From Congregations to Occupy, Nongovernmental Groups Provide Sandy Relief

From Congregations to Occupy, Nongovernmental Groups Provide Sandy Relief

November 12, 2012 at 4:00 am

At the Red Hook Initiative on Wednesday, volunteers distributed food, coffee and supplies, and locals charged computers and spent time in the center to warm up. The power is still out in most of Red Hook. MetroFocus/ Georgia Kral

Hurricane Sandy was a disaster on a scale not seen in New York City since 9/11, and the city is slowly recovering and starting to put the pieces of people’s lives back together. The power is still out for tens of thousands of people living in the outer boroughs, including the areas that were hit the hardest: the Rockaways in Queens, Coney Island and Red Hook in Brooklyn, and parts of Staten Island.

Across the city, groups that serve particular communities have shifted their missions to address the catastrophic damage brought on by Sandy. From a temple congregation in Park Slope to a youth services nonprofit in Red Hook to a high school in Coney Island, groups that normally don’t normally provide emergency help are working with what they have, and are getting services to people quickly, with armies of volunteers on the ground and many more donating supplies.

MetroFocus highlights a few of the grassroots efforts that are helping Sandy victims.

The Red Hook Initiative and Occupy Sandy

Along a mostly desolate stretch of street, the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) operates out of a nondescript warehouse space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a neighborhood of approximately 10,000 people. A nonprofit that’s been working with middle and high school students from the Red Hook Housing Development for 10 years, the RHI center is now the hub for all Red Hook relief-related activities. Last Tuesday, the day after Hurricane Sandy flooded the neighborhood, the building miraculously still had power and water.

Word spread that RHI was open, and almost instantly it became the center of a community  — the only place anyone knew to turn to. Staff and board members quickly realized that it was time to step up its range of activity to help the community that had been depleted of both services and members that evacuated.

“We became a center for people to come in, regroup, charge phones. Everything was functioning,” said Sandy Brockwell, operations manager at the Red Hook Initiative in an interview in the RHI office. “Our mission hasn’t changed, it’s just we’re in crisis mode,” she added.  In the course of the short interview, at least ten people — volunteers, staffers and neighborhood residents — came in to ask questions or seek supplies.

Word spread quickly that not only was Red Hook in desperate need of assistance, but that a local nonprofit had devoted itself to helping. Enter Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street.

“There was a first response where everyone in Occupy was like, we need to step up to the plate in our communities,” explained Paulie Anne Duke, the lead organizer and coordinator of Occupy Sandy’s efforts in Red Hook. “We all knew large federal aid or corporate aid groups can be pretty ineffective or late or can’t get in with the community. Red Hook Initiative had been there a long time, and had connections.”

Duke said Occupy Sandy brought to Red Hook the skills to organize people and a network of hundreds of volunteers, and a social media distribution system that dispersed information quickly and effectively. Occupy Sandy is similarly working all over the metropolitan region. To view where, see this map.

“They’re an incredibly organized force,” said Brockwell of Occupy Sandy. “I was very impressed with how well they could come into a crisis situation and get things moving, it’s just amazing.”

RHI is still the central hub for recovery activities in Red Hook, but the response from the respective Occupy and RHI communities has been so overwhelming that there are now at least four different sites in the relatively small neighborhood where locals can go for supplies, hot meals, medical services or just to get warm and charge electronics.

Both FEMA and the Red Cross have been in Red Hook, distributing blankets and supplies as well as providing advice on how to apply for disaster assistance aid. But according to Duke, Occupy and other groups that aren’t affiliated with a large corporation or the government can go places where others can’t.

“The Red Cross is not allowed to enter most buildings because it’s a liability,” Duke said.

Congregation Beth Elohim sends out 10 car loads of supplies a day to areas in need. Image courtesy of Congregation Beth Elohim.

The partnership between RHI and Occupy has been “beautiful,” said Duke. And the level of support is astounding.

“The response went from zero to 150 in three days,” said Duke, adding that all donations have come from individuals. “Through both our networks we brought thousands and thousands of people in. At first it was total chaos, but now we’re super refining everything.”

Congregation Beth Elohim

The Park Slope Armory has been sheltering New Yorkers displaced by Hurricane Sandy since the storm hit. Congregation Beth Elohim, located 15 blocks away, is an active community of approximately 900 member families that is involved in social justice work. When New York City Council Member Brad Lander heard the people in the Armory needed food, he called Beth Elohim.

“We said yes right away,” said Cindy Greenberg, Beth Elohim’s program director and a member of the congregation.

Elohim, like the Red Hook Initiative, had a built-in network they could tap for volunteers and donations. But the number of volunteers and donations received grew at an exponential pace.

“It’s become a hub for Park Slope and beyond,” said Greenberg, adding that donations from a temple in Maryland had even come to them. The Congregation was listed on the NYC Service website, which may have brought more people into their network, but Greenberg didn’t know how that listing on the city site had happened.

A stained glass window portrays one of the missions of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope. Photo courtesy of Congregation Beth Elohim.

In total, Congregation Beth Elohim made 8,558 sandwiches in one week, and is continuing to make sandwiches and upwards of 200 hot meals a day. They send out 10 cars filled with supplies to areas in need every day.

Elohim also worked with Occupy Sandy, though not as directly, to distribute donated food and supplies.

Greenberg said the local community groups are filling a gap.

“Organizations like us, and Occupy Sandy, we’re all grassroots. Where is the national crisis response? There’s nobody in the Rockaways,” she said. “This is critical.”

Editor’s Note: FEMA opened a mobile center in the Rockaways on Nov. 4. As of Friday, this Google map, below, showed two FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers.

Check the Google Crisis Map to find shelters and Red Cross and FEMA centers


Greenberg said she understood why FEMA wasn’t in the places that needed them right away, but a week later is a different story.

“Where are they?” she said. “I don’t understand it.”

(Full disclosure: Greenberg’s husband is a WNET employee.)

At Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, teachers and administrators began collecting clothes, food and toiletries to distribute to students, families and the community. MetroFocus/ Georgia Kral

Abraham Lincoln High School

Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island was a “super-polling” site on Election Day, but that wasn’t the only new use of the school that occurred last Tuesday. The faculty cafeteria, which was flooded by Hurricane Sandy just a week before, was also transformed. Tables once used for dining are now used to display the items in what the school is calling a “thrift store.”

The thrift store is a place to drop off and pick up donated clothes and items to help students and area residents who are victims of Hurricane Sandy.  It’s organized by the school’s faculty, which mostly tapped into social networks on Facebook to ask for donations.

The faculty are calling the donation center a thrift store because they want to be respectful of the feelings of their students and what they and their families have gone through.

“Sometimes the kids feel demeaned if they’re given stuff for free. We’re telling them to come to our shop,” said Assistant Principal Mary Mulvey.

The school is also going out of its way to ask the kids what they need. When the school reopened after Sandy, every student who returned filled out a form, saying what they needed. The intention was to help the students  feel like they were shopping, rather than just being given free things out of charity.

Principal Ari Hoogenboom said the school would be collecting donations and distributing them to the students and the community for as long as was necessary.

“Our response has to be long-term,” he said.

On Tuesday, the room was meticulously organized, with all clothes folded and organized by type.

“We don’t want it to look like you’re walking into more disaster, more chaos,” said Mulvey.


MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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