Belle Harbor, the streets were full of the detritus and ruined furniture of hundreds of flooded first floors.

Moving east along the Rockaway spit, as the single-family homes give way and are replaced by towering apartment buildings and housing projects, the damage of the storm becomes less immediately obvious. The towers still stand, undamaged. But if anything, the effects of the storm are felt even more severely here, by residents stranded on high floors, afraid of the pitch-black stairwells, afraid of the gangs that roam the streets at night.

Residents tell the Voice that in the days after the hurricane, men were knocking on apartment doors and announcing themselves as FEMA.

“Once you crack the door, they push in on you, come into your apartment, steal everything you’ve got,” says Thomas Daley, a resident of Bay Towers on Beach 98th Street.

By Sunday, almost a week after the storm, that was as close as many residents of the eastern Rockaways had come to seeing the real FEMA. The federal agency, along with local and nongovernmental counterparts like the OEM and Red Cross, was nowhere to be seen. “It’s just been us out here,” said Ahmed Abdul Jabbar, a Beach 98th Street resident, on Sunday.

In the void left by the slow and inadequate institutional emergency response, improvised relief networks sprang up. Neighbors helped one another. Community centers opened kitchens and distributed batteries. New York’s Sikh Cultural Society set up an extensive relief station in Rockaway Beach near the foot of the Cross Bay Bridge, handing out food and blankets under a banner emblazoned with the serene face of Guru Nanak.

One of the most impressive of these citizen relief efforts was Occupy Sandy, a coordinated citywide group of volunteers built on the technological and personal networks of Occupy Wall Street. From its headquarters in a Sunset Park church, Occupy Sandy distributed thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands in aid to storm-battered residents throughout the city.

In the eastern reaches of the Rockaways over the weekend, many residents said Occupy Sandy volunteers were the only relief workers they’d seen, the only people to bring them food, clean water, blankets, and information, the only people to ask what they needed and whether they knew of others in even worse shape who required immediate attention.

Occupy Sandy’s relatively strong showing in the week after the hurricane earned it a significant amount of glowing press coverage, and longtime Occupiers seized on the recognition, touting it as evidence of the movement’s relevance when many have pronounced it dead.

Some acknowledged the peculiarity of Occupy’s sudden transformation into a disaster-relief organization. A year ago in Zuccotti Park, the idea that Occupy’s energy and resources should be directed toward feeding the hungry would likely have been derided by many as a Band-Aid solution that distracted from making more systemic change.

Others see Occupy Sandy as a natural development for the movement, a testament to the power of people to build things for themselves in the ruins of a failing and neglectful state.

But to acknowledge Occupy Sandy’s relative competence is not to say that it is remotely adequate.

To be sure, Occupiers’ culture of solidarity and improvisational collective action is well suited to some aspects of disaster relief. But Occupy is not equipped to restore power to the pitch-black streets and stairwells of Red Hook and the Rockaways. Occupiers don’t have heavy machinery or any sort of emergency-response expertise. They’ve never done this before.

FEMA, the Office of Emergency Management, and the Red Cross have all these things. The story of volunteers and neighbors helping themselves is heartwarming and important. But even more important, as the days since Sandy hit stretch into weeks and months, will be the story of the failure of the institutional relief, the question of why, even with the mind-boggling resources of expertise, money, and infrastructure that these groups possess, their response in the city’s most hard-hit areas during one of New York’s greatest crises was so slow, disorganized, and ineffective.