Occupy Wall Street is now occupied with helping Hurricane Sandy victims.
The demonstrators who rallied in Zuccotti Park have taken to the streets to assist Brooklynites suffering after the catastrophic storm by setting up volunteer hubs in hard-hit Red Hook and Sunset Park where do-gooders can deliver donations, organize food drives, and aid with cleanup.
For a group often criticized as aimless, these activists say they were quick to act.
“When the hurricane started to hit, we mobilized our networks and were already starting to canvass to determine what the needs were,” said Occupy organizer Justin Wedes.
Occupy members say they have dispatched between 8,000 and 10,000 volunteers to 15 outposts across the city — with about half of those do-gooders helping out in Brooklyn.
And their efforts in Red Hook came before more-established aid organizations, such as the Red Cross, have even arrived in the neighborhood.
“We have existing activist and community leaders in the neighborhoods,” said Wedes, who claims that the movement’s grassroots nature and lack of bureaucracy allow Occupy to move faster than other relief groups. “We didn’t come from the outside. This is Occupy emerging from within these communities.”
Red Cross spokesman Chris Osborne said his organization is still working to get its bearings in the city.
“This is widespread and there are all kinds of pockets of communities that we are still learning about and still trying to serve,” said Osborne. “We ask for patience.”
Red Hook residents are ecstatic that the protest movement has transformed into a relief effort.
“It’s the meet-and-greet you hope to never have to have, but when you do, it’s great to know that your neighbors are looking out for you,” said Blee George, who has been getting hot meals and supplies daily with her four-month-old daughter at the Red Hook Initiative — where many Occupiers lend their support.
The Red Hook Initiative, which is usually a youth community center with an after-school program, emerged as a de facto hub for neighborhood volunteerism because Hurricane Sandy spared the building during the storm.
“We are right across the street from Red Hook Houses and we had no water damage,” said Red Hook Initiative operations coordinator Sandy Brockwell. “It was a place for people to come in and get out of the cold, and then people started showing up and volunteering.”
Since Tuesday, the community center has organized hundreds of do-gooders, including many Occupy folks, who are tasked with cooking or delivering hot meals, bringing batteries and other non-perishables to neighbors without power, and helping residents clean up water-logged homes.
Hurricane relief seems like a far jump from protesting the big banks, but Ronny Nunez — one of the leaders behind the Occupy branch operating out of St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park — says the departure needed to happen.
“We had to set up an ad hoc operation,” he said. “Places were devastated and weren’t getting any help.”