One year after Sandy, the flood of Occupy volunteers recedes

While OWS tactics helped Occupy Sandy activists, observers worry that the same problems plague both movements

Sal Lopizzo and an Occupy volunteer clean up the YANA offices after Sandy.
Radhika Chalasani

When Superstorm Sandy's storm surge rolled onto New York City's Rockaway Peninsula in late October last year, and the Atlantic Ocean met Jamaica Bay over the thin finger of beach and houses, Salvatore Lopizzo was safely tucked inside a Brooklyn apartment.

But at the community center in Rockaway Beach, Queens, that he had opened just two weeks earlier, the street had turned into a river. His neighbor, watching the block next door go up in flames, described the scene to him over the phone: "Oh s---, the whole building next to you is on fire. There's people swimming!"

When Lopizzo came back the next day, he found his center spared from fire but ravaged by floodwater. Only a postcard-size image of the Buddha still hung on the wall.

The son of Sicilian immigrants, Lopizzo had spent his savings on the center — which he called You Are Never Alone, or YANA — in the hope that it would become "an Amazon.com" for Rockaways residents in need of housing, food or drug rehabilitation.

"That's it, it's over," a friend told him.

Lopizzo at the YANA offices, Oct. 18.
Radhika Chalasani for Al Jazeera America

But the following day, as Lopizzo mucked out the wreckage, a young man approached him, introduced himself as an Occupy Wall Street activist and asked if his friends could use YANA to distribute relief supplies in the Rockaways. Lopizzo agreed, and within days, volunteers had cleaned out the center and filled it with food and clothes.

"When I heard 'Occupy,' I was a little reluctant. I really didn't want to get into no political s---," he said. "(But) people just started showing up and pouring their hearts out, and you can't beat that."

Over the next four months, the Occupy volunteers, working with donations pouring in from around the world, gave YANA nearly $60,000 to rebuild. On a sunny day this October, Lopizzo sat at his desk in the neatly organized center, now featuring radiant heating in the floor, and advised a steady stream of residents seeking employment and food stamps. He showed off his conference room, where a family displaced by Sandy organizes Sunday church services.

Borrowing OWS tactics

Occupy Sandy marked a resurgence for a movement that had brought economic injustice and the motif of "the 99 percent" into mainstream American debate before being cast adrift with the dispersal of their Wall Street encampment in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park in November 2011. Lacking a central, public square, the leaders scattered to their city boroughs and home states, but not without a nationwide Rolodex of supporters and committed activists who had learned how to organize in a crisis.

When the storm engulfed the coasts of New York and New Jersey a year later, the Occupiers responded with the millennial zeal for social media and semi-leaderless "horizontal" structure that they had honed in Zuccotti Park. Their tactics helped funnel hordes of volunteers to far-flung counties and neighborhoods more swiftly than the established bureaucracies of the Red Cross, National Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency. In the months following the storm, organizers said, Occupy Sandy marshaled around 30,000 people and raised nearly $1.4 million from individual donors, earning admiration from The New York Times and a nod from New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is now a front-runner in the race for mayor.

But one year after the storm, significant work remains to be done, and some activists have begun to leave damaged communities or shift their focus to other causes, making way for larger relief organizations. The Occupy movement's objectives remain amorphous, and outside observers worry that the same issues that stirred doubts about Occupy Wall Street — the inability to translate idealistic goals into concrete and sustained political action — are also manifest in Occupy Sandy. They worry that Occupy's belief in direct aid and self-reliance in the wake of disaster has distracted activists from taking on the larger political forces behind the inequality the movement seeks to redress.

When I heard 'Occupy,' I was a little reluctant. I really didn't want to get into no political s---. (But) people just started showing up and pouring their hearts out, and you can't beat that.

"Unbeknownst to them and surely unintentionally, I think they're kind of reinforcing a right-wing message that government isn't the answer," said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

Occupy's social critique resonated with Berg, but he said that any significant effort to, for instance, alleviate poverty — such as building public housing projects or preventing impending cuts to millions of families' food stamps — would have to involve politics. This new generation of activists seemed to have forgotten or abandoned the progressive ideal of a reform-minded government raising up the poor and mitigating discrimination, Berg said, setting the bar so low that simple charity, while meaningful, now seems exceptional.

"Forget ideology; just look at scale — there is no way that charitable efforts can ever, ever, ever come up vaguely close to the scale we need as a society to solve these major problems," he said. "They've done all this really important work, (but) I do just want to put it in context that we're thinking really, really small."


When Sandy struck on Oct. 29, 2012, a network of like-minded activists rallied under the Occupy banner. Nathan Kleinman, from Occupy Philadelphia — one of numerous Occupy movements that sprouted in solidarity with the Wall Street encampment — toured New Jersey disaster zones with a handful of others in an ailing 1986 Toyota Dolphin RV. Dylana Dillon, who had been raised "a hippie" and previously worked on farms in Central and South America, traveled from Vermont in response to Facebook posts from friends involved in Occupy. Justin Wedes, a high school teacher who had participated in Occupy Wall Street and the pre-Occupy "Bloombergville" budget sit-in at City Hall, helped manage communications. Sofia Muriente, another Occupy Wall Street veteran, lived off of occasional production work for television commercials in order to install herself in the Rockaways.

A pair of Occupy volunteers help clean out debris in the Rockaways after Superstorm Sandy.
Radhika Chalasani

Wedes and others had already organized conference calls as the storm approached. He considered starting a "#sandyvolunteer" Twitter hashtag, but two friends quickly launched a WePay donation account called Occupy Sandy, and the name stuck. Yellow patches, signs and armbands bearing the movement's name spread alongside what organizers intended to be an egalitarian philosophy of direct or "mutual aid" — the idea that Occupiers would respond directly to what local residents said they needed and try to put them in charge of their own recovery.

Some of the Occupiers viewed the incoming storm as an opportunity to spread the movement's gospel. Wedes recalled a conversation with Chilean student protesters, who had told him that their efforts to fight profit-seeking greed in higher education — which crescendoed in 2011 and 2012 — had been renewed during their response to the country's massive 2010 earthquake.

"As the hurricane was coming on, I thought, 'This might be our moment,'" Wedes said. "Many of us believe that the work is inherently political. The storm carves out and lays bare the existing inequities in the city."

Initially, Occupiers converged on the St. Jacobi Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood, where Juan Carlos Ruiz, an excommunicated Catholic priest, former undocumented immigrant and Occupy Wall Street supporter, had been hired earlier in the year to revitalize the long-dormant congregation. The church opened its doors to donations on Oct. 30 but took in only three grocery bags of food and two gallons of water that first day.

But the next morning, Ruiz said, he awoke to "the whole infrastructure of Occupy."

As the hurricane was coming on, I thought, 'This might be our moment. Many of us believe that the work is inherently political. The storm carves out and lays bare the existing inequities in the city.

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.

Luis Casco making a speech after Superstorm Sandy struck in late October, 2012.
Radhika Chalasani

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.

The New Jersey story

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.

Joseph Garrido in his trailer in Moonachie's Metropolitan mobile home park, Oct. 22.
Radhika Chalasani for Al Jazeera America
Diane Boubon, 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
Radhika Chalasani for Al Jazeera America

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.

Colleen Vielandi with her dog on Oct. 18.
Radhika Chalasani for Al Jazeera America

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."

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