Rockaway Beach, Ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, Gets an Assist From Occupy

Days before another storm threatened this fragile New York community, hippie volunteers were on the scene, helping to rebuild. Alice Proujansky reports.

A spontaneous group of volunteers loosely affiliated with the Occupy movement is partnering with storm victims to put hot food into the cold hands of Queens residents still reeling from Hurricane Sandy—and facing the possibility of another nasty storm.

A week after Salvatore LoPizzo finished renovating his storefront outreach center on Rockaway Beach Boulevard in Queens, Hurricane Sandy swept through, taking a large chunk of his town with it. Director of the You Are Never Alone (YANA) community center, LoPizzo had wanted to serve a population he calls “the people that society doesn’t want to deal with”: recent immigrants and addicts, mentally ill adults and former prison inmates living in nearby single resident occupancy buildings. Locals were suspicious of LoPizzo’s motives, he says, but he was moving forward with plans to offer classes on installing solar panels, starting construction businesses, and opening home day cares.

Then Hurricane Sandy dumped four feet of dirty seawater into his building.

Diego Jorge Ibañez, an Occupy Wall Street activist, was riding his bike down Rockaway Boulevard last week when he saw LoPizzo cleaning up his storefront. The shaggy-haired do-gooder helped out, and then asked if he could use the space as a hub for hurricane relief. LoPizzo agreed, and Ibañez sent word out through Occupy’s online network. Donations of used clothing, blankets, and candles began to trickle in, and soon volunteers flooded the area.

Last Friday, a group loosely affiliated with the relief movement, now named “Occupy Sandy,” built shelves and turned the space into a rough, free supermarket with shelves labeled “Carbs,” “Kids Books,” and “Blankets/Cobijas.” The lights were back on, thanks to “Rolling Sunlight,” a Greenpeace truck with solar panels that rolled into town last Wednesday, and Doctors Without Borders was seeing patients in the lot next door. “This is like Target!” LoPizzo marveled.

A steady stream of Rockaway residents trudged over sand-choked streets to collect free batteries, hot food, and candles, and volunteers trooped through the neighborhood cleaning flooded homes. The volume of donations became overwhelming, so churches loaned gyms and basements to warehouse and sort the supplies.

Swarms of volunteers milled around looking for work to do on Sunday, wearing duct tape nametags and strips of yellow cloth tied around their arms, but there seemed to be more enthusiasm than order. There was talk of canvassing the neighborhood to assess needs, but when a group came back with a list of potential patients, they were told by a doctor that their list didn't have enough information to be useful. Members of the North Brooklyn Runners marathon team helped sanitation workers clean streets, teenagers handed out essentials ranging from diapers to cat food, and four friends from Queens showed up unannounced with trays of hot food from their restaurant as the sun set and the cold crept in.

By Monday, Occupy Sandy volunteers had pumped the basement of a donated space nearby, bleached the walls, and scavenged building materials from the ruins of a construction site to build partitions and shelves so that a doctor whose office had burned to the ground could start seeing patients.

“I’ve been trying to do this my whole life,” LoPizzo said. “I’m not going to go out in the street protesting. My attitude is just like, listen: just do it.”