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Occupy Wall Street's new job: disaster relief

How the leaderless movement reignited to fill gaps in New York City's hurricane recovery effort



Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, many New Yorkers are struggling to understand why parts of the city are still in crisis. By the time the lights in my East Village apartment returned, the citywide death toll had crept north of 40, thousands were still displaced and hundreds of thousands remained without basic utilities like electricity, water and heat.

Amid this darkness and uncertainty, a once-familiar movement reignited. Long before the first subway tunnels were pumped dry, members of Occupy Wall Street sprang into action, assessing the needs of people who lost everything in the storm.

"One of the core values of the Occupy movement is neighbours helping neighbours," explains Michael Premo, who also worked in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Premo says there wasn't a discussion about whether or not Occupy should help New York City recover from the superstorm; he and four friends who met in Zuccotti immediately began collecting donations for flooded communities in Red Hook, Brooklyn. "We already had the Occupy networks in place. The network was already abuzz checking on friends and relatives. We asked 'How can we help? What do you need?' and it grew from there."

Occupiers reached out through social media under the Twitter handle @OccupySandy. Locals responded. Tech and environmental organizations plugged in. By the weekend, volunteer turnout had ballooned well into the thousands, as ad hoc relief and distribution sites popped up in over a dozen neighbourhoods across Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island.

In these still-early days of storm recovery, Occupy Sandy has been the first to reach many of New York's poorest and most ravaged communities. Volunteers muck out debris from family basements and deliver meals to seniors trapped in high-rise apartments without elevator service.

I followed several grassroots relief efforts from donation hubs out to heavily-impacted coastal communities. While this type of horizontal action cannot work alone (building inspection and search-and-rescue are best done by professionals), Occupiers are filling early gaps in the relief industry, making disaster recovery a human experience rather than a bureaucratic one.

The hive

By the time I arrive at St. Jacobi Church in Brooklyn — now the buzzing epicentre of Occupy Sandy — the chapel pews are piled high with garbage bags of donated clothes. Group orientations take place in 15-minute intervals. Volunteers wear nametags scribbled on duct tape. On the second floor, a tangle of laptops and phone chargers represent the movement's social media hub.

Whereas institutions like the Red Cross encourage monetary donations, Occupy accepts all supplies and skill levels. Batteries, flashlights, diapers, toilet paper, blankets, canned soup, candles, crackers, dog food and toothpaste are arranged and rearranged by size and category in the basement.

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