Thursday, November 29, 2012

A day with Occupy Sandy, part 1: Far Rockway


Today I break my rule again about on the steps, in or near West Park because of the need for people to understand the effects of Hurricane Sandy. 

Although West-Park has been packing emergency survival packages for Hurricane Sandy relief, I needed to see with my own eyes what is going on. Decided to spend the day with friends from Occupy Faith as we went to check out Occupy Sandy operations.

We began at St. Luke and St. Matthews Church in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, the headquarters of Occupy Sandy. On the fence was a typical Occupy style sign, Mutual Aid, Not Charity..inside, I was staggered by the sheer volume of supplies that had been gathered. The feel of the place was like something between St. Paul’s Chapel after ground Zero and Zucotti Park. I wondered if they still held services here and Father Michael assured me that they did. The sanctuary fills and empties ever day when a squadron of UPS trucks arrives to move supplies to where they need to go (For a time lapse video go to: . ) Occupy’s social media network drawing the supplies in and directing them to where they are needed with carefully coordinated efficiency.

We pile into a van and are led by Juan Carlos of Occupy Faith to our first stop in Far Rockaway. We’re off Seagirt Boulevard near the bungalows section of Far Rockaway visiting a Latino Pentecostal Church meeting in a house with a large tent beside. Pastor Rene Morales meets us, makes us welcome. 

Luke Nephew is an organizer building church coalitions. He tells us that there is a critical need for emergency housing. People have returned to homes they should not be in. There is no place else to go,no shelters in the nearby community. FEMA maintains that the New York City Office of Emergency Management is the missing link. 

There are no shelters here because no power. Not electrical, or heat. But there is a need to build community power as well. The suspicion is that it is politically deliberate not to provide temporary shelter. The city would prefer to see these people leave, bulldoze the bungalows and rebuild with beach condos for a more affluent population. As he’s talking, I see a repeat as to how city officials in New Orleans used Katrina to level the sturdy brick public housing projects.  

Pastor Rene, speaking of his congregation and his neighbors,  says that there are special problems for people without papers. There is a desperate need for food, pampers, place to stay

Juan Carlos Reyes reports that  St.Jacobi Lutheran church, one of the original hubs,is phasing out. The success of Occupy Sandy has been developing out of relationships on the ground. relationships with churches first developed during Occupy and now serving as connections with local communities.  

He describes both the generosity and power of young people. But already there are issues of young people worn out....The question has to be asked, what is the long term vision? Nevertheless,amazing donations continue to come in. For example, someone has just donated a boat large enough for hundreds of people.  Actually, more  a ship. Right now, it’s docked  in Red Hook. What will they do with it? House people? Ship supplies? Remains to be seen. Right now there is a big need for trained mold remediation teams.

The human infrastructure of the Occupy Sandy operation was set up in set up in two  days by a core group of 20-30 people. The church of St.Luke's/St. Matthews now known affectionately known as 520. 9It;s street number.

Father George, an Episcopal priest, says that  what we are seeing reveals the failures of the system.

Rev. Michael Ray Matthews is a national PICO (people Improving Communities through Organizing)working with clergy. They are hard at work on the ground seeking to organize Far Rockaway.Stephanie Goode, another Pico organzier is with him. I recall the good work done in New Orleans after Katrina and the lead organizer, Wesley Woo. TheY smile, knowing Wesley well. He’s trained a generation of organizers.  

Joseph Mc Kellar is with  Queens Congregations Organized for Change, the Queens PICO organization, representing 32 congregations. Over 50 clergy recently gathered at St. Mary's Queen of the Sea to assess the situation. There is a great need for a critical mass of electricians and plumbers. This community has a large population of domestic workers who lost their jobs working in homes that are no longer there. Because they are undocumented, they do not qualify for unemployment relief. 

There are also insurance company issues. Job creation issues. There needs to be  clean up and rebuild job creation, especially for local people. People feel left behind by the city.23000 out of 39000 houses are still without power. Compared to only a little more than  700 in the rest of the city. And again, 
temporary housing. Policy issues. And again,long term issues.Our friends from the National Nurses Union have already done 44000 mental health consults.

Louis, a natural Latin community leader shares his reflections. 
There are serious issues with the bungalows--insurance payments takes up to 4-5 months. People are scared of shelters far removed from their homes, if they cold even get there. The bungalows from 24th to 32nd off Seagirt Boulevard are ripe for predatory redevelopment. 

Voices around the table agree. The process is condemn, seize, redevelop. There is also a burgeoning public health crisis due to the condition of the homes people won’t leave. Some say that more than public health, it’s actually a moral crisis--how can the city ignore this? Allow this to continue? 

There is no light here.Only one generator per block. The people need to come together. To make sure that they keep the message united and the same.What’s called for is solidarity and power.

As we prepare to move on, Bishop George Packard says to me, I want to tell you how much I have admired your 
congregation over the years. You, the church, have been the very model of Christian social action.

We head down into the bungalows. Once built as little summer cottages for vacationing city people, they now have been (more winterized and become homes for the working poor. Like I said, ripe for predatory development. 

Louis shows us his street. Describes a nightmare night. His brother told him to leave, but it didn’t look so bad. The ocean is coming here, he told him. And it did. Next time he came out, the water was chest deep. He described a scene like something out of a Wachowski brothers apocalyptic move. Car alarms going off all up and down the street until drowned by the incoming sea. Power lines breaking and flailing around like electric snakes, slashing the water with showers of sparks and flashes until all light went out into a darkness that returns every night. 

Forcing his  way through the water, garbage cans bobbing on the water. Watching his daughter in law go down and then his son pulling her out, putting her on his shoulders for the rest of their walk to higher ground. As he tells the story, the look in his eyes is one of disbelief, horror. 

Louis and Bishop Georage
There will be a town hall meeting this weekend to agree on goals, strategies and tactics. Easy to imagine getting some donated trailers and just taking over that gaping vacant lot in the middle of the neighborhood, just moving the trailers in. Something must be done.

As we make our way out of Far Rockaway, out Atlantic Avenue then along the water, past Howard Beach, Broad Channel,names connected with racial tension and violence in recent years, we can observe the changing and shifting dynamics of the hurricane. Who got wiped out, who didn’t. Who’s got light and heat, who doesn’t. Like I said,we must stop talking abut natural disasters. The hurricane was weather. The disaster was created by policy decisions by human beings.

Riding along the coast, I recall my tours of post-Karina New Orleans. The day reminds me of my experiences in third world countries working for the church in the 1980’s. How we’d load into vans and visit local people on the ground, learning  of their struggles, their resistance. Only this is my own city. Places as foreign to me as Central America or the Middle East. But it is my city....

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