Ten Years Ago, Occupy Sandy Didn’t Just Help New Yorkers, It Redefined Disaster Response
With roots in Occupy Wall Street, the spontaneous relief effort showcased how mutual aid groups can step into the breach when traditional organizations are slow to act.
A decade ago, a group of friends who had come together to protest economic inequality as part of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement wanted to figure out how to help New Yorkers affected by Superstorm Sandy.
They realized people needed food, clothes and other essentials, and in concert with community groups, they did what they could to provide. Calling themselves Occupy Sandy, the endeavor ballooned.
It became a grassroots, people-powered response to a devastating storm. Sandy destroyed thousands of homes, caused about $19 billion in damage and resulted in the deaths of at least 43 people in New York City.
Based on relationships forged and logistical lessons learned during Occupy Wall Street, when protestors camped out in the Financial District’s Zuccotti Park, a network of about 60,000 volunteers spanned the five boroughs to distribute supplies, connect people with resources and even help rebuild homes.
“We were like, show up and we’ll figure it out. We’ll try to figure out how to make you useful,” said Andy Smith, 37, one of the volunteers, who now lives in The Bronx neighborhood of Norwood. “This was a really, really technical operation, and I think that’s what I thought was really beautiful because like a year ago, we were these dirty, disorganized occupiers.”
The volunteers set up an online wedding registry to collect supplies. They published a map with locations where people could seek relief. They folded in other New Yorkers from neighborhoods Sandy left unscathed. And they canvassed social media and worked the phones to figure out where to send helping hands.
The group set up centers to communicate with volunteers around the city, cook meals and pass out clothes, sump pumps and generators. Smith joked the hubs — located in community centers, in NYCHA developments and on street corners — were like “disaster Costco.”
The effort was so successful that one year later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security commissioned a report on Occupy Sandy, calling it “one of the leading humanitarian groups providing relief to survivors across New York City and New Jersey.
“Unlike traditional disaster response organizations, there were no appointed leaders, no bureaucracy, no regulations to follow, no pre-defined mission, charter, or strategic plan,” the report states. “There was just relief.”
In this vein, Occupy Sandy and similar projects represent the informal emergency management system, according to Samantha Montano, a disaster researcher and assistant professor in Massachusetts Maritime Academy’s emergency management department.
“It’s kind of part of our planning assumptions that these groups are going to form and that they are going to be addressing various needs in the community because we do not at all have the capacity within our formal emergency management system to address all of the needs that arise during a disaster,” Montano said. “Our system isn’t even trying to do that.”
The roots that the Occupy Sandy groups put down back then sprung to life again during the COVID pandemic and in efforts to help newly arrived migrants.
It’s an example of an informal disaster response group’s ability to shift and adapt to new crises, relying on “muscle memory,” as Montano put it.
From the Lower East Side and Red Hook to Coney Island and Midland Beach on Staten Island, Occupy Sandy volunteers climbed endless flights of stairs in towers, knocked on doors to check on neighbors and even refilled medical prescriptions. They mucked out flooded homes. They connected people to legal help. And they worked alongside local organizations that knew their communities best, at times coordinating with official government channels to share insights and distribute supplies.
The structure behind this seemingly spontaneous collective was horizontal, without clear leaders. But in many ways, some say, it was more effective than official relief organizations, including the Red Cross, FEMA and the National Guard.
That’s what Matt Miner, a comic book writer who lived in the Rockaways, remembers: Occupy Sandy volunteers showing up shortly after Sandy plunged the peninsula into darkness. Miner and his partner were left with a flooded home and a small menagerie of pets to care for — but no flashlights or batteries.
Ironically, Miner, now 44, happened to have given his stash away to Occupy Wall Street participants before he’d moved to Queens from Lower Manhattan. He found some Halloween candles and lit them for temporary illumination as he tried to salvage his belongings from the floodwaters.
Fate would send Occupy Sandy volunteers to hand out flashlights and more to Miner and his neighbors.
“The Red Cross and other relief organizations kind of took a while to get there. They weren’t there the next day, but Occupy was,” Miner said. “I’m getting choked up. … It’s hard to explain how scary that time was without having any light other than a couple of candles, how absolutely frightening those first few days were, and so Occupy being there really meant a lot to us.”
By 2012’s end, Occupy Sandy had raised over $1 million in monetary donations and supplies.
“These behemoth aid organizations play a role within a broader landscape but are ultimately unresponsive to community needs and aren’t designed to be agile,” said Michael Premo, a Bushwick-based filmmaker and co-founder of Occupy Sandy. “They aren’t designed to communicate long-term needs, and that’s what Occupy Sandy was really trying to do.”
Though the major thrust of Occupy Sandy eventually petered out about a year after it began, it formed the roots for some of the mutual aid networks that arose to deliver groceries and later make vaccine appointments for neighbors when the “shelter in place” policy took hold at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sandy Nurse, who was elected last year as a City Council member representing northeast Brooklyn, spent months after the storm in Midland Beach alongside her friends from Occupy Wall Street.
When the pandemic hit, she helped organize food delivery programs in North Brooklyn.
“The type of mutual aid that folks were compelled to organize during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in terms of material relief and boots-on-the-ground response for people is exactly the same thing that we just did for two years with the pandemic,” Nurse said. “The connective tissue is still really strong and intact and has only grown as more, different waves of things have happened and more people have gotten involved or plugged into groups.”
During the pandemic and after weather-related disasters outside New York, other Occupy Sandy volunteers heard from people who sought advice about how to coordinate community relief, keep track of needs and handle monetary donations.
Devin Balkind, who works in software development, launched the umbrella Mutual Aid NYC website in early 2020, which featured an interactive map of the Covid-19 relief groups throughout the city as well as the digital tools used to track volunteers and needs. During Occupy Wall Street and later, for Occupy Sandy, Balkind helped run tech and communication channels.
The Occupy Wall Street movement had another side beyond protests, he said: humanitarian response, which tied in directly to Sandy relief efforts and others later on.
“You have a bunch of people in a place they’re not supposed to be in the middle of New York,” Balkind said of the two-months long initial encampment in Zuccotti Park. “How are you going to provide sanitation, food, health services, all the stuff that really, a disaster relief site would require?” Mutual aid networks increase the city’s resilience, he said.
Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz would agree. He was the leader at St. Jacobi Lutheran Church in Sunset Park, one of the main Occupy Sandy distribution hubs (the other was Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Clinton Hill) and is now a pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, which served recently as a central point for pandemic-relief programs. It’s also more recently welcomed some of the migrants bused to New York City.
“We know that salvation, so to speak, doesn’t come from the government, and we cannot wait for the government to act,” Ruiz said. “We are the ones that need to be active, organizing and making sure that our neighbor is okay and well taken care of.”
After the Storm
City Hall has increasingly recognized the power of neighborhood connections during crises. Through the Office of Emergency Management’s Strengthening Communities program, for example, local organizations create emergency plans, tying their networks to city resources.
Jill Cornell, a community engagement specialist who helps run the program, credits her experience in Occupy Sandy for sparking her passion in the field.
Ten years ago, Cornell, now 62, was a stay-at-home mom who became a steadfast Occupy Sandy volunteer in southern Brooklyn and the Rockaways, where she knew many people from her family’s involvement in a beach club and a theater company. Cornell — who had previously held jobs in drug and alcohol rehab, at a law firm and in fundraising — brought supplies to sewage-filled homes and became more and more involved, as the repair efforts were underway.
“I didn’t know anything. It was so brand new to me … It was just a completely different way for me to understand how to be working in community with people because there wasn’t a top-down structure,” said Cornell, who had not been involved in Occupy Wall Street. “My time really has helped me really understand the importance of maintaining connections with folks, and so that’s what I carry into my day-to-day life here in emergency management.”
Cornell transitioned to coordinating the Brooklyn Long-Term Recovery Group, a coalition of organizations that focused on continuing the rebuilding process for a couple years after the storm. That gig turned into a job at OEM when some of the staff there convened the long-term recovery groups to gauge interest in increasing community preparedness.
Cornell’s experience working as part of Occupy Sandy provided some clarity about how to best help others. For some, the time after the storm proved more complex.
For multimedia visual artist Sofía Gallisá Muriente, trekking from Brooklyn to the Rockaways as part of Occupy Sandy for nearly a year after the storm shaped her understanding of “what’s at stake with climate catastrophe,” and it also raised questions about her role and adequacy as an individual responding to a disaster.
“You have to come to terms with a systemic problem that you’re dealing with beyond the storm that brought you there, how much easier it is to lay out blankets and hot food than it is to figure out how to deal with pre-existing crime in the community and poverty,” she said.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, where she once again lives, Muriente, 36, felt that hurricanes were routine. But now each time the island is battered by a storm, she says she experiences a kind of “vertigo.”
“With Hurricane Maria, so much of what I thought and felt and believed got shaken up,” Muriente told THE CITY, days after Hurricane Fiona devastated Puerto Rico last month. “Part of the reason why I was so heartbroken so quickly, like just really distraught in those first few days, is because I thought back to Sandy, and I just thought about how much more complicated things are gonna get.”