Do-it-yourself disaster relief

Sherry Wolf reports on the actions of ordinary New Yorkers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy--which had to make up for the shortcomings of the federal response.

Hundreds lined up at the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence office to volunteer for relief efforts (Gary Lapon | SW)Hundreds lined up at the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence office to volunteer for relief efforts (Gary Lapon | SW)

ORDINARY PEOPLE can be extraordinary in a crisis. During a mammoth storm, they can risk their own lives to pull others from harm's way.

Within hours, they can load up cars and vans with those stranded by floods, whisk them away to makeshift shelters and return to pick up more.

And in just a couple of days, they can coordinate themselves into a network of thousands to work with community groups, houses of worship, schools and YMCAs to prepare and deliver food, water, clean clothes and emergency provisions to thousands without power and whose homes have been destroyed.

The mass volunteer effort in New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is a marvel of human empathy and ingenuity. Participating in and witnessing it firsthand is a sure antidote to cynicism about our society's potential for unity and collaboration. But it is not a sufficient means to orchestrate disaster relief for a city of millions.

If you watch national television, you get the idea that the state and federal governments are coordinating a colossal relief effort throughout the tri-state area. But whatever efforts are being coordinated by FEMA in cahoots with the states, there is little to no evidence of them four days after the storm in the hardest-hit areas where poor and working class people live and work.

Kyle Brown, a North Brooklyn resident who worked as a volunteer on Friday, says he saw no signs of any government relief efforts in the Lower East Side's housing projects along the flooded East River:

Problem is, we were out of everything (especially water) within minutes. It became clear really fast that what we could physically carry with us, while important, would barely make a dent in what was actually needed. Gary and I looked toward the skyline and saw high-rise buildings 10 times the size all around us. There's just no way these ragtag operations can even touch the enormity of the situation.

The financial capital of the U.S. Empire is limping through its greatest crisis in decades. And yet, in a borough like Manhattan where income inequality before the storm rivaled that of sub-Saharan Africa, almost all visible disaster relief efforts are being coordinated by community activists, teachers and students whose schools are closed, unemployed people and workers of every stripe.

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GLOBAL WARMING has combined with decades of privatization and gutted public services to create the perfect neoliberal storm of do-it-yourself disaster relief.

Occupy Wall Street's legacy of participatory democracy kicked in immediately with activists forming Occupy Sandy relief efforts coordinated through interoccupy.net with many thousands signing up to volunteer. Grassroots activists in Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) have been coordinating impressive efforts among Chinatown's immigrants and in the Lower East Side housing projects.

CAAAV's Executive Director Helena Wong sent out an urgent message to volunteers two days after the storm describing the situation in lower Manhattan where hundreds of thousands are without power for days and government efforts are nowhere to be found:

We had folks from the City-run evacuation center at Seward Park come to us asking for supplies. The 7th precinct had our sign on their front door and their front desk were directing people to us. At the same time, other officers from the 7th precinct TRIED TO SHUT US DOWN.

Where is the leadership of this City? Where is FEMA? We were told on Wall Street the lights are on in all the buildings, and Christmas lights are on in the streets. It was clear where the priority is when the community next door has not been prioritized. Today was another day where there was no information given out and City officials were nowhere to be seen.

In Brooklyn, where I live, City Councilmember Brad Lander sends out mass e-mail appeals to his constituents to volunteer to feed and supply flooded Red Hook and help out at the Park Slope Armory, which usually serves as a YMCA, but now shelters 600 elderly evacuees from a nursing home along Far Rockaway's beachfront.

When I arrived at the armory, low-income climate refugees, many suffering dementia, were being tended to by dozens of teachers, unemployed people, an off-duty medical examiner and a couple of freelance writers like me. We did our best to get frail seniors warm clothes, call their loved ones on our cell phones, help feed them and escort them to the bathroom.

The volunteer efforts are heartening and terrifying at the same time. Because no matter how committed people are to helping one another, the power, access and know-how to commandeer vast material and human resources required for comprehensive disaster relief is currently in the hands of the state.

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PEOPLE MUST ask: Why, in such a wealthy city, is urgent relief being left to individual initiatives days after the storm?

One look at cuts to public-sector jobs and services gives some indication.

The Wall Street Journal reported in July that New York state has shed public-sector workers at a far higher rate than other states since the recession began. More than 83,900 public-sector jobs have been lost in what even the Journal admits is a "significant contraction," a decline of 5.9 percent since the peak in 2009, compared with a 3.4 percent decline nationally.

For example, the mass transit system that carries more than 5 million riders every day is largely disabled by the storm and flooding, yet more than 1,800 job cuts recently means there are fewer workers to repair this crucial service, without which the city is crippled.

Wall Street's greed is actually driving many of the service and job losses. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), a public company which runs the city's subways and buses, entered into agreements with Wall Street's biggest banks in hopes of protecting itself against financial instability. Instead, the very banks that engineered the global crisis and were later bailed out by taxpayers, have trapped the MTA "in a web of toxic swaps" that sucks up 16 percent of all revenue, which leads to cuts.

And once again, these are cuts, like the storm, that disproportionately affect the poor and working class. Ridership on the city's mass transit system is, like the city itself, majority nonwhite, and half live in households with incomes of less than $50,000 a year in one of the nation's most expensive cities.

The fact that it took a mammoth public outcry to stop Mayor Bloomberg, the city's second-richest resident, from going ahead with Sunday's New York Marathon--whose starting line was to be in devastated Staten Island, where bodies are still being pulled from the water--gives some indication of where the city and state's priorities currently lie. And how we are going to have to force them to confront this crisis.

If the people in power were interested in genuine relief and recovery, all resources and efforts would be turned in that direction. We don't need Wall Street up and running after only two days down, with their brokers and hedge fund managers clogging city streets and demanding peripheral services.

We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to disaster relief that includes shutting down all nonessential services and gearing all efforts toward helping people and fixing the infrastructure of this crumbling region.

We have 9.5 percent unemployment in New York City. A mass infusion of federal money and political will could employ thousands who are out of work to help clean up, rebuild and get services back up and running.

Public health needs that were urgent before the storm could be attended to and facilities maintained if generators were airlifted to hospitals and laid-off staff were rehired. One of the East River bridges could be dedicated solely for disaster relief to ferry goods and workers around the city, and on and on.

The human and structural damage from Hurricane Sandy is still being calculated. But one casualty is surely the notion that the major metropolitan center of the most powerful and advanced industrial nation in the world will take care of its people in the event of a disaster.

Intrepid volunteers with full backpacks and a few days off work is not a sustainable plan to deal with the scale of this crisis.

First published at Sherry Talks Back.