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‘Occupy Sandy’ Movement Focuses on Offering Help to Storm Victims in New York

November 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
FEMA is still working hard to help get relief for storm victims in the Northeast -- not a small task considering the size and scope of that natural disaster. To help fill in the gap, volunteers from a movement called Occupy Sandy are trying to reach residents in need who live in New York City's boroughs. Ray Suarez reports.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight: trying to recover from Hurricane Sandy.

President Obama saw firsthand some of the worst damage in New York City today. He toured through several hard-hit areas and met with residents in line for aid at an emergency center.

The president said federal help will be available to people for as long as it’s needed.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There’s going to be some long-term rebuilding that is required. You look at this block, and you know that this is a community that is deeply rooted.

Most of the folks that I met here have been here 20, 30, 50 years. They don’t want to see their community uprooted, but there’s got to be a plan for rebuilding. And that plan is going to have to be coordinated and there’s — going to need resources.

RAY SUAREZ: One of the neighborhoods on the president’s radar today was in another part of New York City, and it faces a long road back.

It’s also a place where volunteers are playing an increasingly important role in assisting residents, as we learned with the help of producer Jonathan Silvers in New York.

A new citizens group has risen from the ruins of Hurricane Sandy on the streets of Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. It’s called Occupy Sandy, and it’s offering help for the many whose homes and lives were upended in the storm.

The freewheeling effort is in the same vein as Occupy Wall Street, which gained fame last year, protesting economic inequality. But this movement focuses more on practical assistance.

Volunteers have worked around the clock at a Lutheran church to gather food, supplies and clothing and to secure nightly shelter for victims of the historic storm that killed more than 100 people along the East Coast.

Shlomo Adam Roth, normally a real estate agent, is helping to coordinate Occupy Sandy’s efforts. He says nowhere is assistance needed more than in the Rockaways, a sprawling peninsula of Long Island nestled within the borough of Queens in New York.

SHLOMO ADAM ROTH, Occupy Sandy: In the Rockaways, where I have spent much of my time, there’s people who have been without attention for a long time, some with, some without running water, definitely without power.

You know, so as time goes, it gets worse. And I’m afraid if we don’t, like, really get this situation under control, you know, who knows what we’re going to start finding when we knock on doors.

RAY SUAREZ: The area seen in these photos taken just days ago is so devastated, utility officials have said it’s not possible to restore power yet. The area is home to 50,000 people, most of them middle- and lower-income families.

Volunteers from Occupy Sandy are here in force, along with police and the National Guard. But some residents complain representatives from government agencies like FEMA are scarce.

Eva Bennick moved to a new home here eight years ago. She applied for assistance, but was told on the phone her application was missing.

EVA BENNICK, New York: They had lost the application. She found my application. She said, OK, it looks like it ran through for process. I don’t understand why anybody’s been out there yet — nobody’s been out there yet. I said, well, that makes two of us.

And this is, I have got to tell you, the first time where we have ever felt like we needed help, first time. And just feel like, you know, FEMA’s supposed to be it. Everybody — like, my insurance company, did you call FEMA? Yes, everybody asks me that. Did you call FEMA? Yes. What happened? Nothing. That sucks. It just sucks.

RAY SUAREZ: FEMA officials contend they are responding as best they can, but because of the sheer magnitude of the work, FEMA official Robert Jensen admits some residents will be disappointed.


ROBERT JENSEN, Federal Emergency Management Agency: This is hard. This is one of the biggest natural disasters to hit America. Certainly understandable that people are going to be frustrated and be upset on some at the challenges that they’re facing. We feel that. We understand that.

RAY SUAREZ: FEMA is working with the city’s Office of Emergency Management, and they have been on the job since days before days before the hurricane hit. City, state and federal officials are now coordinating recovery and relief operations. There are more than a hundred people in the operations center at any one time and another 20,000 government employees and contractors on the ground.

ROBERT JENSEN: The way FEMA works is, we’re not the whole team. We don’t do anything autonomously. We do it in coordination with the state, and obviously we’re coordinating very closely with the local officials as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Jensen says some government workers manning operations lost their homes too and know full well what’s at stake.

ROBERT JENSEN: I have been out there, and I have talked to survivors. It’s pretty emotional. Many of these people have lost everything. And that vision in my mind of some of the people I have met will never go away, and it’s what — what makes it so important that we keep doing everything we can, we spend, you know, every bit of our energy to finding solutions.

RAY SUAREZ: Eva Bennick is still hoping to hear from FEMA.

EVA BENNICK: And so you have this sort of information vacuum. And I thought it was very interesting that, on the third day, “The Daily News” was able to deliver my newspaper to my front porch, but FEMA can’t find me. Amazing.

RAY SUAREZ: While she waits, the volunteers from Occupy Sandy are filling the gap.

SHLOMO ADAM ROTH: You know, it could be close to 10,000 people that have been, you know, marshaled as individuals, and autonomous individuals and groups, but, like, under one sort of, like, organizational structure, so that they — we could, you know, meet some of those needs that were arising after the storm.

RAY SUAREZ: Residents are hoping the president’s visit today will help speed assistance the their area. During his tour, he flew by helicopter over the Rockaways and Staten Island.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the president offered some additional help today, appointing his housing and urban affairs secretary, Shaun Donovan, to coordinate the long-term rebuilding efforts in New York and New Jersey.