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1 Year Later, Superstorm Sandy Strengthens Resolve for Community Solutions in Recovery, Rebuilding

Today marks the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy hitting the New York region, becoming one of the most destructive storms in the nation’s history. On October 29, 2012, the hurricane blasted New York City with a record storm surge as high as 13 feet, as well as the Jersey Shore and New England, ultimately killing 159 people along the East Coast and damaging more than 650,000 homes. The storm caused $70 billion in damage across eight states. Millions were left without power in the New York region, some for weeks. We are joined by two women who have played key roles in the region’s recovery: Terri Bennett, a founder of Respond and Rebuild, one of the first groups to help low-income residents of the Rockaways rebuild after Superstorm Sandy, and also focused on providing free mold remediation that eventually inspired the city’s similar program, and Jessica Roff, a founder of Restore the Rock, a nonprofit created by Sandy volunteers who met while working out of a space in the Rockaways called YANA, or You Are Never Alone, where they operated a free health clinic, legal clinic and trained and dispatched hundreds of volunteers.



This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today marks the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy hitting the New York region, becoming one of the most destructive storms in the nation’s history. After first pummeling Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, Sandy made its way up the East Coast. On October 29th, the hurricane blasted New York City with a record storm surge as high as 13 feet. The storm also heavily hit the Jersey Shore and parts of New England. Sandy ultimately killed 159 people along the East Coast and damaged more than 650,000 homes. The storm caused $70 billion in damage across eight states. Millions were left without power, some for weeks. Here are some highlights from our initial coverage of the storm.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a serious and big storm. And my first message is to all people across the Eastern Seaboard, mid-Atlantic, going north, that you need to take this very seriously and follow the instructions of your state and local officials, because they are going to be providing you with the best advice in terms of how to deal with this storm over the coming days.

ORENA ELWOODS: Help! We need help! Seriously.

HAMMEL HOUSES RESIDENT: The most that we need right now is lights. At least you have light, you can see. At night time, it’s pitch black. You can’t even see what’s in front of you.

CATHERINE YEAGER: What’s happening behind me right now is basically we’re working with Sandy Relief and OWS. The people are bringing by the car loads in clothes, food, cans goods, diapers, batteries, flashlights, everything under the sun, you know, that we kind of need right now.

BOROUGH PRESIDENT JAMES MOLINARO: I have not seen the American Red Cross at a shelter. I have not seen them down south shore, where people are buried in their own homes, have nothing to eat, have nothing to drink.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO: There is a wake-up call here, and there is a lesson to be learned. There was a—there is a reality that has existed for a long time that we have been blind to, and that is climate change, extreme weather—call it what you will—and our vulnerability to it. It was true 10 years ago. It was true five years ago. It is undeniable today.

AMY GOODMAN: Highlights from our coverage of Superstorm Sandy from a year ago.

Well, today we’re spending the hour looking at the state of recovery after Superstorm Sandy. We are beginning with two women who played key roles in the region’s recovery.

Terri Bennett is one of the founders of Respond and Rebuild, which was one of the first groups to help low-income residents of the Rockaways rebuild after Superstorm Sandy, also focused on providing free mold remediation that eventually inspired the city’s similar program. Terri Bennett previously volunteered in rebuilding efforts in Haiti after the earthquake there in 2010.

And Jessica Roff is one of the founders of Restore the Rock, a nonprofit created by volunteers after Superstorm Sandy after they met while working out of a space in the Rockaways called YANA, which stands for You Are Never Alone, where they operated a free health clinic, legal clinic, trained and dispatched hundreds of volunteers.

Jessica, talk about what you did then.

JESSICA ROFF: Well, from the very—

AMY GOODMAN: And where we are today.

JESSICA ROFF: Sorry. From the very beginning, we were really doing direct aid and responding to emergencies out in the Rockaway Park region of the Rockaways out in Queens. The neighborhood was completely devastated. There were feet of sand on the ground. Nobody had hot water. Many people didn’t have running water. Most people didn’t have heat and electricity. So it was really responding to emergency needs, to begin with—food, blankets, heat.

AMY GOODMAN: And you weren’t working for the city.

JESSICA ROFF: No, we all went out as volunteers. I had been doing climate justice work prior to that, and so some of my friends had seen what was happening and seen that Occupy Sandy had been one of the organizations that started in response to the storm. And I just said, "Hey, there’s something I can do." And my actual immediate response was to feed people, and they were doing food preparation. But because I had a car, I wound up in Rockaway. And because of the kind of person that I am, I just wound up staying. And we were—we went from there to actually helping people with negotiating through FEMA and trying to get their insurance and trying to get through all of the red tape of the government. But it was a completely volunteer operation of people who predominantly didn’t actually know each other before anything started.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Terri, you had been to Haiti after the devastating earthquake. Compare what you saw there with what you saw here.

TERRI BENNETT: Well, obviously, the destruction is at a completely different scale, but at the same time, there was the same—in the first days after the storm, there was a similar level of—the feeling of abandonment in the Rockaways was really profound. You have in the Rockaways a lot of civil servants. You have firemen. You have police officers. And they didn’t see anyone from their government or from the Red Cross or from FEMA for five or six days. And we were really the first people for the first two weeks that a lot of people saw. We were also wearing things like safety vests and had clipboards, so we were the most official people on the ground—official-looking people on the ground. I don’t know that it’s easy to compare the level of destruction from Sandy to Haiti, but I think that you see a lot of the same inefficiencies in disaster response and the same kind of patterns.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where—

TERRI BENNETT: You know, there are parallels.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are those communities today? This is a year later.

TERRI BENNETT: Well, you know, there are some happy stories, and people have rebuilt, and they’re doing better. And there’s also a lot of people who are still displaced. We think about 70,000 homes were severely damaged, I guess you’d say, and out of those people, up to something like 20,000, we think, may be displaced. We see a lot of people who are really trying to save their homes, but they’re in limbo, and so they’re doubling up with family. They’re trying to live in the second floors of their homes when the first floor is gutted. There’s people who are living in homes that don’t have kitchens, and they’re just living out of the two bedrooms on the first floor—I’m sorry, on the second floor. And people are trying to wait it out, whether that means they’re using their credit cards, loans from family, but—

AMY GOODMAN: How is aid money distributed?

TERRI BENNETT: Well, the hard thing about aid money is that it’s distributed in increments. So, the first you’re likely to get is from FEMA, from the FEMA payout, and the maximum FEMA payout is $37,000—yeah, $37,000 or $33,000, but it’s in the thirties, and it’s not enough to repair a home that’s been damaged. I mean, most of the homes we’ve worked on, the basement was destroyed, and the first floor was destroyed. So, $37,000 doesn’t get you far. Maybe your insurance kicks in a few months later. If you have problems with how much you’re getting from insurance, you may use a public adjuster and a lawyer to try to get a more fair settlement.

And now, the biggest problem is people are still waiting for the Build It Back program, which is supposed to be the most flexible program that the city has offered, but the decisions have not been made very quickly. And we know that people are getting notifications now that maybe they’ve been accepted, but they’re going to be waiting two to four more months for help. And so, you have people who are maybe paying rent and their mortgage on a house that’s been destroyed, and it’s really just exhausting people, and it’s—and it’s bringing people kind of to wit’s end.

AMY GOODMAN: In November last year, award-winning journalist and author Naomi Klein spoke in New York about her article, "Superstorm Sandy—A People’s Shock?" in which she argued reconstruction after Sandy provided a way to usher in progressive change. The argument stemmed in part from her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

NAOMI KLEIN: The problems that I call out in the book are not responding strongly to disaster. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re having a crisis, you should respond strongly. It deserves that. It’s these particular ways of using crisis in anti-democratic ways, to hoard power, to centralize power, to circumvent democracy. So what I’m calling for is the opposite of that, is, in moments of crisis, to broaden the democratic space.

And I think thinking about how a community responds after a disaster like Sandy, it’s a great example, because often what you have are very elite-driven reconstruction processes. You know, a committee is struck, filled with industrialists—this has just happened—to come up with a reconstruction plan, often very, very wealthy people who are supposed to attract more donors. And often the affected people are treated as so traumatized and so victimized that they of course could not participate in the reconstruction process themselves. And this is simply not true. In fact, the best way to recover from a trauma is to overcome your helplessness by participating, by helping. And that’s what you see in the extraordinary Occupy Sandy response to this particular crisis, where it comes in a spirit not of the traditional relief organization that just comes into a community, says, "We know what you want," and hands out whatever people decide that they want, and it’s a very much of a client relationship. The volunteers involved in Occupy Sandy are coming in in the spirit of what they call "mutual aid," which is saying—asking people, "What do you want?" you know, and trying to empower communities, not only to respond to the immediate emergency, but also the recovery afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Naomi Klein talking about her article, "Superstorm Sandy—A People’s Shock?" Jessica Roff, you were nodding your head. You were out in the Rockaways. Talk about what it meant to be in the community figuring out what people wanted, and also what you’re doing today, pushing for a smart grid and renewable energy to be integrated into the rebuilding of the Rockaways.

JESSICA ROFF: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the—one of the reasons we were more effective in our response was because we were out talking to people every day and listening, and we were a flexible—I don’t even want to use the word "organization," per se, because we were really—you know, we were all-volunteer. We were making things up as we went along. But we were seeing each person that we were talking to, and we were seeing their situations, and we were responding accordingly. We were learning what people needed and how the best way to respond to them was. And we were hearing, like Terri was saying, that people were really feeling deserted.

And it’s sort of ironic, in relation to what Naomi Klein was just saying, that the lack of community involvement has really been heightened, I think, by the storm, as opposed to there being a shift in our democratic process. People in the Rockaways have felt, you know, deserted and left out for years and have had not a strong voice in the government and in other organizations. And now that’s really being exacerbated, even though supposedly many of these programs that the government and not-for-profits are running are engaging with community response. But they’re not really impacting the decisions, or it doesn’t seem that way. So, one of the things we’ve been doing is talking to a lot of people about energy and what’s happening out there. People are really upset because the Rockaways—

AMY GOODMAN: The Rockaways is along the beach, the Atlantic Ocean.

JESSICA ROFF: The Rockaways is a long—is a long, 13-mile peninsula, and it’s a barrier peninsula. And it’s got the ocean on one side and the bay on the other. And one of the reasons that Sandy was so devastating was because the ocean met the bay, and there—it was completely underwater in most of the peninsula, so there was massive destruction never seen before.

So, in the context of that, instead of rebuilding and instead of giving more protection, which is what all of the communities are talking about in every single meeting, in every single hearing, in every opportunity they have to talk with government and other agencies, what is actually happening is they’re building the Rockaway Lateral Pipeline out there, which is a natural gas pipeline, along with—there’s like 30 other infrastructure projects throughout the course of the entire state of New York, including the Spectra pipeline whose natural gas actually goes live on Friday, which is a huge problem. So this is happening. They’re building a natural gas pipeline. They’re dredging the ocean in a very unstable area, to begin with, because, as I said, it’s a barrier reef where there’s been tons of landfill and dumping along the years and years of use. It’s going to bring in this gas that’s radioactive, that’s toxic, that’s highly explosive.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s it for?

JESSICA ROFF: It’s to power our stoves and our heating systems. And it’s really a problem that we don’t have an infrastructure in the city that will allow us to make the renewable shift. And what we need to be doing is actually changing how we’re building out our infrastructure, and building a sustainable and renewable energy process, as well as sustainable communities.

AMY GOODMAN: What would that look like?

JESSICA ROFF: That’s a huge endeavor, but I think it’s a fantastic one. I mean, it means rebuilding our grid. Our grid doesn’t operate in a good way, as we knew from the big blackout that went from all the way from Canada down through, you know, almost to the mid-Atlantic. We would have to rebuild the grid. It has to be more localized. We have to build out infrastructure and storage facilities for wind, for solar, for tidal. And all of those are just begging to be done in the Rockaways, where there’s a ton of all of that.

AMY GOODMAN: One advocate of the new pipeline has been Congressmember Michael Grimm. His district includes Brooklyn. He says it would bring clean energy to New York.

REP. MICHAEL GRIMM: This project will be the first bulk natural gas transmission project in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens in more than 40 years. The 5.2 million people living in these three boroughs are demanding more and more natural gas. Natural gas, as we all know, is reliable. It’s clean. It’s domestic. And it’s economical. On September 15th of last year, New York City Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway testified before the National Parks Subcommittee in its support—there in support of the Grimm-Meeks bill. I appreciate all the courtesy shown to him on that day. In his testimony, the deputy mayor stated energy demand in New York City is increasing and will continue to grow; therefore, getting the Gateway project done is a major effort that includes the private sector, the city, state and federal governments. The Gateway pipeline project will generate approximately $265 million in construction activity, create almost 300 local jobs, and bring in about $8 million in annual local revenue for the City of New York, providing much-needed short- and long-term boost to our economy.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s New York Congressmember Michael Grimm. His district includes Brooklyn. Jessica Roff?

JESSICA ROFF: I mean, he sounds like he’s speaking for the oil and gas industry. He’s telling you all of the lies that we’ve been hearing forever. The primary fallacy is natural gas is clean. It’s not clean. The process starts—from cradle to grave, it is actually much more destructive than—with its carbon footprint than coal is. And there’s so much more than carbon that we need to be talking about. We need to talk about methane. We need to talk about, you know, the—all of the chemicals that are released in the process, as well as when the gas is shifted through different infrastructure projects. And so, it’s a huge problem. It doesn’t bring in all those jobs they promised. I talked to people working on the pipeline while they were working. You know where they were from? Minnesota. They were from South Dakota. They were not from New York City. It’s not local jobs. It’s not clean. It’s dangerous. What we need to be doing is actually investing in a system that is not going to exacerbate climate change also, because if we’re talking about rebuilding resiliently in the Rockaways, then there has to be a process that is allowing for not making that any worse, not having to deal with more problems, not making extreme weather worse through our energy choices.

AMY GOODMAN: Terri Bennett, that issue of resiliency?

TERRI BENNETT: Yeah, I mean, we’re not dealing with issues of resiliency on a large scale, and we’re also not dealing with it on the issue—on the, you know, immediate scale of rebuilding. The Rapid Repairs program was a great idea. It was done really hastily, and it was done in a way that people were not—didn’t have the choice to maybe upgrade to more resilient forms of heating their homes or—or even raising their electrical panel up into the second floor of their home in case there’s another storm half the size of Sandy that’s going to cause the same amount of destruction. So we think a lot of that money is eventually going to be flushed down the toilet.

We also don’t see a disaster relief industry that is promoting resiliency or sustainability. Nonprofits are often more concerned with numbers, because granters want to see numbers, and not more sustainable methods of building or materials for building. And we don’t think it’s economically sustainable, either, because it’s much more likely that—in terms of being competitive for disaster relief funding, it’s much more likely that an organization based in San Diego with disaster relief experience is going to be more competitive than a more suitable community-based organization in an affected area that is not as desirable to funders because they don’t—they have not been given the resources to be competitive in that. And I think that in coastal regions and in regions, in general, that are prone to disasters, we need to start thinking about making our community-based organizations the ones who deal with the disasters, because, like Naomi Klein said, these are the experts. These are the people who know what the community needs. And right now we don’t have a disaster relief industry that takes that into consideration.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, as we just passed the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, a lot of people said, "What happened to Occupy?" But you both really came out of that. We’re talking about Occupy Sandy. How did that happen?

JESSICA ROFF: Somebody got the bright idea when they saw the storm coming to set up a website and a donation place, actually. I was not heavily involved with Occupy Wall Street. I had a peripheral connection earlier through my climate justice work, but, you know, it was something that was sort of on my radar. And that’s where I saw it come from. And then, from there, it was really the skills of social media and networking that people developed during the Occupy Wall Street sort of heyday that allowed people to set up the right systems to have, you know, volunteers be able to come in, to get donations to come in. Someone set up, you know, a gift registry on Amazon in order for people to be able to donate from around the world and send things directly to us that we needed on the ground. And then, you know, because, like what Terri was saying, we need to invest in the local community, we had—we shifted that to actually be a community business registry and started buying—as soon as doors were open within the Rockaways, we started buying our equipment and all of the materials we needed wherever they were available there. So it was really just that background.

AMY GOODMAN: I have a quick question. We were talking about spying in the headlines, and surveillance. This very odd situation just recently developed, and people all over the country and the world may have seen this weird video on the West Side Highway of an SUV and a bunch of motorcyclists, and they bashed the SUV, and then there was this fight, and one by one these guys have been arrested. But it turns out that an undercover New York City police officer arrested in the infamous motorcycle gang incident on the West Side Highway has found—was found to previously have spied on Occupy Sandy. Isn’t that right?



AMY GOODMAN: I mean, they—the city couldn’t get people out to the Rockaways, but they were already spying—


AMY GOODMAN: —on these relief efforts? Spying?


AMY GOODMAN: Not helping people?



AMY GOODMAN: What do you know about this?

JESSICA ROFF: Just what we’ve read in the papers.


TERRI BENNETT: Just what—yeah, just what we’ve read in the papers. I mean, I—it was—people had talked about the possibility of there being people infiltrating the group, because no one knew what to expect from Occupy Sandy, right? People didn’t know if they were going—if we were going to be doing relief work for how long and what kind of political direction that was going to take. So, it doesn’t really surprise me that people would be placed—that undercovers would be placed in that position to see what kind of metamorphosis Occupy Sandy might take. But it’s kind of amazing to us, because we had this immediacy, we had this urgency to everything that we were doing. And frankly, although we are—disaster capitalism is on our radar—you know, we’re expecting to see land grabs, we’re expecting to see different kinds of injustice hit—in the first days after the storm, we were worried about whether people had food or water and whether they were sleeping in a moldy home. And so, it’s an interesting—it’s interesting that, you know, the resources were given to that cause rather than our cause.

JESSICA ROFF: Yeah, it was ages before—I mean, the Department of Health didn’t even get there 'til the eighth day. We had already canvassed half the peninsula, and we had, you know, doctors out, and we were filling people's prescriptions with—we had a volunteer who came out with a motorcycle and literally rode up and down the entire peninsula going to any open pharmacy to get medication that was available. So we couldn’t get meds to people that needed them for desperately—you know, desperately for their medical conditions, but, you know, we can get undercover agents watching us and seeing what we’re doing.


JESSICA ROFF: Makes sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, but we’re going to talk about housing next. I want to thank you both for being with us. Terri Bennett is with Respond and Rebuild; Jessica Roff, Restore the Rock—both part of the overall umbrella Occupy Sandy. And if you want more information on it, I guess you could apply under the Freedom of Information Act and see what kind of transcripts you could get of conversations. But we’ll be back in a minute talking about housing a year later.

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