Filling the Gaps: Street Level Response to Sandy

Community November 10, 2012 4:29 pm

“They’re evacuating the Rockaways,” says Tammy, identified by her duct-tape name tag. “The storm surge is going to be 3 to 5 feet.  I can’t send my volunteers into a dangerous situation.”

“We’ve got that U-Haul truck of donated groceries,” replies Shlomo, wearing a green military-style cap.  ”The truck’s gotta go back to the Upper West Side tonight, and it’s all fresh food that’s gonna spoil.  I think I can make it out there.  What do you wanna do?”

She sighs.  ”I already told all the cars to turn back.  I don’t know.”

They gaze out at the street in front of St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Double-parked cars drop off donations or get filled with supplies and potential field volunteers.  A new storm is set to hammer a region that hasn’t yet recovered from Hurricane Sandy.  Basements remain flooded, countless high-rise towers are still without power or water, and the Red Cross and FEMA can’t keep up with the community’s basic needs.

Occupy Sandy’s roots are obvious. Volunteer vehicles sport left-leaning bumper stickers and announcements in the kitchen are preceded by an echoed “Mic Check!” Yet, it feels that the group somehow cherry-picked the most organized members and best elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement. A sense of community, resourcefulness, and adept social media usage combine to make an efficient structure with a crystal-clear mission: Occupy Sandy exists to determine and respond to the needs of residents in storm-torn areas, needs that the government and charities are not able to meet.

Organizing Chaos

A steady stream of people ferry boxes and Target bags into the church, filled with garbage bags, canned soup, and batteries.  A group wearing winter hats and clutching bodega coffees shiver under a Sharpie-scrawled ‘DRIVER LINE’ sign, their breath visible in the misty air.  Two organizers with red armbands direct bewildered would-be volunteers to orientation sessions or tasks. The sense of urgency is palpable.  ”Have you eaten today?” a lanky man asks a young woman slumped over a desk.  ”Stop.  You need to eat something.”

Despite the frenzy, order and purpose underwrite the process.  It’s no small feat: after any disaster, the outpouring of donations and volunteers can be as overwhelming for aid groups as the needs of victims.  Boxes of food, blankets, and clothing need to be sorted and counted. Crowds of eager volunteers need to be put to work. And this demands time – something Occupy Sandy seems to be good at maximizing.

Many organizations refuse donations altogether – the overhead involved with ‘free’ labor and products making it more economical to purchase both in bulk.  Lacking the financial power to exercise that option, Occupy Sandy has done what few have managed to do effectively post-Sandy: matched supplies to needs.  2,000 walk-in volunteers were briefed and deployed last Sunday alone, and hundreds of hot meals and donated boxes of supplies go out the door daily based on the reports from street teams.

Occupy Sandy’s use of available resources would make a Toyota factory manager nod in approval.  New volunteers sign up on their smartphones, indicating their availability, special skills, language abilities, and what kind of transportation they have access to.  Anyone with a car is immediately pulled out of orientation and briefed on the way out the door, where a pile of boxes and volunteers is ready to go to Coney Island, Red Hook, or the Rockaways.

The medical group organizes first responders and doctors – one, a podiatrist, leaves to go get his prescription pad.  Even doctors who can’t write prescriptions for controlled substances are vital: refills for insulin and asthma inhalers are in high demand.  Another desk in the jam-packed church office houses a legal team who prepare flyers and pamphlets informing residents of their rights and how to apply for FEMA aid.

The communications team is trying to work out a link between field workers and the church.  ”Does anyone have a Verizon phone?” Tammy shouts into the office.  Most people shake their heads.  ”The only tower that’s up in the Rockaways is Verizon,” she explains.  A young man with a laptop begins researching the range of walkie-talkies and contacting ham radio groups in the area.

Responding to Need


Several locations serve as hubs for volunteers canvassing their respective area.  Groups of 3 or 4 go door-to-door to find out what victims need: prescriptions, blankets, flashlights, hot food, or diapers.  Needs Assessment Forms are filled out for each house or apartment, which volunteers plug into a central database that routes supplies and volunteer workers where they’re needed.

The work is messy and labor-intensive. Its also the kind that governments and larger aid groups tend to avoid – their logistics and capabilities are geared towards larger infrastructure problems.  Grassroots groups like Occupy Sandy fill in the gaps by providing small-scale, community-focused groundwork.

And the groundwork is complicated.  Looters have been posing as aid workers from FEMA or the Red Cross, robbing victims when they open the door.  Many buildings are controlled by gangs, who are wary of outsiders – and who provide the only protection residents can rely on.  To gain access and understand the needs of people inside the darkened towers requires working with the leaders of these communities, careful explanation, and negotiation.

The recipients of volunteers’ work are individuals, not neighborhoods.  “I need 400 meals for Coney Island!” shouts a runner into the enormous makeshift kitchen, the air thick with the eye-watering scent of onions.  Dozens of workers start chopping potatoes and making sandwiches for families they’ve never met.  Potato chunks are uniform and the peanut butter is spread neatly to the edges of the bread – food is prepared with notable care.

Back in the orientation room, a new group of volunteers leans forward on wooden church pews, intently listening to the coordinator repeating the briefing.  Coverage of the storm’s devastation will move to the back pages of newspapers, but the work for the community has a distant horizon.  ”This is a long-term project”, Yael, one of the coordinators, declares.  ”This is going to take weeks and weeks.”