On Tuesday morning, as New Yorkers were beginning to vote, 60 polling stations had been either destroyed or turned into emergency shelters. Above the same waters that had flooded many of the city’s coastal neighborhoods a week before, I and other Occupy movement activists hung a banner at the midpoint of the Manhattan Bridge. With the intention of drawing a line between the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and fossil fuels, it said, “Got climate change blues? Fuhgeddabout fossil fuels!”
Six days earlier, on Halloween night, I pedaled past that same spot. Everything below 39th Street, with the exception of the Empire State Building, was dark. Locals took to referring to Lower Manhattan as the “dead zone.” Areas of the city like Red Hook, Rockaway and Staten Island had been inundated with floodwaters and scarred by electrical fires. Public transit was completely shut down, and fuel scarce. People had taken to riding bicycles, for more reasons than one. In Brooklyn, for instance, the direct action bike troop Times Up! set up a bicycle generator — the same one used to power Zuccotti Park last fall — to help Manhattan refugees streaming over the Williamsburg Bridge power their cellphones and call their loved ones.
This was just one tiny facet of a massive do-it-yourself relief effort that New Yorkers have mounted after the storm. It’s also one of many attempts to show that this storm and the suffering it has caused are intimately related to the business that the dark towers of Lower Manhattan symbolize.
It wasn’t until November 1 that the full scale of the disaster began to register. Mayor Michael Bloomberg told New Yorkers that the city was doing everything in its power to get back to business as usual again, but for people in areas most ravaged by Sandy, normalcy was a long way off. Power remained out for days, and across the city police guarded gas stations where long lines of parked cars sat idle waiting to creep up to barren tanks.
In an unexpected turn, Bloomberg announced his endorsement for President Obama’s reelection, citing the president’s concern for climate change. Bloomberg thus recognized the connection between Sandy and global warming that even the president was unwilling to make. That same day, in fact, the Guardian reported that Obama and company had made a conscious decision in 2009 not to talk about climate change directly. In a private meeting, administration officials told environmental activists that it was a losing talking point; instead, the administration said that it was going to be discussing “green jobs” and that environmental organizations should do the same.
Accordingly, talk of climate change has been noticeably absent from Obama’s 2012 campaign, in sharp contrast to the soaring rhetoric of four years ago. When accepting his party’s nomination for president in 2008, Obama promised that he would usher in the moment when the oceans would cease to rise. This time around he has been bragging that his administration has “built enough pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.”
The suction pumps dredging out water from homes in Red Hook were evidence that the oceans hadn’t ceased to rise. Nikki Brierre was at home when Sandy came and she saw 10-foot waves from the Hudson River crashing into her neighborhood. Brierre later evacuated to a friend’s house but then went back to assess the damage. Her third-story apartment was untouched, but a greasy residue five feet tall clung to her neighbor’s walls on the ground floor.
Across the Gowanus Expressway and on higher ground, Carroll Gardens was virtually unaffected by the storm. Brierre went door to door there on Thursday, collecting blankets and nonperishable foods for those stranded on the other side of the highway, where volunteers with the non-profit Red Hook Initiative and Occupy Sandy Relief, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, were working to deliver basic supplies to the many in need.
Brierre said the response to Sandy in Red Hook “makes me proud of where I live. It’s a really strong community.” She added though, that leaders needed to take climate change more seriously. “A hurricane at the end of October? It’s pretty clear that our weather is not what it used to be.”
On Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Friday, Shahana “Butterfly” Bryant and her friend Lourdes “Lou-Lou” Davila said they didn’t know anything about climate change. I found them having a barbeque with some friends in front of the Barrier Free Living shelter on Avenue C and Houston, where they’ve been staying. Hot dogs sizzled on a grill while soul music pumped through an old boombox. Butterfly was grateful for all the help she’d received during the storm and in its aftermath, praising the dry packaged food that the National Guard had distributed as “delicious.”
After visiting Red Hook the day before and delivering food to apartments in Chinatown all day, this was the first I’d heard mention of the National Guard. As we spoke, though, several camouflaged Humvees coasted by.
Lou-Lou, who uses a wheel chair, wasn’t as content with the way things had been handled. She told me that before, during and after Sandy the Department of Homeless Services was nowhere to be found. There were no flashlights, so people were showering in the dark, which is especially difficult if you can’t stand up. Barrier Free couldn’t cook, so they’d been serving nothing but sandwiches and dry food since Monday night. These hot dogs were the first warm meal they’d had since the Lower East Side went dark. But the worst part for Lou-Lou was the cold. Hurricane Sandy, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, coasted over waters that were nine degrees warmer than average on its way to New York, but on land the barometer had been steadily dropping each night since the storm. There was a shortage of blankets, leaving those at the refuge to supply their own.
People Lou-Lou knows were less fortunate than her. “I have friends that had to go out and panhandle,” she said, “because their food went rotten and they had to feed their kids and families. They’re still with no water at all. It’s been horrible, really horrible.”
It was then that the lights above Barrier Free began to twinkle. The whole neighborhood began to shine as dusk set in. Lou-Lou and Butterfly’s faces brightened. As I biked on through the Lower East Side, everyone I saw was wearing a big grin on their face. People lugging carts loaded with water were hooting and hollering. Though it was 5 o’clock in November it felt like New Year’s. The return of power indicated to the neighborhood that, for them at least, the worst was over.
Elsewhere the disaster continued unabated. On Saturday in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, three National Guardsmen in camouflage fatigues sat through an orientation led by Occupy Wall Street activists from the altar of St. Jacobi Lutheran Church. Since Sandy, OWS has turned the expertise acquired in managing occupied Zuccotti Park last fall to hurricane relief. Occupy activists also teamed up with the environmental organization 350.org to help coordinate relief efforts online. In many cases, such as at St. Jacobi, government response teams are following the lead of the Occupiers.
What started as a dozen Occupy Sandy volunteers collecting donations earlier in the week bloomed into a large and complex network of operations. Vans were being dispatched to more than a dozen stricken neighborhoods across the city, delivering food and supplies. Ten thousand meals had been prepared in the church’s basement the night before. Orientations were being held around the clock as volunteers streamed in by the dozens.
This orientation started like a typical Occupy meeting. Occupy is a leaderless, horizontal movement, volunteers were informed, so everyone has the opportunity to become a leader. What followed was a run-down of the basics of canvassing, of keeping safe, of the proper gear to bring and of ascertaining peoples’ needs. At the end, volunteers were asked to sign up for shifts. The guardsmen got in line like everyone else to add their names to the list.
In Red Hook on Sunday, a barker preaching revolution stood in front of a buffet, while those in line received spoonfuls of warm soul-food in styrofoam containers. Children and their parents positioned themselves on nearby corners distributing literature on the “People’s Survival Program,” explaining that their relief efforts were only a temporary fix and that the real solution to the suffering of those in the housing projects is people power.
That day, Occupy Sandy point-people in Red Hook sent the group I was with to an understaffed FEMA station in Coffey Park. I and 10 other volunteers wheeled a dolly through the projects making deliveries to elderly people cloistered inside.
There was still no power in most of the buildings, and a thick stench of mold and garbage wafted up from the bottom floors. As each apartment door opened, a musty smell of hot, trapped humanity greeted us, accompanied by mole-eyed men and women patiently surviving on bottles of water and dry packaged food. They couldn’t shower since they had no water, and they were keeping their windows shut to conserve heat. We noted what medication they needed and inquired about whether they had medical conditions that needed treatment. One woman in a wheelchair said she was developing bedsores and had an infection in her leg that needed draining. We jotted that down. On the way back to refill supplies, a woman stuck her head out her window and yelled, “I need money.” We dutifully jotted that down too, along with her address, though probably the same could be said for everyone else in the neighborhood too.
Politicians have seemed especially clumsy in the days since Sandy, as if to reveal the awkwardness of their role in both the causes of the hurricane and the inadequate response. Only after widespread pressure did Mayor Bloomberg finally cancel Sunday’s New York City Marathon, which would have drawn city resources away from relief. Obama returned to the campaign trail last week, but there was still no mention of global warming from his lips. While giving a speech in Virginia, Mitt Romney was interrupted by a longtime environmental activist, Ted Glick, holding a sign that read “End Climate Silence” and demanding, during one of Romney’s dramatic pauses, “What about climate change?” Cringing, Romney looked off into the distance while the crowd shouted the heckler down with chants of “U! S! A!”
It was in this same spirit of denial that North Carolina’s lawmakers decided over the summer to pass a bill mandating that scientists limit themselves to historical data when making sea-level projections; two weeks later a study revealed that the tides of North Carolina are encroaching on the shore faster than anywhere on earth. Overall, climate scientists who deny that global warming is real and human-induced are few and far between, totaling about 2 to 3 percent of their profession. In September, the Spanish non-profit DARA published a report that estimates 100 million people could perish as a result of climate change by 2030.
As this storm has shown, those who will bear the brunt of extreme weather in the future will be those who are already struggling to survive. Those without power in society — the poor and working-class people of color inhabiting New York’s outlying areas — have been stranded without electrical power. Sandy has lifted the lid off the inequality that already existed in New York City. What quiet failures of justice in our society will be revealed next by the effects of climate change remain to be seen.