Why are Sandy victims waiting for help?

Danny Katch describes the failure of official relief operations following Hurricane Sandy--and the grassroots infrastructure that has sprung up to try to fill the vacuum.

A house in Rockaway demolished by the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy (Jeremy Zilar)A house in Rockaway demolished by the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy (Jeremy Zilar)

ANGER AT New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is beginning to boil over as hundreds of thousands of people throughout the region still await delivery of basic supplies, including water, food and fuel.

Bloomberg got a taste of this anger when he made an unannounced visit on November 3 to the Rockaways, a peninsula in Queens that was entirely submerged in up to five feet of water during the storm.

In a confrontation caught on video, residents fumed at the mayor, who tried to calm them down with news that a water delivery would be arriving soon. "But don't you think that's kind of ridiculous?" one man replied. "Everyone is here, and there's not even a bottle of water? Nothing right is going on here. There's old ladies in my building who got nothing! Nothing!"

Across the country, politicians and talk show hosts offering their observations from afar have praised the government response to Hurricane Sandy, speculating that rapid action to deliver relief helped give President Obama a final push in his campaign. But in the areas of New York and New Jersey that were hardest hit by the storm, such rapid relief is nowhere to be found.

The reality is that relief efforts by local and federal authorities have fallen criminally short of what's needed for tens of thousands of people still seeking shelter, heat, food and medicine.

The day before Bloomberg made landfall in the Rockaways, SocialistWorker.org contributor Laura Durkay spoke with an East Village resident in one of the many public housing projects that still did not have power restored. "Bloomberg needs to be fired, and you can quote me on that," said Sheree, who lives on the 10th floor of a building that now has no water, electricity or heat.

Sheree said that the city's "evacuation plan" was to send public housing officials from one building to the next, telling people that they had to get out. Then they disappeared and haven't been seen since.

"We had people in wheelchairs, pregnant women, a woman on the 12th floor who needed oxygen and had to call an ambulance," Sheree continued. "Everyone is struggling. Bloomberg's only out for himself. All the supermarkets are closed, and now all that food is spoiling. We're poor--how are we supposed to survive?"

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SHEREE WAS speaking about the same time that Bloomberg finally announced his plans to cancel the New York City Marathon. For days, the mayor's determination to forge ahead with the planned marathon despite the catastrophe unleashed by the storm symbolized his profound disconnect from the material and emotional needs of the people of New York.

The outpouring of disgust, which was fed by the viral spread of online activism, eventually forced the mayor to back down. There may be similar eruptions in the coming days and weeks as the full extent of the immediate and long-term crises facing the region become apparent.

More than a week after they were bit by Hurricane Sandy, residents of New Jersey, New York City and Long Island are still facing outages of electricity and heat, fuel shortages and a lack of shelter. Many school buildings have been transformed into makeshift relief centers, putting even more strain on the city's already creaking public education system.

More than 100,000 New York City residents, most of them in the coastal areas of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, are still without power. While most of Lower Manhattan has had electricity restored, thousands of residents in public housing projects are still without heat and hot water. Meanwhile in New Jersey, the hardest-hit state, more than half a million people are still blacked out.

And while Bloomberg has also been cheered for his "straight talk" about climate change, it has become clear that New York was completely unprepared for the damage caused by Sandy, even though for years scientists have been sounding alarms about the city's growing vulnerability to the rising water levels that surround it.

As one New York Times report put it last week:

With an almost eerie foreshadowing, the dangers laid out by scientists as they tried to press public officials for change in recent years describes what happened this week: Subway tunnels filled with water, just as they warned. Tens of thousands of people in Manhattan lost power. The city shut down...Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is known worldwide for his broad environmental vision. But one former official said it had been difficult to move from theoretical planning to concrete actions, and it was hoped that the storm this week would change that.

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IN CONTRAST to the inaction of city officials, tens of thousands of people across the region have sprung into concrete action to supply neighbors and strangers with food, clothing and shelter. Sarah, a regular reader of SocialistWorker.org, reported from Rockaway Beach:

There are outposts every 10 blocks or so along Rockaway Beach Boulevard, where people of all stripes are handing out hot food, water and more--mainly from churches, Girl Scouts and similar organizations, from what I saw. Almost all cars we saw heading out to the Rockaways were filled with donation-looking stuff...The Sikh Temple of Richmond Hill is there serving chana and rice. The NYPD finally rolled through with generators around the same time we got there and set them up in various locations, including our donation site.

The day before, Sofía Gallisá Muriente reported at (Un)Occupy/Decolonize/Liberate that federal officials seemed more interested in policing the storm's victims than helping them:

We gave a ride to a neighbor and fellow volunteer who had walked 40 blocks to be with us. Suddenly, we found ourselves behind a Homeland Security armored vehicle parked in the middle of the street. Men in military uniforms and bulletproof vests climbed out holding long rifles and surrounded a group of three young Black males. The guys put down the cans they were holding, put up their hands and smirked. The four women in our car looked on horrified, and I pulled out my cell phone camera as fast as I could, only to be confronted by one of the men in uniform. "There's been looting," he said, and I realized he was the first government official of any kind I'd seen outside of a vehicle today. Everyone else had been guarding a gas station or a cell phone recharging generator. We were shaking with anger, and were instructed to move on.

Meanwhile in Staten Island, where the early response of the Red Cross was so meager that the borough president angrily told residents not to give donations to the organization, residents who didn't lose their homes or electricity rushed into action to help those who did, setting up hundreds of relief tables and tents. Activists in Astoria, Queens, organized a donation drive at the local public library in less than 24 hours and were overwhelmed by the response.

Amy, a Verizon worker and Occupy labor activist, described the day:

I would guess that more than 200 people came through our library drop-off in the four hours it was set up, and maybe many more. We sent more than 20 cars (we were expecting eight or nine) to Rockaway and Staten Island. We had an incredible operation for gathering donations on multiple street corners on several blocks. We had a team of people walking down the avenue soliciting donations, led by a random dude from the neighborhood who called me this morning.

We raised more than $3,000, which far exceeded what we expected. I saw 50- and 100-dollar bills in the collection. People would go into the ATM and come out with donations. When we were counting money in the basement, one of the counters said in an offhand way, "If we had $100 more, we would have $1,000," and someone got up, went to the bank and came back with $100. We absolutely were right to believe that ordinary working-class people were going to dig deep for their brothers and sisters in need--a stark contrast to the thin aid from FEMA and the like.

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ACROSS THE region, relief centers reported being overwhelmed by the number of volunteers and donations they received. "At this point, these centers have more than they can really realistically distribute," Bloomberg said in a press conference. "If we need more, we can certainly put out another call for help, but what would be the most helpful is donations to the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York, and then we'll be able to use that money to help people get back on their feet."

While it's true that a more centralized relief response would be more efficient, it's hard not to conclude that people are choosing to donate through their own social, political and religious networks because they trust them more than they do city, state and federal authorities who have failed to deliver. Across the region, there have been widespread complaints that FEMA and the Red Cross are nowhere to be found.

One of the highly visible and large-scale relief efforts has been organized by Occupy Wall Street activists, who launched Occupy Sandy Relief within hours of Sandy hitting shore. Beginning their work in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and then expanding throughout the city, Occupy Sandy Relief has set up an impressive distribution network at St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park, a largely Latino and Asian American area that is home to one of the strongest neighborhood Occupy groups in the city.

Natalia, an activist who has been involved in Occupy Sunset Park, reported over the weekend on the growing scale of the operation:

[St. Jacobi] is the hub of all Occupy Sandy, and I actually don't think it's an exaggeration to say that they are the organization spearheading relief in the city. Some 10,000 hot meals were served in two days to people in affected areas. There were ongoing orientations for new volunteers running every 15 minutes since 10 a.m. with lots of people at every one. They are going out to Coney Island, Far Rockaway, Brighton Beach and Staten Island with caravans of supplies and with surveys to assess what people's needs are. There were four National Guard troops in the orientation with us, which has to indicate that they were stationed to go help at the Occupy Sandy hub and that there is a void of a government plan for response.

By the next day, the operation had further matured in complexity and efficiency. SocialistWorker.org contributor Gary Lapon described the scene this way:

The distribution system became more and more refined as I was there. In a nutshell:

1) There is a communication center that is in touch with folks at different sites (the Rockaways and Coney Island are a major focus of this site) in order to assess needs at different sites and get a sense of what kind of supplies are needed. Also, they communicate with people about donations, so as to prepare for large donations (donations come from individuals as well as from other drop-off points throughout the city, as Jacobi is a major hub).

2) When donations come in, there is a human chain from the door, down the stairs, to the basement. Donations were literally coming in nonstop from when I got there at 3:30 p.m. until 7 p.m. or so, and even then there were still multiple massive drops, just more sporadically. At the end of the human chain, there is a line of "runners" who grab the bags and take them to different distribution centers throughout the church basement. This includes perishables, nonperishables (food), baby stuff (diapers, wipes), toiletries, utility items (batteries, cords, flashlights), cleaning supplies, trash bags and clothes. At each of these stations things were sorted, and this got more refined while I was there; for example, toothpaste, lotion and shampoo are all in different boxes, batteries are sorted by letter, clothes by adult/kids/men/women, etc.

3) There was also a complex kitchen system, including folks prepping food and cooking in large amounts, assembly lines preparing peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and a vast sorting operation for canned and dry goods.

4) "Orders" would come in--from people coming to the church looking for supplies or volunteers with cars coming by to pick things up and bring to other distribution hubs on Coney Island and the Rockaways. A runner is given a slip of paper with a list of items. They then go from distribution station to distribution station assembling a collection of goods that they bring to another human chain that goes up to the waiting car.

5) There were also cleanup crews based at Jacobi, which included folks with experience in international disaster relief. These folks expressed frustration at the difficulty in coordinating this effort, and it was clear that though the state is better equipped to handle such operations, it isn't stepping up (this includes pumping out houses that are still filled with water, which can cost thousands for folks who rely on the public sector, and the team could only do six or so houses a day).

It's really a marvelous process, and it demonstrates what ordinary people are capable of in terms of self-organization on a voluntary basis. It was so successful that people reported that the Red Cross and FEMA have actually asked Occupy Sandy for supplies and for volunteers.

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SOME LOCAL media reports have started to note the disparity between the enormous outpouring of grassroots relief and the state's relatively feeble response. "The Red Cross is quickly becoming the villain because it has been invisible," reported New York 1's Bob Hardt. "It's a bad sign for the world that Occupy Wall Street and a Sikh group from Queens are doing a better job at distributing hot food than the largest international relief group in the world."

An article by Slate's Katherine Goldstein was headlined, "Is Occupy Wall Street outperforming the Red Cross in hurricane relief?"

Unfortunately, these heroic grassroots efforts are nowhere near enough to meet the magnitude of the crisis, which demands resources only the state can provide. On November 6, the Occupy Sandy Relief center at St. Jacobi Church ran out of food.

Meanwhile, chaos is engulfing the city's public schools, dozens of which were damaged in the storm while some others are being used to house evacuees (unlike charter schools and private schools). Here is how one Brooklyn teacher described the scene in her school on Saturday, November 3:

By tonight, there will be 900 to 1,000 people living there, including 250 children. I went back today to give donations and volunteer for a few hours. There is a huge amount of anger. Bloomberg and [Chancellor of Education] Walcott were supposed to come by while I was there today, and people were furious. Of course, they had managed to do a big clean-up ahead of time and bussed a bunch of people to the local YMCA for showers (and a couple of other places that offered showering facilities) because my school's showers don't work.

What's most striking about being there is the huge gap between the immense outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from people in terms of donations and volunteers (the number of graduates from my school who came back to volunteer was really inspiring) and the complete disorganization and lack of any kind of coordination to meet people's needs. Just a couple of examples:

1) While I initially only planned on bringing donations and staying for a very short time today, I ended up staying longer because I met a volunteer who was trying to set up a way for people to apply for FEMA relief. Of course, no computers have been provided, and the computers at the school are in rooms they don't have access to. Further, no one has been given the Wi-Fi password (note: teachers and staff aren't given this either).

So I stayed to try to help find resources in the school (since I know where the computers are and set up the teachers' center so that people could use it for FEMA applications tomorrow if they need them). After a while doing this, we found out there was someone processing applications: one person--not from FEMA, but a lawyer who specializes in poverty law--who had one laptop to process applications. He had been there all day and processed 50 applications.

There are almost 900 people in the building--many families, and some have already applied--but still that means there are probably a couple hundred people who have not yet applied for FEMA.

2) Basic coordination: The fact that in 2012, all intake of evacuees and volunteers is being done by paper and pen is absurd. You would think that the most basic preparation for this kind of shelter would be to provide volunteers with enough laptops and Internet access so that they could process this more easily--i.e., when people come in, take down their information, have them apply for FEMA and other benefits immediately, etc. But no, there was one laptop being used for legal services--and only because it was hooked up in the room already.

To give another example of how crazy this is, we need translators. On the volunteer form, there's a place to list languages spoken, but to find a volunteer, you'd have to flip through all the applications to find someone who speaks the language one needs.

3) The Department of Education's complete disorganization: Initially, we were told students were coming back Monday, November 5, and that the evacuees would be moved by that time. Now I'm hearing that the evacuees will be there until at least Wednesday, November 7.

At first, it seemed the Department of Education was planning on having students return to the school while keeping the shelter open. Just to give you a sense of how crazy that is, my school is at 130 percent of capacity on a regular day. What this means in practice is that we have two shifts, and "lunch" begins at 9:20 a.m. because the only way we can fit everyone in the building is to cram 500 students into the cafeteria.

Now, however, our cafeteria is feeding evacuees, the auditorium is being used for child care and movies, at least one of the music rooms is being used to house pets (at last count I think we had about 12 cats, 10 dogs and a couple of birds), the other one for legal services, and the second floor is mostly dorms. It would be simply impossible to have students there at the same time.

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ON TOP of all these problems, those who have lost their homes or heat are facing a new round of danger this week. Nighttime temperatures have dropped to near freezing, and an early winter storm is scheduled to hit the city on November 7, which could potentially bring more flooding and power outages. City officials estimate that as many as 40,000 residents might have been left homeless by the storm.

The always-stark inequality of New York City has just grown dramatically. Hotel rooms and new luxury developments sit empty while thousands of storm refugees freeze--though most have yet to make such connections and few concrete demands have so far been put forth.

This is in part due to the need to provide immediate relief in the face of government inaction--and in part due to the fact that this government inaction, coming after years of cuts to schools, hospitals and social services, is simply what people have come to expect.

But across the region people are showing through their compassion and self-organization. We have the capacity to live much differently--if we can raise our expectations about the type of society we deserve and demand a share of the resources that right now sit in city coffers and the bank accounts of the 1 percent.