After The Storm

Imagine, the day after Hurricane Sandy, the US Department of Defense airlifting generators to dangerously electricity-lacking hospitals and to the millions of people without power in their homes. Imagine the city government slashing the 9.5 percent unemployment rate by hiring tens of thousands of New Yorkers to climb the towering public housing projects to search for people who couldn’t leave their homes and to coordinate deliveries of fresh food and clean water. Imagine the city paying hospital workers, utility workers, and all those who are essential to relief efforts a fair bonus for working many days in a row, some without sleep, to provide life-saving services.

Now imagine that the city doesn’t hire anybody to help with relief efforts, not to mention hardly using over 47,000 NYPD employees to serve and protect New Yorkers who are stuck in public housing because they are too old or unable to climb down 20 flights of stairs. Imagine that essential workers don’t get a bonus, and actually get docked two days pay for not being able to report to work during the hurricane itself. Imagine the mayor literally banning food donations to homeless shelters because the city can’t measure the salt and fat content of the donations.

The second case is the Kafkaesque reality.

Ask New Yorkers what they think of the government’s efforts to provide for those hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, and most will say they think the city, state and federal governments are doing their best. This is the picture mainstream media painted, and the impact of the storm varies so widely across the city that it’s easy to believe.

But anyone who lives in or visits the areas hardest hit knows the truth; city, state and federal governments, FEMA, and even the Red Cross, are criminally late where they have arrived, and criminally absent in too many locations.

Those folks also know who is actually out there serving meals, climbing stairs to check on elderly and disabled housing residents, coordinating donations of clothing, batteries, and other essentials—regular, every-day New Yorkers.

Tens of thousands of volunteers have built new networks such as Occupy Sandy and You Are Not Alone (YANA) or continued acting in longer-standing groups such as the Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) and delivered tens of thousands of hot meals, coordinated donation hubs, and even have National Guard troops and city officials looking to them for training, advice, and leadership. Eyewitness accounts of these volunteer networks at St Jacobi Church (Occupy Sandy’s headquarters) and other volunteer activites are awe-inspiring.

And yet, even volunteer efforts this beautiful and enormous can’t rebuild the subways or airlift the generators hospitals need. And they shouldn’t have to. This is exactly what a government is supposed to do. Instead of slashing MTA workers’ wages and laying off 1,800 essential workers, instead of trying to ram through the marathon and use 41 generators and critical city employees for the race, instead of paying over $658 million of MTA revenue to Wall Street due to toxic assets, instead of banning food donations, the city should be coordinating massive relief efforts. Those who are most vulnerable should be the priority. The city should have built a protective storm surge wall years ago, knowing that this was a possibility and an easy fix.

You’d think the opportunity to save lives, create a huge jobs program, and fight climate change would have so-called progressive politicians foaming at the mouth, but every day these politicians prove that they either don’t want to or can’t enact the most common-sense and essential policies millions need right now. Either way, it makes clear that we are the ones who have to be there for each other – not in charity, but in solidarity.

After “the largest hurricane in Atlantic history,” the government focused on getting Wall Street up and running again while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. But the lesson is not just the stark revelation of city and national politicians’ priorities, it’s also undeniably inspiring proof that regular people have the desire and the ability to work together selflessly to aid others. The lies that we are all selfish, mindlessly competitive goons who need enlightened politicians to protect us from ourselves is shredding itself—every day it becomes clearer that we don’t need these politicians (and that, in fact, we’d be better off without them).

Who we do need is each other: to protect ourselves from politicians who injure us for the benefit of the rich, to coordinate mutual aid, to demand that the government stop wasting our tax dollars on wars and use them for what we actually need, and to struggle for a society so democratic that we all get to decide together how to run our lives. Because if anything was made clear in this past week, it’s that regular people can and will make the choices that politicians won’t. We will take care of each other, and that is a principle we should all strive for our society to embody.