Ordinary people can be extraordinary in a crisis. During a mammoth storm they can risk their own lives to pull others from harm’s way.
In just a couple of days they can coordinate a network to prepare and deliver food, water, clothes and emergency provisions.
The mass volunteer effort in New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is a marvel of human empathy and ingenuity. But it is not sufficient to orchestrate disaster relief for a city of millions.
If you watch national television, you get the idea that the state and federal governments are coordinating a colossal relief effort. There is little to no evidence of this in areas where poor and working class people live and work.
Kyle Brown, a North Brooklyn resident, worked as a volunteer. He saw no sign of any government relief efforts in the Lower East Side’s housing projects along the flooded East River. “We were out of everything—especially water—within minutes,” he said.
“It became clear really fast that what we could physically carry with us, while important, would barely make a dent in what was actually needed. There’s just no way these ragtag operations can even touch the enormity of the situation.”
In Manhattan almost all visible disaster relief efforts are being coordinated by activists, teachers, students, unemployed people and workers.
Global warming has combined with decades of privatisation and gutted public services to create the perfect neoliberal storm of do-it-yourself disaster relief.
Occupy Wall Street’s legacy of participatory democracy kicked in immediately with activists forming Occupy Sandy relief efforts.
Activists in the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) have been coordinating efforts among Chinatown’s immigrants and in the Lower East Side housing projects. CAAAV’s Helena Wong described the situation in lower Manhattan.
“We had folks from the City-run evacuation center at Seward Park come to us asking for supplies,” she said. “At the same time other officers tried to shut us down.
“We were told on Wall Street the lights are on in all the buildings, and Christmas lights are on in the streets. It was clear where the priority is. Today was another day where there was no information given out and City officials were nowhere to be seen.”
In Brooklyn, where I live, volunteers help out at the Park Slope Armory. This shelters 600 elderly evacuees from a nursing home. When I arrived they were being tended to by dozens of teachers, unemployed people, an off-duty medical examiner and a couple of freelance writers like me.
We did our best to get frail seniors warm clothes, call their loved ones, help feed them and escort them to the bathroom. The volunteer efforts are heartening and terrifying. People are committed to helping one another.
Yet the power, access and know-how to commandeer the vast resources required for comprehensive disaster relief is currently in the hands of the state.
This is an edited extract from an article published on the International Socialist Organisation’s socialistworker.org website