‘Occupy Sandy’ Blends Relief Efforts with Grass-Roots Political Activism

Jon Hurdle | September 25, 2013 | More Issues, Sandy
Group finds niche helping Sandy victims navigate services and systems of far-larger aid organizations

Amusement park in Keansburg, NJ -- post-Sandy
Alongside the Sandy-relief efforts of mainstream organizations like FEMA and the Red Cross, a tiny band calling itself Occupy Sandy is working to help New Jersey’s hurricane victims rebuild their lives while promoting a political agenda of local self-help to recover from the storm.

A core group of around 15 people is working with hard-hit communities such as Keansburg, Moonachie, and Manahawkin to assist people who have been unable to connect the dots between specific services provided by much bigger groups.

“We’re a bridge between the different organizations,” said Alyssa Durnien, an Occupy Sandy worker who got two feet of water in her Keansburg, Monmouth County, home during the monster storm in October 2012. “We work through every facet of the recovery.”

Occupy Sandy also builds on an agenda of attacking economic inequality that began with Occupy Wall Street and spread across the world in 2011. Many of its members also participated in the original Occupy Wall Street groups but it has no formal ties with them.

The group is funded by tax-deductible donations that come via the Alliance for Global Justice, a nonprofit that also handles Occupy Sandy’s payroll, as it did with the original Occupy groups.

Occupy Sandy, which also works in New York, helps affected residents navigate between public and private relief organizations whose efforts are well-meaning but provide only a piecemeal approach to helping people rebuild their shattered lives, Durnien said.

The Red Cross, for example, typically offers financial assistance for buying new furniture or cleaning up flood-damaged houses but doesn’t help find services to do that work, she said.

The Salvation Army helps with food and education but doesn’t get involved in rebuilding work, while FEMA “takes your information and says it will get back to you,” Durnien said.

She accused the mainstream organizations of taking a “textbook” approach to disaster relief when a service that integrates all aspects of the problem is what’s really needed.

“People need to know that there is one place that they can go to for all their needs,” she said.

Durnien, 36, a former veterinary technician, is now a full-time, paid Occupy Sandy worker, who lives on a stipend of $250 a week plus funds from a financial settlement she received after a car accident. She said she had put that money away for a rainy day but now depends on it to fund the work that she has decided to dedicate her life to.

“I guess this is my rainy day,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the American Red Cross responded to criticism that it provided only piecemeal services to Sandy victims by saying that it funds other groups that deliver complementary services.

The Red Cross paid $1.5 million to the New Jersey Conference of the United Methodist Church and $2 million to Habitat for Humanity to help with their relief efforts, said spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego.

“This disaster is too big for any one group to manage,” she said. “It’s a big tent; every group should be recognized for its strengths.” By August 31, the Red Cross had spent or committed to spend $272 million of the $308 million that was donated to help victims in all states affected by Sandy, she said.

She said many groups, including Occupy Sandy, have a role to play. “To the extent that they can step in, we welcome that,” she said.

Meanwhile, Occupy Sandy is seeking to advance its political agenda at the same time as doing hands-on work like cleaning people’s basements.

Nate Kleinman, another full-time Occupy Sandy worker, said the group differentiates itself from other relief organizations by being “inherently political.”

While Kleinman and his coworkers still provide hands-on help like clearing debris or scrubbing mold, their efforts are increasingly focused on encouraging local self-help as a response to what he says is indifference from government and corporations that have become too powerful.

“More and more Americans are coming to recognize how little power they have,” said Kleinman, who was previously active in the Occupy movement in Philadelphia.

Kleinman said Occupy Sandy is helping hard-hit communities to think about possible links between what he called the “government-corporate nexus” and the climate change that may have caused the storm.

“Sandy was made worse by global climate change, and in order for this country to ever develop a solution, we need to take on the power of the corporations, we need a government that’s representative,” Kleinman said.

Sandy-struck towns are increasingly cognizant of the need for self-determination, and appreciate his group’s practical and political work, he said.

“People in these communities are much more politically astute than they have been given credit for,” he said. “They know what’s best for those communities.”

Among Kleinman’s projects is a mobile-home community in Cape May Courthouse where he helped one owner qualify for a FEMA loan that she had applied for months earlier but had not received and didn’t know how to pursue.

He called the agency in the owner’s presence, and it became apparent that the loan hadn’t been processed because a FEMA official had neglected to send an inspector to the woman’s home to assess storm damage.

She ended up getting more money in a case that Kleinman said typified a disconnect between Sandy victims and the government agencies that may be in a position to help them.

“A lot of people didn’t know what services they were entitled to, and had not been visited by government officials,” he said.

To encourage officials to consider systemic problems in the rebuilding process, Kleinman recently attended a meeting in Asbury Park of Rebuild by Design, a project led by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to promote new buildings that would be more resilient to future storms.

“We want to influence them to use design to think of solutions to some of the deep systemic issues, and to give people in these communities some hope that some of these projects might be built,” he wrote in an email.

Kleinman, 31, quit his previous job as a community organizer for a trade union last December, and works full-time for Occupy Sandy, for which he is paid $1,200 a month. He said he’s living with friends outside Philadelphia, and “barely” makes it on the stipend, but is committed to the work.

“I consider the Sandy work my fulltime job,” he said.

The group can be contacted via its website.