5 Years Later, Have We Learned from Superstorm Sandy?
For many, Superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call on the dangers of human-driven climate change and the disparate impact of its effects. On Sandy’s fifth anniversary, we discuss whether the lessons have been learned
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. It’s the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, one of the costly hurricanes in U.S. history. For many people, it was a wake-up call on the dangers of human-drive climate change and the economic disparities in terms of who suffers from it most. But five years later, have we really learned and applied the lessons? Well, joining me to discuss this are two guests, Lindsay Meiman is Communications Coordinator for 350.org, which is organizing a major rally this weekend to commemorate the storm, and Tamara Shapiro is a co-director of programs for NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives. Previously, she was a lead coordinator of Occupy Sandy, a grassroots group that stepped where federal officials failed to help those in need.
Tamara, I’ll start with you. Your thoughts on this fifth anniversary.
TAMARA SHAPIRO: One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about in the past few months is just how much we haven’t learned and have to learn about how a civilian-wide disaster relief effort can step in where the government will surely fall short. Superstorm Sandy was five years ago and in those five years there really weren’t that many huge disasters. In the past few months, we’ve just seen one another the other. We have a lot of lessons to share, that we need to share, that we need to learn from each other, because civilians are the ones that are gonna be the first responders when a disaster happens and the last on the ground after all the other institutions leave.
AARON MATÉ: In terms of the space that Occupy Sandy filled, can you talk about how that arose and what your group did?
TAMARA SHAPIRO: What’s really important to remember is the Occupy Sandy grew out of the Occupy Wall Street network and, therefore, relied on the people, the relationships, and the infrastructure that been building for the past year. Occupy Sandy was effective in part because it was a decentralized effort. Any response to a disaster that is going to be effective has to be decentralized. We don’t have time for things to move up and down big bureaucratic chains. And so, we were able to respond very quickly, not just because we had the relationships and the infrastructure, but also because we had the organizing ethos of what it meant to be a part of a decentralized effort. Go ahead.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, can you give us an example of how bureaucracy and centralized coordination hampered the effort and how a more grassroots approach filled that void?
TAMARA SHAPIRO: One of the things we were able to do because we were so large, we were at scale and we had people on the ground in so many different areas, is we were able to understand the needs on the ground. We were collecting data from people that were all over the place and communicating out to the general public, so we knew what one relief hub in the Rockaway needed versus what something in Staten Island needed and the place in Staten Island needed.
We had Red Cross coming to us and saying, “We don’t know where to send our food because you’re not telling us where it should go.” Remember, we’re a civilian-led disaster relief effort with very few resources, whereas they’re a multi-billion dollar institution. It shouldn’t be up to us to, but why we were able to do that is because we were decentralized, we were using decentralized communication tools and we knew how to communicate and organize with each other when we relying on someone at the top to tell us it was okay or tell us where to go.
It was similar with needs. In a disaster, the needs change by the minute. We were able to constantly be collecting the resources that people needed in that moment. Maybe they needed clothes and blankets on day one, but they certainly didn’t need that by day ten. In fact, that was just taking up too much room. We were able to communicate that out to the public and collect the resources that were needed and also engage … Even sometimes, corporations that wanted to help, like UPS ended up turning their delivery trucks into a delivery effort for Occupy Sandy and with Occupy Sandy in partnership. I think if everybody was able to identify the need they could fill in that moment, and fill that need as opposed to be organized and directed.
There’s another great story of a bunch of volunteers who went to the Red Cross to try to help, and they were waiting to be dispatched, but the Red Cross didn’t know what to do with them. Meanwhile, someone brought food to be given, to be donated, but it wasn’t under the right codes or they didn’t know how to handle it at the Red Cross, so they were giving that food to the volunteers. Then somebody wrote on the board, “If you really want to support and you really want to help, go to the Occupy Sandy hub down the block,” because there, we were able to put people into action right away.
AARON MATÉ: Lindsay Meiman, you’re with 350.org, helping organize this major rally this weekend across the Brooklyn Bridge to call on the government to, among other things, do more to prepare us for the impacts of climate change. Your thoughts on … Did Sandy, in your mind, change the conversation about climate change and, five years later, have we learned any of the lessons that you think we should have learned?
LINDSAY MEIMAN: Absolutely, Sandy certainly did change a lot. As mentioned, it was a major wake-up call for not only the average person, but also for elected officials and decision-makers at all levels. We have not seen nearly enough change in that time. A lot more than anything, we’ve seen lip service to the need for a bold climate action. For example, New York’s elected officials recognizing the importance of staying committed to the Paris Climate Accord, but we’re not seeing those actionable items that we know that we need to make New York a true climate-leader five years after Superstorm Sandy.
AARON MATÉ: And how could that be done?
LINDSAY MEIMAN: Tomorrow, Saturday, October 28th, thousands of New Yorkers are coming together to march for the Sandy Five March. We will gather under the Brooklyn Bridge, at Cadman Plaza Park, and call on our elected officials to make New York a true climate leader in this era of climate change. That means elected officials at all levels taking action. We just heard, “Real change isn’t gonna come from the top down, it’s really going to come from all of us coming together in our collective action to demand change.” At the city level, we’re calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio, to address the unmet needs of communities hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy.
One out of 5 families are still not home 5 years later. So we need Mayor Bill de Blasio to address that and to create a flood protection program, a flood protection plan prioritizing those most vulnerable to inevitably future storms and actually divest our cities pensions from fossil fuels. New York City’s penton funds currently have over 3 billion dollars invested in the very fossil fuel that are knowingly perpetuating climate impacts like Superstorm Sandy. We know that climate change makes these storms worst. We’ve seen that in the last few months with devastation in the Gulf and Caribbean and we need to stop financing this kind of destruction.
At the state level, we’re calling on Governor Cuomo to support 100% renewable energy for New York, creating thousands of good and fair union jobs in the process. We’re calling on Senator Chuck Schumer to actually stand up to the Trump Administration’s dangerous rollbacks on climate and community protections and support legislation for 100% renewable energy.
AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you a question. I was reading the comments of Seth Pinsky who oversaw the resiliency plan under Mayor Bloomberg, the previous administration. Pinsky was criticizing the de Blasio administration for putting a focus on inequality in his resiliency plan when it comes to disaster preparedness. And he was saying that climate change is a one of a very small number of existential issues, suggesting that inequality is not, and I’m wondering your thoughts on him trying to making that distinguish between climate is being existential and something like, inequality is not being a part of that small category.
LINDSAY MEIMAN: Well, we know that climate impacts all of us. It is something that we all need to come together to address meaningfully. We also know that it does not impact all of us equally. It is, more often than not, low income communities, communities of color that have done the least to contribute to this crisis that they’re the brunt of the costs. It’s also these same communities that are leading the charge in the change that we know that we need.
The Sandy Five March happening on October 28th, will be led by young people of color who have been most impacted by the devastation of Superstorm Sandy and by the inequities that come with something like climate change. Climate change at its heart is truly an issue of justice, and we can only meaningfully implement powerful and lasting change if we see it as a holistic problem. While, there might be back and forth between … There’s many lessons that we’ve learned since Sandy, but that our elected officials have not implemented and we’re coming together 5 years later to lay out the actionable steps that our elected officials can take to address this crisis as an existential one and as a crisis of inequity.
AARON MATÉ: Finally, Tamara, there are some positive things, like your group, that grew out of Superstorm Sandy, and I’m wondering if you can comment on some of that. The communities, the organization that have been built, the ways of looking at how we live in this city that have come out of Sandy’s legacy as we wrap.
TAMARA SHAPIRO: Whenever there’s a big disaster, it’s an opportunity and the question is who’s gonna take advantage of that opportunity. We often talk about disaster capitalism where developers and capitalist come in and take advantage to implement policies that are other times wouldn’t have been possible to increase gentrification and increase things that they want. It’s also an opportunity for the community to come together and create a shift in terms of creating community power and in terms of finding alternative strategies for their own communities. I was a part of 2 project that emerged from Occupy Sandy, one was called Rockaway Wildfire, which was a grassroots community organizing group that worked on a community benefit agreement for an area of land that was slated for development in the Rockaways, that was led by Rockaway residents and supported by volunteers from Occupy Sandy.
Another project that emerged was the Worker-Owned Rockaway Cooperatives or WORCs and that is a project that is supporting the development of worker co-ops with people that were impacted by Sandy, with people that lost their job, lost their home, or lost something else. In an area that’s devastated, where businesses are closing or maybe never existed in the first place, it’s an opportunity to think about how we create our own economy, our own independent economy based on different principles than those that might be coming in to take advantage of the opportunity.
I think that what’s really important to remember is that after there’s a storm, we often see this honeymoon period, where the community really does come together and asks questions about what we wanna see, our future. What should our future look like? How do we need to shift? What’s happening here because this will likely happen again. It’s not only about creating deeper relationships in order to create these new projects or new opportunities, but also remembering that those are the relationships that are gonna save us the next time this happens. I think Occupy Sandy … Hurricane Sandy and Superstorm Sandy was a devastating storm, it also was an opportunity to build these relationships. The Occupy Sandy was one of the most beautiful and tragic things I’ve ever been a part of, and the projects that have emerged from them have been some of the most hopeful and challenging.
AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Tamara Shapiro, co-director of programs for NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives, previously a lead coordinator for Occupy Sandy, and Lindsay Meiman of 350.org, which is organizing a major rally on Saturday to mark the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. Thanks to you both and thank you for joining us on The Real News.
TAMARA SHAPIRO: Thanks for having us.
LINDSAY MEIMAN: Thank you.