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NEW YORK – Melanie Lopez celebrated her 16th birthday Tuesday by clearing out her family's soaked furniture and destroyed winter clothing from their flooded basement. Now, still without power, they are running short on basic supplies, like blankets and food.
“Nobody wants to help around here,” Lopez, who lives in the Rockaways, Queens, said Thursday. “There's people now, but cops, they don't want to help.”
Lopez clutched the hands of her two young neighbors, aged 5 and 8, and pointed her chin to an unmarked ground level office with its doors open. It launched Wednesday as an adjunct community center to counter the heavy impacts Hurricane Sandy had on this tiny, hard-to-reach peninsula, caking its streets with sand and mud and decorating tree branches with sliced electrical wires.
It wasn't Red Cross or Salvation Army volunteers stacking towels and preparing hot pasta dishes inside the gutted office, where a muted brown line marked the five-feet point waves reached Monday night, when Sandy struck New York City and New Jersey.
It was local community members and Occupy Wall Street organizers, who have raised more than $5,000 for Sandy hurricane relief work in the New York City region since Tuesday. Occupy Sandy Relief, as the new movement is tentatively called, is setting up hubs for food and supply distribution in flooded areas like Red Hook, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, Manhattan, while also coordinating volunteers.
“With the network we have, we have the ability to organize really quickly,” said Diego Ibanez, an organizer for a site in the Rockaways. He lived in Zuccotti Park for two months when the Occupy movement launched its global protest in September 2011.
“It's about filling the gap between the concentrated areas that are being helped by the city and the areas that are being ignored.”
People affected by Sandy in the Rockaways, a middle and lower-middle class community with a large immigrant population from Central America, said in interviews that they haven't seen or heard from any aid agency assisted by the government's emergency agency, FEMA, or from the city or state.
They said police are patrolling the neighborhoods, wary of nighttime store looting and house robbery reports, but government assistance, so far, has stopped there.
“I think that's how it happens,” said Sal Lopizzo, who offered his office space, a recently opened employment training center for women, to Occupy Sandy Relief. “I expect nothing else. This is really turning into something like New Orleans.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the charred remains of a row of storefronts and houses still emitted smoke. Adan Rizo, a 50-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, stood next to where his house once was with three of his family members. He revealed an untreated, split burn on his arm he received when an electrical fire, reportedly killing five, broke out on Monday.
Rizo carried four blazers and a few rolls of toilet paper and paper towels distributed by Occupy Sandy Relief. He told a reporter that these goods now constitute his only belongings, aside from the unwashed clothing he wore.
By late Wednesday, a FEMA station said to be set up on a main street in the Rockaways was gone for the day. A policeman didn't have a number to give to people, but said he would post it once he knew.
FEMA provides direct monetary assistance to people affected by natural disasters and emergencies and also funnels money to local governments that distribute food and supply aid to people in need.
Aid accessibility to affected regions in the New York City area has varied, says FEMA spokesperson Bill Rukeyser.
“A whole lot of supplies have been brought in and gone to our local partners and a whole lot more are needed and are on the way,” he said in a phone interview.
Sandy's damages are estimated to cost citywide upwards of $10 billion and have crippled New York City's daily flows of life, affecting its public transportation system and gasoline supply. The death toll neared 100 on Friday.
About 250,000 customers – but many more people, estimated at 1 million – are without power in New York City. About 46,000 of those customers are in the Rockaways.
The Red Cross has four emergency teams in the Rockaways, it said in a media release, and 10 emergency teams in Staten Island.
Occupy Sandy Relief plans to scout new community sites in affected areas and continue to boost the ones it has already set up. Ibanez says he imagines this humanitarian relief effort will give a new focus to the political and social justice ideology behind the Occupy movement, even after the immediate recovery work for Hurricane Sandy wraps up.
But he's hoping to also disassociate the Occupy movement from the Sandy relief work and community centers, which will eventually be run only by local people in the communities.
“Most of us met through Occupy, but we don't want to focus on anything political right now,” Ibanez said.
The Occupy movement's involvement in the Rockaways' Sandy relief center wasn't apparent to Patricia Bakert, 51, a painter who lives down the block. She lined up for soup, the first of two hot meals served that day, and explained that she was going to leave the peninsula tomorrow to find a working ATM and restock on supplies. The Rockaways is only accessible to Brooklyn or Queens by a shuttle bus, which, since Sandy, stops running at 6 PM.
“I knew the Occupiers were people with a lot of heart but they just went underground and I was waiting to see when they were going to surface and how,” she said. “But they are still together and still strong. It's quite a surprise and I'm quite happy about it.”
People affected by Hurricane Sandy or other natural disasters and emergencies are encouraged to contact FEMA and apply for assistance by calling 1.800.621.FEMA or visit www.fema.gov.
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