November 23, 2012 2:47 pm

Volunteers rise to challenge after Sandy

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Volunteers serve Thanksgiving dinner to residents in the Rockaways section of Queens on November 22, 2012 in New York, as the city recovers from the effects of superstorm Sandy©AFP

The kitchen at St Ann’s church was filled with the aroma of roasting potatoes as volunteers prepared Thanksgiving dinner for the families in Sheepshead Bay who lost everything in the storm.

In the Rockaways, people stripped debris and mould from the ruins of flooded homes. They climbed the pitch-black stairwells of Coney Island’s high rises to check on the elderly and ill, trapped in powerless, unheated apartments.

Since superstorm Sandy ravaged the east coast in late October, New Yorkers have turned out by the thousands, armed with donations and elbow grease to help shattered communities.

In the chaotic initial days after the storm, when many traditional aid channels were slowed or only partly operational, ad hoc volunteer groups sprung up on Facebook, while Occupy Wall Street mobilised its network and began biking food and supplies to some of the most devastated neighbourhoods.

Now, nearly a month later, while emergency relief work is still under way, aid organisations – both established and new – are ramping up their infrastructure to deal with the huge scale of long-term rebuilding.

“We need to make sure we have operations in place, a staff structure in place, that allows us to respond not just in the days and weeks ahead but over many months,” said Steve Streicher, of New York Cares, the city’s largest volunteer organisation.

Occupy Sandy, which started as a small band of Occupy Wall Street veterans delivering help to public housing residents in Brooklyn and Queens the day after the storm, has grown to an army of dedicated volunteers working at dozens of sites in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Organisers have begun holding weekly meetings and conference calls to co-ordinate the growing fleet of volunteers. They are also recruiting people who can commit to work regular hours at least three days a week as team leaders, field co-ordinators, dispatchers and data entry clerks.

Occupy Sandy’s strange bedfellows

As Occupy Sandy has emerged as a leading participant in recovery efforts, it has struck unlikely informal partnerships.

Volunteer Thadeaus Umpster said he had helped two New York police officers pack a truck of supplies destined for Breezy Point, the Queens enclave where more than 100 homes were destroyed by flooding and a huge fire – an experience he described as “definitely interesting” given the police crackdown on Occupy Wall Street demonstrators over the past year.

When UPS loaned trucks and drivers to transport donations, volunteers took and shared pictures of the brown vehicles bedecked in black and yellow “Occupy Wall Street” tape.

Another image went viral from Red Hook, Brooklyn, where a sign announcing an official New York City distribution and relief centre hung beside a hand-painted banner reading: “Occupy Sandy: Mutual aid, not charity”.

Carlos Menchaca, an aide to city council speaker Christine Quinn, who has been co-ordinating relief efforts in the Brooklyn waterfront neighbourhood, took a picture and uploaded it to his Twitter account with the caption, “A visual culmination of the Red Hook Recovery Coalition”.

“I call it Occupy 2.0,” he said. “Crisis is about one thing: meeting the needs of the people.”

“This is what Occupy has been doing since day one – responding to a crisis. It’s just a different kind of crisis,” said Thadeaus Umpster, who on a recent afternoon was loading and unloading a steady flow of donated goods in the nave of the Church of St Luke and St Matthew in Clinton Hill – one of two Brooklyn churches serving as Occupy Sandy’s volunteer and distribution hubs

Mr Umpster, who spent months last year protesting in Zuccotti Park, said the experience of Occupy Wall Street had prepared people to take on the challenge of Sandy relief, including feeding big groups of people and sorting and distributing large volumes of supplies.

“We were tested out there in the cold for months,” he said. “We can apply those skills that we learnt to this.”

Social media has played a key role for Occupy Sandy and other groups, which use the platforms to solicit and target volunteers and supplies to the locations that need them most.

Jaclynn Larington organised a Facebook group, NYC Marathon of Relief 2012, that urged people who planned to run the New York marathon the Sunday after the storm to volunteer instead.

“I wanted to get runners to leave the route and run to areas that need it and offer help,” she said. “I had no idea how I was going to make it happen. I didn’t know where people needed to go.”

Within hours of her Facebook post, she connected with Sarah Hartmann, a member of a local triathlon club, who had been assembling a list of places accepting volunteers and donations. They joined forces, recruited friends and launched a website. The initial day of volunteering has grown to regular trips as far away as Long Island, and the group is now partnering with local businesses that provide buses and supplies.

At New York Cares, operations are getting back to normal after complications from the loss of power and phone service in the storm.

Even as staff were working remotely, volunteer slots filled “in minutes” and heavy traffic slowed the website. “A lot of people were frustrated because they were coming to our site and not seeing projects because they were filling up so rapidly,” Mr Streicher said.

The group has added more orientation sessions, collected a list of 10,000 people interested in working on Sandy relief projects, and is beginning to restart other services, such as meal services, adult education and youth programmes, in the worst-hit areas.

“The need is now even greater for those,” Mr Streicher said. “What we weren’t prepared for was the incredible outpouring of energy and passion to help people in need . . . That was a wonderful problem to have.”

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