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Volunteer dispatchers arranged themselves on the church's second floor with dozens of phones and computers, both their own and donated. They began by using Google Docs but upgraded to free, open-source software to manage specialized volunteer lists, build maps of disaster zones, allow residents to text their needs by mobile phone and track whether requests for help had been answered.
In the badly damaged Rockaways, where fire burned down 162 homes in one neighborhood and electricity cuts left hundreds stuck in housing project towers, Occupy's effect was almost immediate. Colleen Vielandi, a retired New York City police officer whose brother had been using her gun to scare off looters for two days in her absence, returned to find young volunteers whom she "wouldn't ask where the F train was, let alone let save my life." They pumped out her waterlogged basement and filled trash bags with debris, and did the same in numerous houses in the neighborhood.
To the east, in poorer Far Rockaway, Luis Casco had fled the night of the storm once the water inside his home reached his chest.
Casco was one of the neighborhood's "big-time drug dealers," Ruiz said. Casco's father, an alcoholic and cocaine-addicted car service driver who beat his mother, had died in 2001, when Casco was 11. Casco, who also took to driving cabs, sold drugs out of his car and grew depressed, once putting a .38-caliber pistol to his head and contemplating suicide. When he couldn't pay rent, his mother kicked him out of their home, and he moved into a single-story house with a friend.
"We'd beat up a Chinese guy to steal his money. That was our fun rather than playing soccer, football or baseball," Casco said.
After fleeing his house, he found himself at nearby St. Gertrude Church, where more Occupy volunteers had arrived. He helped hand out supplies, then convinced the Occupiers to set up another center one mile east, at the Church of God of the Prophecy, where he was a member.
He had already heard about Occupy. "A bunch of hippies sleeping in a bunch of sleeping bags talking s--- up on Wall Street," he said. But then UPS trucks began arriving in the church's parking lot packed with goods ordered from as far away as Japan. He stuck around after the storm and joined Wildfire, Occupy's effort to host regular community meetings. Activists gave him books about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Che Guevara. He found a job as a doorman in Manhattan's Bowery neighborhood and recently helped organize protests to halt budget cuts at the Rockaways' faltering and last remaining hospital, St. John's Episcopal.
In New Jersey, Kleinman and Dillon had been directing supplies and volunteers out of a central warehouse in Philadelphia loaned to Occupy by the Transportation Workers Union Local 234. In the north of the state, the small town of Moonachie had been flooded by the nearby Hackensack River. In some places on the night of the storm, water surged to a height of six feet 30 minutes after a dike along the river broke. Fish from the ocean washed onto front yards, and more than 2,000 of Moonachie's 2,700 residents evacuated.
Roughly one-third of the town lived in mobile home parks, Kleinman said, and volunteers sent by Occupy and other organizations arrived to remove debris and clean out mold. For months after the storm, Occupy dispatched hundreds of people across the state, including to Moonachie. They canvassed the town's mobile home parks to hand out flyers with information explaining the complicated disaster loans and grants available to residents.
But Moonachie also illustrated the limits of Occupy's reach. More established relief organizations with deeper pockets, such as the Volunteer Center of Bergen County and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, moved in to rebuild, made larger donations and bought household equipment such as refrigerators and ovens for those who had lost them in the flood.
The local donations for Bergen County alone eclipsed all of Occupy Sandy's funds. The Volunteer Center, which operates Bergen County's Long Term Recovery Committee, has raised $1.6 million and has spent around half of it. Much of Occupy Sandy's efforts focused on New York City. Of the $1.37 million raised in the past year, at least $539,000 has been specifically allocated to programs in four city locations: the Rockaways, Staten Island, Red Hook and Sheepshead Bay. Occupy Sandy New Jersey, a separate fundraising drive, collected $272,000 in donations and has not published a breakdown of its expenditures, but continues to organize some volunteer projects.
At Moonachie's Metropolitan mobile home park earlier this month, corporate jets coming and going from Teterboro Airport across the road soared over what remained of the destruction wreaked by Sandy. Inside 87-year-old Joseph Garrido’s trailer, the lingering decay left by four inches of floodwater was belied by an impeccably clean interior of wooden walls and an enamel floor. FEMA gave Garrido a $9,000 grant, and a local church provided him with new kitchen appliances and air-conditioning units. He cleaned and refurbished much of the trailer himself. But Garrido has had to remove warped sections of his kitchen floor, which remain exposed, and there is pernicious mold beneath his sink. A World War II veteran and former stevedore, Garrido lost two cars and a 25-foot fishing boat in the storm. When he returned home two days after evacuating, he found his porch beached on the other side of the road.
Occupy's presence on the ground in the park appeared limited. Kleinman has helped Garrido plant a long bed of vegetables in the small plot of earth surrounding his trailer, but Garrido said he has little idea what to do with the regular supply of seeds.
Several dozen Metropolitan residents never returned to the park after the storm, according to Garrido, and others said they would leave if they could. Diane Bourbon, a neighbor and mother who works night shifts at a convenience store, received a $10,000 Homeowner Resettlement Program grant from the state, which was aimed at keeping residents in place after Sandy and could not be used for construction or repair. But like others in her situation throughout New Jersey, Bourbon missed out on grants to repair her trailer or buy a new home — worth up to $150,000 and $50,000 respectively — because the vague language in state brochures and websites did not specify whether mobile home owners qualified, leaving many confused and discouraged from applying.
Such problems are beyond Occupy Sandy's abilities to tackle. They are now the focus of activist homeowners and local aid workers such as Janet Sharma, the executive director of the Volunteer Center, who coordinates the Bergen County response out of the once-flooded basement of the First Presbyterian Church of Moonachie. Kleinman, who is contemplating a move to work on a friend’s farm, said that he now considers Occupy's main role here to be a "watchdog" over the state and nonprofit recovery work. Another Occupy activist, Lisa Ewart, who worked as a case manager connecting county residents with volunteers after the storm, now works for Sharma.
"Without money, you can have the best intentions in the world, but nobody is going to stick around to volunteer," Sharma said.
Back in the Rockaways, where Occupy Sandy has perhaps devoted the majority of its resources, the Cross-Rockaway Incubation Team, a nine-member group formed by the movement, has handed out $150,000 in grants. The team, which includes three local residents, often filled in small gaps that would likely have been overlooked by major relief organizations, giving $500 to a math tutor to buy books and $2,500 to a man who operates a summer basketball camp but had run out of money paying for his own Sandy-related home repairs.
But the team has spent its money, and after 10 months of work, Sofia Muriente, who was one of its members, turned over her position to a local resident and community activist and moved to Puerto Rico for a nine-month artists’ residency. Others have remained and have attempted to found worker co-ops. Residents who worked alongside Occupy activists have been reluctant to follow the movement from storm relief to politics. Vielandi, the retired police officer, was invited to an anti-fracking meeting by one Occupy member. But she found certain Occupy idiosyncrasies — like the "progressive stack" meeting technique that gives speaking precedence to minority attendees — annoying and confusing, and she emerged disappointed that the discussion had meandered through a variety of activist causes at a time when some residents remained displaced or stymied by homes overwhelmed with mold.
"We're getting lost here," Vielandi said. "I don't see eye to eye with them."
Supporters say that the goal of Occupy Sandy has never been long-term disaster relief, but rather to introduce the possibility that self-reliant communities could recover from disasters and plot their own reconstruction, or at least have a greater hand in the recovery. But, as with OWS in Zuccotti Park, that was more an ideal than a viable solution. The volunteers, however, seem unperturbed.
"I don’t think that anyone is trying to claim that this is the way to do it moving forward," Muriente said. "For people like myself, who had been a part of Occupy Wall Street, (Occupy Sandy) was really an exciting, beautiful, powerful opportunity to do concrete things, to move away from the symbolic political gestures that some of us were a little tired of and (get) into hands-on work."