November 15, 2012
Borrowed Wheels & Strangers: My Day With Occupy Sandy Recovery

It’s a little before noon and traffic is light on the eastbound Belt Parkway.  The red Corolla I’m driving belongs to someone I’d first met an hour before and my acquaintanceship with the three passengers goes back all of fifteen minutes.  If I’m receiving any deference, it’s owed to being the one behind the wheel.  Luke’s authority is manifest through having a name tag made of orange duct tape stuck to his jacket and a few pages of printed Excel spreadsheets in his hands.   It’s tacitly agreed that he sits shotgun.  At a certain point between brief phone calls, he informs us that we’ll be doing a needs assessment for a variety of locations in Far Rockaway.  It is one of few indications of hierarchy within our car, or anywhere else we will see this day.

The Occupy Sandy Relief effort is a thousand-tentacled beast with a liquid’s instinct for finding thirsty ground.  The best and the brightest at any number of proud institutions would be troubled to produce an organizational flow chart that resembled anything other than a year’s worth of global air traffic patterns.  There are key players everywhere.  The number involved is massive and growing exponentially.  It is disorganized in the sense of not having an easily discernible infrastructure.  It is efficient not so much in fluidity of movement, but in its capacity to go everywhere, do everything.  Where need is strong and help yet to arrive, it is beyond a safe bet that it will be Occupy Sandy that finds it first.  It would be unfair to categorize the response of local and federal authorities, including the NYPD, FEMA, The Red Cross, New York Cares, et al, as inept or insufficient, at least by what I have seen.  It would be apt to say that where those actors are quick to find a staging ground and set up long tables for people to receive, the Occupy movement is more likely to knock on somebody’s door to ask them what they need.

It was just a couple days before that Luke first met Luis.  Queued up with his neighbors, the young man asked if there might be a pair of donated boots available for the taking.  Luke answered that there were not, but that he could really use a guy like him to get things done.  Today, we will visit Luis in his third day coordinating the distribution effort from a local parish on Cornaga Avenue.  The top floor is full of recently delivered Amazon boxes, the basement covered with mattresses and the main floor a hive of activity as could be found in any post-crisis command center.  Luis takes a few minutes to think and tells us that he could use about eight volunteers the next day, along with some gasoline for the generators.  Luke writes the information down on his spreadsheet and summons us away from hauling packages of water or opening cardboard packages.  We hop back into the Corolla and head to another stop to repeat the process.  We’ll do this until darkness shutters the operation for the day.

This is what Occupy does, according to Luke.  Yes, there is a huge outpouring of sympathetic New Yorkers arriving with Pampers and flashlights, Campbell’s soup and tubs of Jif at their hubs in Clinton Hill and Sunset Park.   There is no shortage of volunteers arriving with empty cars or fresh working gloves, for now.   They come in waves on the weekend, but the work that must be done is so staggering and the time frame so long that it’s sustainability can only be found within the neighborhood.  Nobody knows the community better.  Nobody understands the need more.  When it comes to knowing which apartments the sick and the elderly live in, which kids need new jackets and which requests for diapers are most likely to go on the black market, nobody knows better than the ones who live there.  So it becomes the work of Luke and the other experienced members of Occupy to identify the local agencies and community beacons to spearhead the effort.  Once they’re chosen and established, we will all work for them.

Photos by Brenna Britton.