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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Feb 6, 2013, 11:50 pm

Imagining a ‘Just Recovery’ from Superstorm Sandy

BY Michelle Chen

Occupiers and other activists say city officials aren't doing enough to aid Hurricane Sandy survivors.   Michael Fleshman / Flickr / Creative Commons

Three months have passed since Hurricane Sandy battered New York and trashed the New Jersey coastline, and she hasn’t left. She’s still stalking the landscape strafed with mold and broken homes, and local activists worry that the government’s promises of tens of billions of dollars in federal funding will flood the storm-battered regions with further political turmoil.

Beyond the initial trauma of power outages and waterlogged houses, longer-term struggles still loom over communities like the Rockaways and the Staten Island coast. With recovery funding finally trickling down from Capitol Hill after weeks of gridlock, activists hope the resources won’t be exploited by predatory businesses and politicians, but rather channeled toward creating more inclusive, healthy communities.

In some ways, the grassroots recovery advocates have gotten a head start. Many of the early relief efforts have been radically volunteer-driven, and the Occupy Wall Street offshoot Occupy Sandy has often proven more effective and efficient than the bumbling “official” response by FEMA and other authorities. But how will the Occupiers fare in the impending scramble for contracts, grants and loans while businesses, organizations and government agencies all try to impose corporate visions for reconstruction on the storm-ravaged landscape?

Last weekend, the People’s Recovery Summit brought together a group of organizers and community members to discuss their ideas for a just recovery at the Church of St. Luke & St. Matthew in Brooklynthe organizational hub of Occupy Sandy relief projects. Small committees drafted lists of concerns and goals: People wanted to see resources prioritized for poor communities, immigrants, people of color and other vulnerable populations. Wary of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina (which became notorious for corruption and wholesale displacement of poor and black residents), some called for maximum transparency in the planning and financing process. Some wanted assurances that contracts would go to local businesses, or perhaps promote grassroots worker-run cooperatives. Generally they wanted power to be distributed “horizontally”avoiding the top-down hierarchies controlled by large charities and corporations.

But one young Brooklynite and Occupy activist interjected with a mix of eagerness and frustration, “When are we really going to talk about things that are more concrete,” instead of just “vision?” He noted that the authorities have benefited indirectly from the labor donated by volunteers, but would the volunteerism lead to more local hiring as recovery projects get serious? “If you’re to make us work, at least pay us,” he said.

But what kind of jobs are we talking about? With the media’s attention already dissipating, can Sandy still spur a sea change in the dynamics of public investment and labor in an über-capitalist city?

One thing that's clear is that conventional disaster responses have been insufficient and sometimes even counter-productive, especially for residents struggling to clear the scourge of mold from their homes and businesses. Residents have reported inconsistencies in the city’s “Rapid Repairs” program, which is supposed to fast-track the rebuilding.

Cynthia Scarcella, an activist with Make the Road New York and resident of Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, said at a rally at City Hall:

I have not been able to return home to Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, since Hurricane Sandy because my house is infested with mold and completely uninhabitable... Contractors can be expensive. I’ve tried calling Rapid Repairs and have relied on the help of volunteers to help me clean, but the mold keeps coming back.

Deep-rooted inequities surface in the recovery work as well. According to Eli Kent, director of organizing for Laborers International Union of North America Local 78, which represents mold remediation workers, respect for basic labor standards might vary widely from worksite to worksite:

We've seen that in one building, our members are working and their safety is protected, and they're getting at least a living wage and they're getting health care for their families. And in the next building over, there are workers doing the same jobs, the same exact work, and are getting paid $10 an hour with no benefits at all, and often being paid off the books, which means that their employers are not paying payroll taxes, not paying into unemployment insurance or workers comp insurance, which cheats all New Yorkers.

Though Mayor Michael Bloomberg just rolled out a $15 million mold assistance program, community advocates say it’s far too little to help all the homes in need. This week, the mayor announced a general plan for the first $1.8 billion tranche of federal relief funds through Community Development Block Grants, but details on how the loans and grants will be allocated to homes and businesses are not yet clear.

A coalition of community-based groups has mapped out a model for a “just recovery” with the Back Home Back to Work program for mold remediation. Described as “a systematic and cost-effective way that goes block-by-block rather than one house or one business at a time,” the program would provide for assessment and remediation coordinated with “qualified contractors.” Unions would put professionals to work while also hiring and training non-union workers (such as immigrant day laborers) and “prioritizing the hiring and placement of local workers from Sandy-impacted communities and other vulnerable local groups.” Safety training would be systematized to help both residents and workers avoid environmental hazards related to mold contamination. 

Matt Ryan, executive director of Alliance for a Greater New York, says the initiative represents a holistic effort to envision ways “to chart long-term priorities around the rebuild, and also how we influence, hopefully, the state's commitment to dealing with long-term climate change issues, in a way that's equitable and fair for working people."

No one knows exactly what the right balance is. Economic interestsnamely rebuilding quickly and expansivelymay clash with environmental concerns about climate justice, or chafe against communities worried that they’ll be shut out of the promised job or housing opportunities, or that they won’t have a say in the planning. The need to address such tensions through dialogue, Ryan says, is “why having an alliance across community, labor and faith is so critical.”

For now, Occupy Sandy continues its mutual aid projects, delivering basic supplies and providing rebuilding assistance to stricken neighborhoods in Staten Island, the Rockaways and other struggling areas. But if the ethos of mutual aid is, as activist Damien Crisp recently blogged, to demonstrate that “horizontal organization is an alternative to top-down power structures,” the Occupiers now face the challenge of bringing that system to scale and absorbing the influx of recovery funds before they’re hijacked by the establishment. Sandy dealt a cruel blow to New York, but for already-embattled communities, the flood left in its wake a chance to correct the political course, on their own terms.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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