Belle Harbor, Queens, about half way along the Rockaway peninsula, is four blocks across at its widest point—a splinter of East-West streets on a spit of land between the bay and the sea. Now that land is beach again. The roads are so densely packed under sand hardened into foot-high ruts and deep puddles that they seem like dirt paths, never paved. A car is suspended diagonally across the sidewalk of one of the main roads, its rear impaled on a low wall. A mangled wood fence lies in the street. In front of nearly every house is a massive pile of debris—chairs, tables, mattresses, torn bits of cloth, and garbage bags stuffed, presumably, with smaller, flimsier, more rotten things. Some of the houses have been inspected for safety by the city and have paper signs posted on their doors: green for safe, yellow for partly safe, red for not safe at all. Cloth and wood signs along Rockaway Beach Boulevard yesterday: “F.U. Sandy, Survivor beach party … BYO … GOD BLESS USA, Rockaway”; “U LOOT, WE SHOOT.”
At the St. Francis de Sales church on B-129th Street, the church hall has been taken over by Occupy Sandy—an offshoot of the still-active networks of Occupy Wall Street. Supplies have been driven here from all over Brooklyn: back there are piles of blankets; on the tables here are diapers, baby food, and cleaning supplies; over there, clothes (grownup, child, baby); more than a hundred pairs of shoes lined up neatly on the bleachers. Residents of the neighborhood wander around the hall, filling bags. In the front entranceway Occupy volunteers are unloading cases of bottled water from a truck, handing the heavy cases one to the next, a bucket brigade to the back of the church. The volunteers move fast but the job lasts more than half an hour—it’s a big truck. In front of the church, long tables have been set up on the sidewalk, where volunteers are serving hot food and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
The Red Cross doesn’t accept individual donations of household goods—these things, it says, need to be cleaned, sorted, and repackaged, and all that takes up more time than they’re worth. It asks for financial donations only. New York Cares requires its volunteers to go through orientation sessions, all of which are full till late November. But Occupy, as you would expect, has a different style. For instance: as soon as it was safe to go outside after the storm, first thing Tuesday morning, Michael Premo and a couple of people he knew got in a car and drove over to Red Hook. Premo is a freelance artist who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and just turned thirty. He was at Zuccotti Park every day last fall, though he never slept there, and after the park encampment was disbanded he kept in touch with the movement. There are big neighborhood assemblies in Sunset Park and Red Hook, smaller ones elsewhere in Brooklyn. Many meet each week, organizing around local issues—rent strikes in Sunset Park, anti-gentrification in Crown Heights.
Premo worked in New Orleans after Katrina and he had a sense that right after a disaster a city’s efforts were focused on search and rescue, rather than providing supplies. He thought this was a gap Occupy could fill. He knew some people at Red Hook Initiative, a community center on Hicks Street, so he and his friends drove over there and asked what was needed—food, light, blankets. Food most of all. He and some other people got back in the car and drove to the Rockaways. He isn’t sure when they got there—probably Tuesday evening. Houses were still on fire. They walked around and asked people what they needed most.