It’s around 3:45 when we arrive at the St Jacobi Church in Brooklyn, staging ground for Occupy Sandy. The sidewalk is packed with people and donations and people carrying donations. Volunteers with “I’m a helper” hastily scrawled in marker on paper taped to their chests are directing traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular. People are trying to park to unload supplies while a mob of volunteers awaits pickup to be shuttled out to the Rockaways.
Inside the chapel, it’s not much quieter. Near the altar a woman—I don’t catch her name—runs us through a quick volunteer orientation. The first thing she tells us that she’s sorry but we are too late to help.
It’s getting dark soon. They don’t want to send people out into the field past sunset. “A lot of crazy things are happening at night,” she explains.
No matter. There will be plenty to do tomorrow. As she’s telling us this, she’s stumbling over her words. She pauses and apologizes. “There’ve been so many briefings today,” she says.
The hope is that if we sit through the briefing we can come back tomorrow morning and go straight to signing up.
Things are bad in the Rockaways. The power’s still out, there are wrecked and smouldering buildings, and there a shortage of basic supplies. They need as many bodies as possible on the ground to find out exactly what’s needed where and to let people know that help is available. We’ll be sent to canvas neighbourhoods and ask people what they need.
She reminds us that Occupy is a non-judgmental movement. She warns us to be sensitive. People may not be willing to answer their doors—there’ve been people faking authority to get into people’s houses, or at least rumours of it, so people are wary of strangers. “They’ve been through a lot,” she tells us. On the other hand, we may end up being invited into their homes to investigate damage. We’ll be moving in groups of two to three for safety. “They don’t know us and we don’t know them.”
At her feet, another woman prompts her and reminds her that they need people to help with administration work as well. There might be stuff for us to do if we stick around tonight. My companion and I follow her on the assumption that she’s in charge. Shortly, I’ll learn that she’s only been around for a couple hours. Shortly after that, my companion will find himself in charge of coordinating the opening and supply of new distribution sites.
It’s been nearly a week since Hurricane Sandy made landfall and a cold snap is imminent. It could fall to freezing overnight on Monday. On Wednesday, a storm is coming. In the time between now and then, the Occupy Sandy volunteers are trying to successfully self assemble into an organization capable of effectively distributing food, blankets, and supplies to those hardest hit by Sandy and most vulnerable to the coming storm. No one knows when the power will come back on. The general sense is that volunteers should be planning for at least another week of work.
Experiences are exchanged and plans are made. Ad hoc channels of communication are examined and re-evaluated for their long term efficiency. Any frustrations in that regard are overshadowed by an enthusiasm for the progress being made. Halfway through, the meeting is interrupted because help is needed unloading a huge new shipment of bread and other donations. People working in different areas discuss what’s working and listen for suggestions on what could be done better.
Reports from the field are worrisome. There are elderly and disabled people not far from sources of relief who have no idea that it’s available. There are people in damaged homes afraid to leave. With no electricity, there is no cell service and so it is difficult to let people know that help is nearby and difficult to communicate needs back to the people with resources. The organization is reliant on convoys of vehicles packed with volunteers going out, learning what they can and then coming back to report what they’ve learned.
Procedures are debated. Some solutions are hastily hashed out, with many more pressing issues tabled until morning by exhausted volunteers hoping to have recharged enough to come up with workable answers. No matter. They’ve got time. Hurricane Sandy is far from over.
If you are interested, Occupy Sandy is looking for more donations and more volunteers.