Belle Harbor, Queens, about half way along the Rockaway peninsula, is four blocks across at its widest point—a splinter of East-West streets on a spit of land between the bay and the sea. Now that land is beach again. The roads are so densely packed under sand hardened into foot-high ruts and deep puddles that they seem like dirt paths, never paved. A car is suspended diagonally across the sidewalk of one of the main roads, its rear impaled on a low wall. A mangled wood fence lies in the street. In front of nearly every house is a massive pile of debris—chairs, tables, mattresses, torn bits of cloth, and garbage bags stuffed, presumably, with smaller, flimsier, more rotten things. Some of the houses have been inspected for safety by the city and have paper signs posted on their doors: green for safe, yellow for partly safe, red for not safe at all. Cloth and wood signs along Rockaway Beach Boulevard yesterday: “F.U. Sandy, Survivor beach party … BYO … GOD BLESS USA, Rockaway”; “U LOOT, WE SHOOT.”
At the St. Francis de Sales church on B-129th Street, the church hall has been taken over by Occupy Sandy—an offshoot of the still-active networks of Occupy Wall Street. Supplies have been driven here from all over Brooklyn: back there are piles of blankets; on the tables here are diapers, baby food, and cleaning supplies; over there, clothes (grownup, child, baby); more than a hundred pairs of shoes lined up neatly on the bleachers. Residents of the neighborhood wander around the hall, filling bags. In the front entranceway Occupy volunteers are unloading cases of bottled water from a truck, handing the heavy cases one to the next, a bucket brigade to the back of the church. The volunteers move fast but the job lasts more than half an hour—it’s a big truck. In front of the church, long tables have been set up on the sidewalk, where volunteers are serving hot food and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
The Red Cross doesn’t accept individual donations of household goods—these things, it says, need to be cleaned, sorted, and repackaged, and all that takes up more time than they’re worth. It asks for financial donations only. New York Cares requires its volunteers to go through orientation sessions, all of which are full till late November. But Occupy, as you would expect, has a different style. For instance: as soon as it was safe to go outside after the storm, first thing Tuesday morning, Michael Premo and a couple of people he knew got in a car and drove over to Red Hook. Premo is a freelance artist who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and just turned thirty. He was at Zuccotti Park every day last fall, though he never slept there, and after the park encampment was disbanded he kept in touch with the movement. There are big neighborhood assemblies in Sunset Park and Red Hook, smaller ones elsewhere in Brooklyn. Many meet each week, organizing around local issues—rent strikes in Sunset Park, anti-gentrification in Crown Heights.
Premo worked in New Orleans after Katrina and he had a sense that right after a disaster a city’s efforts were focused on search and rescue, rather than providing supplies. He thought this was a gap Occupy could fill. He knew some people at Red Hook Initiative, a community center on Hicks Street, so he and his friends drove over there and asked what was needed—food, light, blankets. Food most of all. He and some other people got back in the car and drove to the Rockaways. He isn’t sure when they got there—probably Tuesday evening. Houses were still on fire. They walked around and asked people what they needed most.
Meanwhile, organizing was going on: we need to make food, we need a kitchen. The Red Hook Initiative has a kitchen but it’s too small. Phone calls. There’s a church on Fourth Avenue at 55th Street in Sunset Park, St. Jacobi, whose pastor likes Occupy—they have a big kitchen. They also have a hall that can be used as a headquarters to receive donations. Done—meet there. Get in the car. Somebody set up a website, there needs to be a short, clear list of what is needed and where to take it. Make sure it stays updated. Phone calls. We need volunteers to sort donations. We need sandwiches made. We need tinfoil to wrap the sandwiches in. We need people to drive out to Zone A to deliver supplies. People are running low on gas, not everyone can get to Sunset Park. Phone calls. Satellite drop-off centers for donations established in Fort Greene, Park Slope, Williamsburg, and Bed-Stuy. Phone calls. Coordinate with people in Manhattan—CAAAV, an Asian American organization on Hester Street, is asking for volunteers in Chinatown. Can anyone get to Chinatown? The people at Good Old Lower East Side need volunteers to knock on doors in housing projects to see if old or sick people need help—they’re doing it between twelve and six every day and they need as many people as they can get (we’re sending hundreds). Someone needs to go out to the Rockaways and figure out a distribution center. Maybe St. Francis de Sales. It’s on 129th Street. Remember, phones don’t work there. Neither do traffic lights.
On Rockaway Beach Boulevard, a Polish woman walked away from St. Francis de Sales carrying full bags. She and her son had a place to stay right now, with her husband’s family, and it was a Polish building so they took them in, but they couldn’t stay there for much longer. She wasn’t sure where they would go next. She had lived in a basement—everything was ruined. She knew that a lot of other people were in the same situation. She knew that. But what got her was, on the street where she was staying, some people had clean driveways. Not just cleared of debris—no. Perfectly clean. Swept. Clean as a floor inside your house. That was what got her.