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Hurricane Sandy Moves Occupy Wall Street from Protest to People-Powered Relief

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, October 30 2012

Hurricane Sandy's winds toppled trees and caused widespread damage throughout New York. Photo: p_romano / Flickr

A group of people from the Occupy Wall Street movement is collaborating with the climate change advocacy group 350.org and a new online toolkit for disaster recovery, recovers.org, to organize a grassroots relief effort in New York City.

Using Recovers.org, a web-based platform for organizing disaster response, Occupy volunteers are processing incoming offers of help and requests for aid, said Justin Wedes, a longtime occupier who 350.org put me in touch with when I contacted them about this project.

"Now we are working with organizers on the ground as well as volunteers who are canvassing neighborhoods on bikes and on foot, talking with people, helping them get resources like pumps, food, drinking water, a whole bunch of different things," Wedes told me by phone Tuesday. So far, there are three sites set up: One for the Lower East Side in Manhattan, one for Red Hook in Brooklyn, and a third for Astoria in Queens, all three of which are along the waterfront and experienced flooding and damage. Home and business owners throughout the city have been checking out the damage today.

This morning, business owners along 9th Street in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, in a low-lying area within two blocks of the Gowanus Canal, photographed damage and sorted through the debris caused by the canal rising above its walls and soaking their businesses. At a sportswear warehouse, workers sorted through waterlogged boxes of clothing Tuesday morning as they took stock of ruined inventory. Just a few yards uphill on the same street, a worker at a warehouse full of sacks of coffee beans told me that there was some water damage in one part of the building, but as the smell of fresh coffee indicated, most of the stock there was undamaged. Further west, though, in Red Hook, images shared online late Monday night and Tuesday morning indicated that entire streets had been flooded. Approximately 750,000 New Yorkers are without power after a storm that caused the deaths of at least 10 people in New York City and sparked an estimated 23 serious fires throughout the city, according Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Occupy volunteers will be checking in with people in affected areas and passing that information along to a central database also collecting offers of help. They hope to use Recovers.org to match needs with offers, Wedes said.

"It's hard to tell because it's a very diffuse effort and its not centralized in any way, but on these three sites alone we've got about two dozen volunteers that are fielding phone calls and matching needs and offers," Wedes told me.

Recovers.org was founded last year by another group of disaster survivors. Site cofounder Caitria O'Neill decided there was a need for a web-based platform for disaster recovery after a tornado struck her hometown of Munson, Mass., in June of last year, she told me by phone Tuesday.

"My own house was damaged, we were yellow-tagged and couldn't stay there anymore," O'Neill said. "My sister and I wound up going to the local church, the First Church ... and basically we encountered huge organizing problems. There were people showing up with chainsaws and dropping off extra bags of clothing, and ... nobody knew where to go yet."

O'Neill and her sister took organizing knowledge they learned as volunteers working for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign and applied it to the problems of disaster recovery, she said. Unlike a campaign, which starts with zero interest and zero capacity, recovery starts with high interest but no capacity to capitalize on it, she explained. Immediately after a disaster, good recordkeeping is not necessarily a high priority, but people affected by a storm need a few days to figure out what's damaged and what they need, she explained. In the meantime, potential volunteers lose interest and donations that aren't properly tracked might go to waste. Recovers.org was built to offer communities in need a set of tools to allow them to start tracking needs and resources right away — not to mention keep an inventory that would help in applying for disaster aid down the line, which she said was a little-known but important step for communities to take.

"So what we're trying to do with these tools," she said, "is to create instant capacity."

Recovers.org is a for-profit operation that makes its money by licensing its software to cities and major organizations that are preparing for disasters, she said. The company does not charge people who turn to the platform after disaster strikes. Its financing includes a $340,000 investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as well as grants from MIT, Code for America and Masschallenge, O'Neill said. She says that by operating as a for-profit, the company is not competing for funding that might otherwise go to cities in need.

She also said that the aftermath of Sandy has stretched their capacity, and she was unable to offer the platform for free to any other organizations for want of the money to keep enough infrastructure running to support them.

This effort is not connected with New York City in any way, Wedes said, although volunteers are trying to direct people to city shelters or other city resources as needed. O'Neill says Recovers.org has been used in situations like that before, where networks of churches or other volunteer organizations use it to handle their own bottom-up relief efforts rather than rely on institutions like the Red Cross, which come in, help stabilize a community and then leave.

"Everything recorded in the community," she said, "stays in the community."

Other Ways to Help

NYC Service, a city community service agency, is asking potential volunteers to communicate through their Facebook page as this post is being published — because offers to help are flooding its regular website, the organization announced on Twitter.

The Red Cross is collecting donations for relief efforts. Sandy's footprint stretches as far west as Michigan and north to parts of Vermont and Massachusetts, where, O'Neill from Recovers.org says, several communities have that platform on standby.

New York Cares is working to deploy volunteers to help in the wake of the hurricane and superstorm. In addition to offerint to volunteer, people can donate $10 by texting iCARE to the shortcode 85944.

Occupy Wall Streeters are asking people who are willing to help out to tweet using the hashtag #SandyVolunteer and people who need support to tweet using the hashtag #SandyAid. The Hurricane Hackers group has created a tool that allows volunteers monitoring the #SandyAid hashtag to force a Twitter account to retweet selected requests, which also archives the request for aid. The tool works by joining an IRC chat room where a program has been set to listen for commands to retweet specific tweets, denoted by each message's unique ID number.

This post has been updated.

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