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About a minute into my arrival, I am back outside packing a Honda with dinner trays bound for weather-beaten Staten Island. Other volunteers sort jackets, load flashlights with fresh batteries, prepare hot meals and haul heavy-duty cleaning supplies into vans.
To my surprise, many 20- and 30-somethings I speak with say they didn't protest against the banks in 2011. They told me Occupy Sandy was simply more accessible and hands-on than New York Cares or the Red Cross.
"The bulk of people that are driving, cutting vegetables, sorting clothes, those are just people that walked in this week," says Patricia González Ramírez, an organizer with an active Spanish-language newspaper for the Occupy movement called IndigNation. "But some of the cooks used to cook in Zuccotti, logistics and communications — a lot of those people have experienced Occupy."
Responding to requests for more hot food, González helped open a second kitchen down the block, where Burt Wartell, a silver-haired Occupier hailing from Maine, hovers over a sink draining chickpeas. "My background is in hotel and food management, so I thought I could be of use here," says Wartell, who came to New York to visit his daughter Becky after the storm.
"The movement has had a year of experience building infrastructure from nothing," he says of the speedy, contagious response. The Occupy kitchen has sent out upwards of 10,000 meals every day of the week. "In the 60s we had the fire burning, but these kids have got the skills to get things done."
Success of self-organizing
Driving out to New York's Rockaway peninsula, a strip of beach decimated by flooding and fire, police direct intersections in the absence of working traffic lights. The National Guard patrols the main drag in camo-painted Hummers.
But further west, where public housing complexes tower over the horizon, Occupy was the first to respond with supplies.
"Past a certain point, we stopped seeing those services," says Billy Voermann, a video producer who ran cases of water up darkened stairwells to elderly residents. "In the nice parts of Rockaway there's already a dump truck on every street hauling debris off the roads. But further up the peninsula, in the poorer neighbourhoods, we were the only ones out there."
Voermann attributes Occupy's early effectiveness to a lack of bureaucracy. "They cut through any red tape," he says. "The Red Cross would have to wash all the clothes before sending them out — it's just a slower moving organization."
Near downtown Rockaway, where grocery stores are still shuttered, a surf club has transformed into an improvised resource centre for residents. A club organizer notices my penchant for asking questions, and puts me to work conducting needs assessment interviews (a "delicate job" according to my orientation).
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