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Community Organizers Fill a Large Gap in Superstorm Sandy Relief, but It’s Not Enough

Four years after “community organizer” became a slur laced with all the racial venom that Sarah Palin could invoke, it is community organizers who are doing the real relief work in New York’s outer boroughs.

Community groups worked overtime in Queens’ Far Rockaways after Sandy. Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, our federal disaster response is inadequate, and communities of color continue to suffer the brunt of our collective failures.

“You from FEMA?”

I heard that question over and over on Sunday, November 4, as I walked through Arverne, Queens with Desean Burrus, the Rockaways organizer for New York Communities for Change (NYCC). Along with a vanload of other canvassers, Burrus was going door to door, doing the kind of needs assessment that, according to local residents, no government agency had yet done.

Six days into the crisis that has been Superstorm Sandy, the gas lines still snake down Brooklyn streets and even stretch onto the highway, and churches, community centers and homes have been turned into staging areas for Occupy-affiliated activists and community groups like NYCC, the Rockaway Youth Task Force, CAAAV in Manhattan’s Chinatown and many more.

Four years after “community organizer” became a slur laced with all the racial venom that Sarah Palin could invoke, it is community organizers who are doing the real relief work in New York’s outer boroughs, the ones that don’t make for dramatic night-time photo ops. Community organizers, whose skills extend beyond simply handing out canned goods and bottled water, to listening and talking, allowing people to vent their anger and fear, assessing what’s most needed and most importantly, helping people direct that anger about being abandoned at the right people and places, to get results.

“No Red Cross, no FEMA, no nothing,” Addie Patterson told us after having flagged us on the street corner, just past a generator set up on the island in an intersection where people were chatting while they charged the cell phones that didn’t get much of a signal in any case. She’d moved her family, including her 88-year-old mother, down several blocks because her neighborhood was abandoned. Her second-floor apartment was OK, she said, but downstairs her neighbor had lost everything.

The flood lines on some buildings were higher than my head, and several days past the storm, some of the trash piles outside of homes were taller than me as well. First-floor apartments needed a complete gutting, with sodden couches piled up next to refrigerators and big-screen TVs. Derrick Adams, who’s sleeping in his truck outside of his house, invited us in to see the wreckage; in his kitchen, a framed poem reminded us to “Relax, God’s in Charge!”

Multiple Choice?

Marie Satchwell, who was outside with her children, a line of shoes stretching down the stone wall around her home, told us that “obviously” she felt abandoned by the big rescue agencies. The only attention she’d seen, she said, was a big truck that came by and dropped boxes of supplies in the street, leaving people to rifle through it themselves. While aid was hard to come by, she noted, the police were everywhere, standing outside, hands casually on guns, as hot food was distributed, or driving slowly down the streets, observing the cleaning going on.

The story of overzealous policing (in this mostly black neighborhood) was echoed by Kenyatta Hutchinson, who was staying with his wife and children at a friend’s house after his place flooded. “All I see is cops, and they’re still harassing us,” he said. Several people on the block had reacted with concern when they didn’t see one of their neighbors for days after the storm – they called the police, but all NYPD did was knock on the door and then leave. Meanwhile, he continued, the one thing not destroyed in his apartment was a flat-screen TV, but with the police patrolling after dark, he was worried about bringing the TV out and being accused of stealing his own property.

“We’ve got nothing but ourselves,” Hutchinson said. “Where’s the real help? Where’s the government?”

Down the street, Doris Keel-Ade told us she’d lived on this block 40 years and considers it secure, close, safe. Neighbors everywhere were helping one another move furniture out, sharing generators and supplies. Alain Toussaint, who took me around the back of his house to show me the flood remnants on top of his SUV and the flood lines on his house nearly at his shoulders, immediately asked Burrus for information on volunteering with NYCC.

At each house, Burrus introduced himself as an organizer with a community group, shook hands, listened to people’s stories, and got a name and phone number (even with spotty cell service, he’s in this for the long haul, spending most of his days in this neighborhood even when flooding and winds haven’t drawn the attention of much of the state to it). When, unprompted, two different residents brought up the issues in their public schools, he nodded and made notes. “We work on that too,” he said.

In marked contrast, as we walked, several different carloads of volunteers – all white – arrived as we stood outside homes, chatting with residents. In one case, a woman approached with a box of food, speaking slowly as if addressing children. “I have food. Would you like some?” she said. I wanted to tell her that she was, in fact, in New York; the comparisons of post-Katrina New Orleans to a “Third World country” flew through my head and I wondered, did she think these people were so shell-shocked they wouldn’t understand?

Shell-shocked they weren’t, six days after the storm. They were angry and sad, determined and devastated, ready to pick up and move on, but unable really to do so with no power, no phone service, no news. Food and water distribution was one thing, gutting flooded rooms another; how does one begin the rebuilding process without access to basic technology?

“What you are doing, the feds and the state and the city should be doing, so that you know you’re on a list, that you count,” said Yasmin Bailey Stewart, a schoolteacher originally from Jamaica who had no problem pointing out that the whiter, wealthier areas of the Rockaways seemed to have no problem getting supplies. “Enough people are out of work now, they could get them to do it.”

Headed back to work tomorrow, she told us, the storm had decreased her tolerance for standardized testing even further. “When people try to troubleshoot, they can’t,” she said, when all they’ve had is multiple-choice tests. And as for billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, she shrugged. “He thinks he’s smart, but the decisions he’s making are not people-oriented and it costs lives.”

The needs of the community that could be met immediately were: Burrus and others packed bags and boxes with food and toiletries, diapers and blankets and brought them back to the homes. Other items – like radios and flashlights – that people requested were noted for later and calls sent out depending on needs. (Later, as I caught up with other canvassers, we compared the different needs of the neighborhoods we’d been in, sometimes just blocks apart, but often vastly different in what they thought to ask volunteers for.)

It may be impractical for the federal government to have a fully staffed disaster response network in each state, and yet the massive resources that federal and state can marshal are obviously necessary as well. (No community group or Occupy mutual aid network, however awe-inspiring, can solve the current gas shortage, for example.) FEMA and the Red Cross, instead of parachuting in after the storm, would do well to form relationships with the people who do everyday social justice work in the communities most vulnerable to natural, as well as economic, disasters.

The excellent work of community groups on the ground highlights the degree to which the social safety net remains in tatters, and how even seven years after Hurricane Katrina, our federal disaster response is inadequate – and how it continues to be communities of color that suffer the brunt of our collective failures

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