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Interview with James Rose, Occupy Sandy volunteer

Interviewee: James Rose, OWS activist and Occupy Sandy volunteer.
White man, 40 years old.
Interviewer: Shelly Ronen

Q: So thanks again for your time. I have some questions specifically about your experience of Sandy and some that are kind of broader so why don’t you just start off by telling me how you got involved?

A:            Well through Occupy Wall Street. I’ve been involved with them since pretty much the beginning like late September, early October of 2011.  So all sorts of things they’ve been doing I’ve been getting involved with and this was another one but it was a lot different than other things that we’ve done.

Q:            Yeah, what were you expecting when you started out?

A:            I pretty much knew, I remember it was the night of the storm and I was watching television and New York One was covering what was happening and it was just a blackout in Rockaways and there’s these people that had a van and a guy was there with this light and boom mic it was three or four of my friends from Occupy Wall Street handing out food and I was like “oh my god that’s so cool” and the only ones down there right now are Occupy Wall Street, FEMA’s nowhere, Red Cross nowhere.  It was OWS for at least a couple weeks that were the main ones down there.  And I didn’t realize that they were localized to do that, they just did. I think our purpose — people from OWS because we already had a kitchen set up that gave us food for all of our events, like all of our protests and things like that, you know whenever we get masses of people together they come and bring us the kitchen.  There’s a working group that would come and bring us food so we had that already in place.  So I think it was just the kitchen again saying hey we’ve got to bring food over there, they have no power. So I’m pretty sure that’s where it started.

Q:            So initially it seems like it was mostly bringing food and like feeding people, what other sorts of problems arose over the course of the –?

A:            And then it was all the supplies necessary. I know St. Jacobi was one of the first hubs and that’s where I went first. It took me a little bit to get there– to respond to get down there just because life was crazy and I was living in [Northern Manhattan] at the time so it was a two hour subway ride over there or an hour and a half anyway.  I kind of got in a little bit of a routine a couple days a week heading over there. I wasn’t surprised but I was definitely impressed because I know Occupy is really organized anyway and always seems to have this infrastructure that seems to fall into place. I go in and there’s the communications, “the comms” they called it upstairs and then downstairs was just this huge — the hall at St. Jacobi was just full of stuff, it was like a little beehive of people buzzing around organizing things and I showed up with a bunch of stuff and I just gave it to them, they’re like “oh thanks” you know and they put it in its proper place.

And then I was asked what can I do and they had orientation so I went — there’s this one guy that was there that told us if you’re going to go out into the field this is the way you should behave because these people where they live has been destroyed and be considerate and think about them and don’t take pictures, be considerate this is their space, you’re coming there to help them not — it’s what do they need you know? Not like what you want to do. Yeah it was pretty cool. One guy from comms came down and said to my group of people that I was going through the orientation with and he said “does anybody here have a cell phone or a laptop” and I said “I have a cell phone” and he’s like “can you come with me we need someone to answer the hotline.” So that was my first, handful of times I came down to help out I was just — they redirect your number from the hotline number and you can answer the phone and you just basically somewhere through the — I don’t know exactly how they do it but it’s just basically — you just put your number on the list that the calls get redirected to.

Q:            That’s awesome.

A:            Yeah.

Q:            And what types of call were you getting?

A:            I was on the volunteer hotline so it was basically people that wanted to help out or give donations that sort of thing. And then there was another hotline for people that needed things and there was the distribution part of the whole situation. There was just different roles, two rooms basically one was for everything that was going out and one was for everything coming in via telephone and internet.  So if you had a laptop you can answer e-mails and actually call back people through the e-mails, there was also a visual voicemail sort of a thing where you could check and then also just answering the phones as they rang.  It was just a matter of catching up because there were several hundred a day, people contacting and trying to help out.

Q:            It’s an amazing system. So what do you do when you’re not involved with Occupy Sandy?

A:            I work with restaurants, I’m a bartender and also I’m a painter, an artist.

Q:            Okay. So how did you feel being dropped into the system of all the comms and –?

A:            It was pretty cool, you know definitely. I’ve done phone work before, like just talking to people on the phone different industries.  Years ago I was on — I would sell wine over the telephone, other odd jobs that I’ve had where I’ve had to answer the phone and talk to people over the phone so I feel pretty comfortable on the phone.  It’s something I’m comfortable with and talking to people.  Some people would call the number by mistake, people that needed things and that was always — that’s a lot more expected.  Like this one woman called Mrs. Davis from some — she’s up on the 26th floor in some affordable housing unit in the Rockaways and she’s like we have no power, we can’t cook food, we need help and I had to give her the right number to call. But she really wanted to talk to somebody. So I talked to her for a few minutes and just made her feel like we’re going to come help you out Mrs. Davis don’t worry about a thing, she’s an elderly woman.  She’s said  me and my husband we’re elderly we can’t get up and down the stairs because elevators are broken– so they’re going up and down 26 flights of — they’re not going to do that, they’re stuck there.  Thank goodness she was able to make the call; I don’t even know how she was able to do that.

Q:            That sounds like it would be really difficult?

A:            Yeah it sucked, that would’ve been a harder role to play I think because a lot of desperate people were calling and it’s tough, it’s definitely tough.

Q:            It seems over time that the kind of mental health needs became more prominent?

A:            I think so yeah, still you know, it’s crazy.  Like New York One, they cover a ton of things like 24 hours a day, that’s what they’re covering.  And it’s really something, I mean during this cold weather right now it’s zero degrees and there’s people with no heat, no electricity, 2-1/2 months later, more than that it’s going to be three months.  That’s the thing it shouldn’t be that way.

Q:            You were in [North Manhattan], is that what you said? And then when did you make the transition?

A:            Just a couple of weeks ago to [Brooklyn] yeah just so I could be with him some more and closer to him because his mother lives in [Brooklyn].

Q:            He’s brand new.

A:            He’s four months old yeah. My involvement with the kitchen is going down because his mother was on maternity leave for the first month and a half the kitchen was open but now she’s back at work so I have to watch him during the day quite a bit.  But we’re working it out and I can get over there.

Q:            So when did you transition from being involved with comms to the kitchen, how did that go?

A:            I was only with comms for like maybe a week or two and then Jacobi pretty much got closed. They stopped operating out of there and everybody was going over to 520 Clinton and that became the new main hub. And the F line or the R was more convenient for me because I have a residency, an art residency here and then Occupy Wall Street Puppet Guild is near and I just moved into this neighborhood, all off the R train, which goes to Bay Ridge Kitchen..

Q:            That’s really cool.

A:            Yeah we do great stuff there, the OWS Puppet Guild. We just did a huge thing this past Saturday to protest the third anniversary of Citizens United.

Q:            That’s awesome.

A:            Yeah we blew it up, we had a wedding on the steps of Federal Hall right across the street from the Stock Exchange, it was awesome. I was actually the groom.

Q:            You were?

A:            Yeah, I represented a super PAC and I had this big head piece on that had all these corporate logos all over it and I married a human, Monica, who’s a really big part of Occupy Wall Street. She’s more on the environmental side but she’s also a theater person so anything dramatic like this she is involved.  And she wore a wedding gown made out of dollar bills, like real dollar bills it was awesome.

Q:            That’s great.

A:            Yeah and we had Reverend Billy Talon from the Stop Shopping Choir, I don’t know if you know Reverend Billy, he’s an activist too and he’s just as amazing. If you want to see something cool if you give me your e-mail I’ll send you like two or three links.

Q:            I would love that, yeah I really love to hear more about that.

A:  Wall Street Journal did their digital whatever journal, you know it’s really good. They did a nice little piece on it. Also Dennis Trainor from the Huffington Post did an amazing video of it.

Q:            That’s awesome I want to hear more about that.  So given your experience kind of volunteering, how do you think your experience with Sandy was similar or different from that of other people?

A:            I don’t know I think — because then after Jacobi  reopened, they still used the space for meetings and things like that but it’s not like a place where they can get donations and things. So when that closed I moved to the kitchen and I think people just find their roles, you know and where they’re comfortable. I remember Kate who’s a big time part of the kitchen, it’s four main people over there. And then there’s people like me that have come maybe for two or three weeks and then get busy but then they come back and there’s like a bunch of us. And then there’s people that just come for a day and help out. So there’s a couple different levels of commitment and I’m probably second tier.  Tim is awesome, he’s there everyday, Kate’s there — all those guys and Marcus. I met Marcus at St. Jacobi and he was the first person I went in and I was like what can I do and someone said go ask Marcus. And Marcus is — he’s got a broom and he’s sweeping something up but then he just drops it and says come with me and he puts me in a job and I’m doing it.  And that’s just like a skill where you know everything — it’s something you learn from after being in this space for awhile you know everything that’s happening around you, the whole facility and you know what needs to be done and you’re kind of aware.

Q:            It’s a machine.

A:            It is and you have one person that’s — at the kitchen they call it a floor manager and I’ve done that a few times where people come in, volunteers come in, they need a job you give them the most pressing thing that needs to be done. It could be cleaning out the coolers that the food goes in or we need onions chopped ASAP, you know.  And that’s just a matter of knowing what we have for supplies, knowing what’s going out, knowing what the chef needs, the cooks need and then also letting the cooks know what we have for food and what’s coming because there’s donations coming in, food going out, volunteers showing up with nothing to do.  And I know Marcus is awesome at that and he trained me how to do that. And then there’s the whole cleanup and close down.

Q:            So it sounds like it’s a lot of orchestration, moving people around and resources and figuring out constantly and checking up on what’s coming in and going out.

A:            Yeah.

Q:            Does anything spring to mind like anecdotes or examples of things that were particularly challenging during the course of doing that, like what sorts of things came up that were?

A:            Using the food and keeping it so it wouldn’t go bad because sometimes you get inundated with just so much produce and then keeping it organized, so people don’t forget about the five coolers of potatoes that are setting out in the courtyard and then also keeping it up to  health codes too.  That’s one thing I know that I contributed because I have worked in restaurants and I know the health codes, I know what the health department could come in and freak out about.  And a lot of people that show up have never worked in a restaurant but they want to help. They get to know the space and they get to know how that works but they don’t know the standards.  So I know when I came in I noticed all this food sitting on the floor, just boxes of food sitting on the floor and I was like “that’s got to be at least six inches elevated off the floor.” So we had all these pallets that were empty that were sitting that were six inches high, big huge wide awesome flat pallets. So I grabbed a couple people and we just moved everything and put the pallets in and put it on the pallets and now a health inspector could walk in there and be like alright that’s not bad. Everyone should all be wearing hair nets to.  If they all had their hats on it’s different and people wear gloves which is really good.  They’re aware of keeping things clean.  And Occupy is so sensitive towards vegetarians and not crossing where meat is prepared with where vegetables are prepared. That’s good not just for contamination but also they don’t want to — they keep that very separate.

Q:            I remember when I was there I noticed or I think I overheard some discussion kind of like about the cultural sensitivities with some of the residents to which the food was being delivered. Did any of that ever come up like ‘oh these residents don’t like this food, they think it’s weird’ or how did that play out, how did you deal with that?

A:            I think so, well they make the requests and we meet them. They call it in and they’re like no pork, this is a Muslim community, that sort of a thing.  So that definitely happens.

Q:            So that was actual feedback that’s impressive?

A:            Yeah well we only respond to people asking for food, we’re not just sending it out.  We have specific orders going to specific hubs. They might like more chicken please, less vegetables. Sometimes everything we send is just more vegetables, like all sweet potatoes for like a week because we have this huge thing of sweet potatoes.

Q:            Right that’s what we got.

A:            It’s what we have is what we can do but if we can help it we try to give people what they want.

Q:            So did your experience volunteering change the way you view New York at all?

A:            Yeah definitely and pretty much the United States because there was people coming from all over to help volunteer, it was awesome. And people from Canada, like this mother daughter team from Quebec, I was sitting at the table with them. This young lady came all the way from Hawaii to volunteer; I was like you’re awesome.  It was just great, tons of people from the Midwest, a lot of people from Boston have come down, people from Baltimore all over.

Q:            So actually it feels like kind of outpouring of  help.

A:            From all over the place.

Q:            Assistance from all over the place.

A:            Yeah, a lot of New Yorkers but you know I think the New Yorkers that have been there have been from Brooklyn and they feel like they’re helping out other Brooklyners you know and that’s cool.  Less Manhattan people. It’s crazy.

Q:            What do you think that’s about?

A:            I think Manhattan is so caught up in Manhattan and I lived in Manhattan when this was happening, I was up in [North Manhattan] and the next morning I saw a couple tree branches down but basically it was just like a windstorm, it didn’t seem like anything.

Q:            Right.

A:            And I worked — the restaurant never lost power, my work was open the whole time.  I took my usual route, no problem, didn’t skip a beat.

Q:            Right.

A:            You know because of the storm so I think a lot of people from Manhattan, especially people from uptown or midtown didn’t even really — they don’t even know what it’s like over there.

Q:            Right.

A:            Unless they’re watching New York One which shows it all the time but people they don’t really — they think “that’s still happening?” I’m like, “yeah it’s still happening”, it’s been three months and it’s still like lots and lots of people without power or no heat or their kitchens are so molded they can’t use them. The houses are barely livable.

Q:            So what do you think the failure is, is it about the media that not enough media is publicizing it?

A:            I think so.

Q:            Or is it about people don’t care to listen to those stories when they do hear it, what do you think?

A:            I think at a month any natural disaster just kind of drops out of people’s minds even if it’s in their backyard, apparently. When Katrina happened we all forgot about it after about a month but I’m sure Katrina is still recovering from that.

Q:            Yeah. It’s just like we get tired of it?

A:            Yeah it’s like okay that’s too bad but there are other problems in the world. They had our month of attention and then apathy kicks in which is too bad. I think it’s something to do with human nature or I’m not really sure.  But Occupy doesn’t forget though.

Q:            Yeah it seems like it right.

A:            We stay on top of it yeah and that’s been true with every single cause that we have and this is definitely related to global warming and that’s a huge part of what we’re about is environmental issues.

Q:            So what do you think needs to be done about global warming?

A:            Global warming?  We have to steer away from this trend they call it natural gas or whatever; you know fracked gas, anything like that.  Like I’m a huge — I hate fracked gas and I know that that’s trending right now; people are thinking that’s the way to go because it might burn a little bit cleaner than the traditional oil. But it’s still just as bad in the long run because it’s going to make us more dependent on it and stay away from going towards solar, wind and water which we need those three to be seriously ramped up.

Q:            It sounds like yeah a lot of the mitigation issues of choosing different.

A:            Just big oil, the energy industry doesn’t want to switch over because they have billions of dollars worth of gas right here in this Marcell Shale deposit and that’s a whole other issue. I mean fracking.  One thing that OWS has been doing it’s called Occupy the Pipeline and there’s one, the Rockaway pipeline there’s CARP, it’s Coalition Against the Rockaway Pipeline and that’s right there, that’s the Rockaways and there’s a pipeline coming right into — under Jamaica Bay and through protected national reserves. — it must be coming up the coast. But then there’s the other one, The Spectra Pipeline that’s coming through New Jersey, it’s coming from Pennsylvania through New Jersey and out of New Jersey City underneath the Hudson River and right into the West Village.  And they’re going to pump this like 30 inch diameter pipeline with firehose pressure of fracked gas which is has 70 times more radon in it than normal gas and it’s extremely volatile and explosive. There was that same exact kind of pipeline in San Bruno, California that left a 1,000 foot crater because of an explosion.  It just blew up, something went wrong.

Q:            It’s going to do that, right.

A:            And this is coming under the West Side Highway right under the West Village, can you imagine a 1,000 foot crater around the West Side Highway.

Q:            That’s a lot of damage in New York Manhattan.

A:            Yeah.

Q:            So why is it happening?

A:            Money, it’s money. Bloomberg invested  20 million of his own money into it, it’s huge. Bank of America is a big investor, I think Chase is too and there’s just huge banks and corporations are just pumping the money into i — it’s I think the biggest profit out of fracked gas is not just selling the gas, it’s building all the infrastructures for it.  Like the Spectra Pipeline they aren’t the ones actually drilling it they’re just moving it over to them, they build pipelines, they’re not big oil.

Q:            That’s where the money is.

A:            It’s a lot of the money; it’s just the whole infrastructure of it. And people think oh, fracked gas is going to bring prices down on gas, it’s not, they’re not going to lower the prices, why the hell would they do that?  It’s not going to happen, it hasn’t and they’ve been doing it for years, they’ve been pumping fracked gas out for 20 years and the price is still — they’re just terrible.  So that’s not going to happen, why would they give up money? But what they’re going to do is if they have an abundance of it, if they’re going to have a surplus they’re just going to export it to Europe or China and that’s exactly what they’re doing.  That’s why they have these pipelines so that it can go to New York ports and then send it out. Of course they’re going to sell to Manhattan too but the majority of it’s going to go overseas and do you think they’re going to share those profits with the US citizens, these big oil companies, no?  It’s going to go right in their pockets. And then probably get moved even out of the United States to the Cayman Islands in tax shelters, we’re not even going to be able to tax it.

Q:            The benefits of just being taken away.

A:            Yeah, zero for the US citizens.

Q:            I mean you’re already talking about this but I guess I kind of want to ask it explicitly certain social scientist sociologists talk a lot about inequality, the idea that Sandy affected people unequally and so I’m wondering can you talk about your sense of how that played out with Sandy?

A:            Well I mean I think — Sandy didn’t discriminate, I mean there was wealthy neighborhoods that were hit too but they recovered a lot more quickly.  Like lower Manhattan for instance, a lot of people were accusing Bloomberg of really just worrying about Manhattan and not really caring about the other areas which to some extent makes sense because it’s a huge effect on the entire United States’ economy and if that’s all shut down down there there will be a ripple affect that would be pretty bad. So a lot of things needed to get up and running but the human element of it though I mean people still without power it shouldn’t be this much of a gap. It shouldn’t be like okay overnight Manhattan’s ok and then three months later people in poor parts of Brooklyn and Stanton Island or from the middle class is not still — still not up and running.  When Goldman Sachs actually never lost their power ever and they were right there, they were surrounded by a total blackout.

Q:            How did that happen?

A:            It was the only building that was still lit up through the entire thing.

Q:            The irony of that is crazy.

A:            Yeah the only building in all of lower Manhattan through the entire thing that never lost its power.

Q:            I didn’t hear that, that’s insane.

A:            Of course why would they — they’re gods, they wouldn’t.

Q:            They control the power.

A:            Yeah, they’re like we’re not losing our power.

Q:            So why is it that some people are still without power?

A:            That’s a good question I’m not really sure. I mean I know — well some of the reason is because to get the issues fixed Con-Edison can’t go in and do that, yeah you need to hire a contractor to do that. So that means you need money or insurance or the ability to get somebody in there to do it because it’s like a problem with the house not with the service of Con-Edison.

Q:            Right.

A:            So these people haven’t been able to do that.

Q:            Private damage.

A:            Yeah because of what’s happened to their internal you know electrical system.

Q:            Yeah that makes sense.

A:            Yeah.

Q:            Let me think what else I wanted to ask you.  You talked about it a little bit about being involved with Occupy Wall Street and then transitioning from that into Occupy Sandy, how do you think the kind of mission statement of Occupy Wall Street or as much as you understand of what they’re up for or what they stand for, how do you think that translated into Occupy Sandy?

A:            Into Sandy?

Q:            Yeah.

A:            Well they’re do-gooders, you know, they are.  People don’t realize that, they think that it’s just a bunch of anarchists or whatever. No we really want to affect the world for good and they want to make changes for the positive.  One of our mantras is ‘another world is possible’ and that also happens to correlate with helping out people that are suffering from Sandy. We’ll help; we’ll go over there and help the community come together. And a lot of my right wing friends that I have that I grew up with they’re like see that’s why we don’t need these agencies we can do this together, it’s supposed to be grass roots like that.  I was like well you’re kind of right because look at FEMA, it was like a month before they had all the red tape cut and they got in there and were able to do anything.  So I agree with them on a lot of things.  That’s why I think Occupy Wall Street has nothing to do with partisan politics at all because it really — if we want the whole thing to be redone, we’re not going to side with democrats or republicans.  It’s just the whole system is out of whack.

Q:            So if it were to happen another Sandy or another hurricane how do you think it should be handled in the future? Do you think scrap FEMA and give Sandy money or kind of like how do you envision it?

A:            I’m not a big fan of FEMA anyway, there’s other things that they’ve done like the way they handled the 911 whole event was awful.

Q:            With the first responders or?

A:            With everything and also the investigation of it, they totally overlooked so much evidence.  All the materials from those buildings within a month was gone, it was being recycled in China, they were shipping out like 400 truckloads of debris a day before any investigators were allowed in there to check it out.  And especially when there’s all this evidence of explosions and they just assumed it was the jet fuel. FEMA to me is kind of a joke. And they kind of scare me, like FEMA and Homeland Security and all these new agencies since the Patriot Act, they scare the crap out of me. I don’t like it. I just found out they bought 450 million hollow point bullets, what do they need those for, for domestic use? Not for overseas, not for the military it’s for domestic use, that scares me.

Q:            Yeah.

A:            I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories or anything like that but it just scares me, these are facts and it’s alarming.

Q:            Yeah.

A:            So I do believe that I think it was a good exercise — we were able to execute a good practice of citizens coming together and organizing ourselves. And I think there were so many different groups of people that did it too not just Occupy. I mean there’s so. Also, there were some groups that came together to do it as a PR sort of a thing, a little bit. Like that concert, 12/12/12, every commercial break they cut to all these corporations and banks that were –“and you could pat us on the back for putting this concert together.”  This is a money-maker for you, this is like the biggest PR stunt you’ve maybe ever done, its ridiculous. I didn’t like that at all.

Q:            That’s not what it’s about.

A:            No they should’nt  have put their name on it at all. It was ridiculous, I mean I’m sure it made a lot of money for those people and that’s awesome, it really is, but at the same time it was kind of — all these corporations that are contributing to the global warming and the cause of the hurricane, they’re not going to change their ways but they’re going to do something like that concert to make themselves feel better about everything.  That’s like a lot of philanthropy and things like that have always been that way.

Q:            Right.

A:            It’s kind of like alright let’s do really bad things for a really long time and then we’ll just do a little something good here so that everybody knows about until we feel better about it.  And then they also get to kind of direct the way culture is going to go too.  Like if something like this happens again what should we do?

Q:            Yeah what should we do?

A:            I think all is we can do is what we’re doing, and volunteer.  Try to get as much awareness about what’s happening to other people as possible, encourage people to help out as much as they can and not make people feel bad if they can’t.  Because there might be something else they can do.

Q:            Have you had any experience with — I know Occupy was collaborated a little bit with some organization, some government organization?

A:            Yeah we were but that’s more out on the scene and I haven’t really been out there much.

Q:            Okay.

A:            I was just part of the kitchen and that’s it. I felt like I could do what I could do, I mean I can do puppetry and things like that, I have some of those skills.  But I felt like once you get to know a spot you kind of go to that spot so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you go to try to help out. I mean I probably could go and help out in the rebuild, part of it and there’s so much cleanup to be done still. And I know that there are people that have been working with the agencies but I don’t know.

Q:            Yeah that’s separate from the work that you were doing.

A:            Right.

Q:            You’ve answered a lot of my questions.  On the climate change piece of it, we talked a lot about mitigation like what we should do like structurally how we should change things.  What about kind of  city preparedness, adaptation?

A:            For another hurricane?

Q:            Yeah, what’s your sense of sort of what’s important there or whether it’s important, how we should be weighed relative to the changes at kind of corporate level?

A:            It’s going to be hard to avoid I think, there’s not much we can do. I mean I don’t know, I know in New Orleans it’s about the levees, building those levees you know. So maybe we need to do things like that.

Q:            Make sort of a structural thing.

A:            Well it is what it is, this is the most populated part of the United States it’s really dense and it’s all in the coast and it’s all at sea level.  Pack up and move ten miles inland, I don’t know.

Q:            Move away from the shore.

A:            Move away from the ocean I don’t know. I mean I think real estate is going to shift a little bit but I also know like right now Cuomo is encouraging people to sell their land to the state that live on the coast.

Q:            Interesting.

A:            Yeah, that makes me nervous too.

Q:            Yeah.

A:            And also Bloomberg I know he’s got his eyes on all that destroyed land and houses where people are just available, okay I’ll just sell it to you. They want to redevelop it and I’m sure they’ll redevelop it with all these standards or specs that they have to be able to avoid future damage. A lot of  Cuomo is like if you’re going to rebuild your house put it on stilts and that sort of a thing.

Q:            How do you think that’s going to play out, I mean is that going to benefit the people there?

A:            Well I think if they redevelop that it’s going to be corporate and gentrified and the poor people that live there I don’t know where they’re going to go.  That’s just basic 101, urban planning you know. Like you look at the Barclays Center on Atlantic Avenue and all that, their situation people are like where did they go you know, where did those people go? There’s a couple thousand people that just all of a sudden boom had to leave, eminent domain, places like Columbia University, NYU.  But in Columbia I think it’s a little worse because it’s a little bit more — it’s more residential and more lower income uptown.  NYU it’s already a good place to live, in the West Village come on.  But Harlem that’s a different story. But that’s beside the point it’s the city and just the developers. I think they really are seeing dollar signs and opportunity in all of this and that’s not right.

Q:            Yeah.

A:            They should just help people rebuild their homes.

Q:            So I think you really answered all of my questions. So thank you so much for your time but is there anything else that you want to add, something that you think we should be thinking about or talking to people about, about climate change, about urban governance, about inequality?

A:            Yeah well, climate change is the main thing I think. These storms — the one thing I know like people imagined for a few years now we’ve been hearing that lower Manhattan and parts of New York were going to end up under water.  And people are thinking that it was just going to be this slow rise and maybe centimeter by centimeter the ocean level is going to rise and it was going to be this sort of passive sort of a thing that’s happening.  But we just found out it’s not going to be passive at all it’s going to be incredibly violent and it’s going to happen faster than we think. I mean the 1 train still only goes to Rector Street So I believe the rise of the oceans will not be a subtle change over time, the oceans will hammer us with these hurricanes instead, due to climate change.

Q:            I have to say this isn’t exactly a question but I guess it’s more of a comment and I wonder if you could respond to it. I’m really impressed that you have a four month old and that you’re out volunteering. It seems to me that this kind of work that’s been uncompensated and volunteer, is the sort of work that’s harder for some people to do than others especially those with dependants and those with responsibilities with families. Do you think that — how do you think people in your position can kind of justify going out there and spending that time and how do you think about that yourself?

A:            Well I mean I’m pretty lucky; his mother works and has a really good job so that really alleviates a lot of the pressure for me.  And I know it’s hard, like I had a friend last year that had a baby and he was in Occupy Wall Street and he kept plugging and he’s out doing things, he’s awesome. I was just like, “you have a newborn how are you like organizing this incredible art show. He did you organize this art show it was amazing?” It’s hard, I mean you can only do what you can do and people also — even if they don’t have a kid or they only work part time they’re still going to get burned out. And this has always been an issue with Occupy Wall Street because people get burned out. If they got to take a month, off no problem, we’re not going anywhere. This problem isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Q:            So there’s a good culture around burnout, like take time off?

A:            Take it off, you can’t show up hey no problem it is volunteer work. The thing is don’t commit unless you can do it.  That’s the thing and I’ve done this before too.  You commit to something and then last minute you’re like oh I can’t do it and then people were depending on you. So people still will depend on you but don’t overcommit, that’s the only thing and take time off when you need it, nobody’s going to blame you for it. It’s just the way it is.

Q:            Well thank you so much for your time.

[Tape off]

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Interview with Cecil Scheib, Managing Director for the NYC Building Resiliency Task Force

Interview with Cecil Scheib, Director of Advocacy, Urban Green Council and Managing Director for the NYC Building Resiliency Task Force.
Interviewed by Max Liboiron (Q) and Tom Corcoran (Q2).
February 22, 2013.

Q: Do you want me to tell you a little bit about the project first?

A: Sure.

Q: So the Superstorm Research Lab is a research collective that I’m part of. It’s a mutual aid activist research collective. And we are all—there are eight of us, and then we are also working with a bunch of Brooklyn College students to mentor them in interview skills, basically. And we are looking at different aspects of Hurricane Sandy with different stakeholders, all the way from like people from Bloomberg’s office or the MTA and all the way down to like flood zone A people—what their experiences and issues with the storm are. And then we’re looking at the relationships between those—between stake-holders—and then we’re doing three different waves—interview waves—so we’re doing now, we’re going do six months from now, and then we’ll do a year from now and see how those change or not. And we’re hoping to do academic papers but also policy papers—and hopefully public meetings and stuff based on our data.

A: Thanks, thanks—

Q: —any questions about that?

A: No.

Q: OK. All right, so our first question is: What is your job and position?

A: So my position is the Director of Advocacy at the Urban Green Council. And I am the Executive Manager for the Building Resiliency Taskforce, which was convened by Urban Green Council at the request of Mayor Bloomberg and city council speaker Christine Quinn to examine New York City’s building stock and consider what could be done to make buildings more resilient in the future. This is beyond just hurricanes and floods—we’re looking at many natural hazards that we might encounter, including heat waves, ice storms, other types of high winds other than hurricanes, other types of floods other than coastal floods—like surface flooding or river flooding—but we are focused on buildings so we are not doing the subways, we’re not doing utility grid, we’re not talking about where people should be allowed to rebuild. Those are different issues. We’re talking about, if you have a building, what makes the building more resilient? That could be improvements to building code or it could be operational best practices that aren’t, you know, codified or necessary regulation that people need to know about. And that’s my title.

Q: That’s very long. [laughter]

A: If you’d like to know what I do!

Q: Oh yes, what do you do? What is different?

A: [laughs] Seventh floor.

Q: Seventh floor. That’s your job. …So did this taskforce sort of group come together right after the hurricane—

A: Yes.

Q: —in response to the hurricane?

A: Mhm. So we were probably—I don’t know, two or three weeks after Sandy, we were officially asked by the mayor and speaker to convene the taskforce. We had a kick-off meeting on December 19th, 2012—and at this point, we have invited about 215 people to sit on the taskforce. So it’s a very inclusive effort, and we have tried to involve stakeholders, whether in Zone A or the people in the mayor’s office—and everyone in between. And we’re having about—you know, we’re split up into various working groups and committees, but with all things considered, we’re having about 60 meetings of various types in, you know, basically a four-month period. So they’re meeting almost every day.

Q: So there’s a sort of time period? There’s a four-month sort of gig?

A: Well, we have four months of meeting and then a month and a half of finalizing the report, with the goal to release the report end of May. And we’re coordinating with the city’s overall effort sort of post-Sandy—which is called SIRR, the Special Initiative Rebuilding and Resiliency that– So we’re sort of like the technical building expert arm of SIRR.

Q: OK.

A: And things got a little confusing because we actually sort of got working very quickly, and they hadn’t, I think, worked out all the details of SIRR and what it would encompass, so we actually got folded in to their structure after we were already up-and-running , but that’s basically how it works.

Q: OK. So what kind of stakeholders are involved in that? These two—

A: So, yeah, in terms of stakeholders—this might include building owners, building managers, building operators—so the people who own and operate and manage buildings—building residents, and building tenants—obviously, they’ll –home owners—insurance companies, code experts, legal experts, people who work for the city in the various departments that touch on buildings. So for us that’s…Department of Buildings, Department of Environmental Protection, the health—Health Department, HPD, HDC, EEC, who else we got on there? NYCHA…we probably have eight or ten city departments represented. And then in terms of who’s giving input—we have a whole range of experts. So we have architects, engineers, contractors, builders—you know, the legal experts. And we have a large number of representatives of labor both there as technical experts but also as stakeholders.

Q: Ok. And then this report that you put together. That—all this work, cumulates in a report, yeah? So what happens to that report? Is the city then able to say like, “No, just kidding, we don’t like that report.” Like, what’s the interface between you guys and the role this report plays in how this is taken out?

A: Well—you know, so the report could have several outcomes. Like, one could be just a piece about education. Here’s a better way to do things and no one—you know, that, like, once report goes public anyone can use it for their education. And people use it to—use it as reference. It’s very likely that actually Urban Green itself will create a training piece around the report—here’s what you can do, or here’s what you should do, or here’s some good ideas. In terms of, you know, local laws—and change the law—well only the city council can change the law. You know, Bloomberg and panel doesn’t make law changes—it can only recommend things. And similarly, in terms of agencies changing the rules or regulations, they have their own process to do that. So this is a, you know, an advisory body. And there’s a chance— You know, we don’t—I don’t know what of the things— I also don’t know yet what we’ll end up recommending—because we’re still in the middle of the process—but even of what we do recommend, I don’t know what will necessarily be adopted. That said, given that we have people from the city council on the taskforce, we have people from the Mayor’s office, we have people from DoB, we have REBNY (Real Estate Board of New York), we have owners, we have labor, we have home owners, we have the experts—I mean, if everyone on the taskforce has agreed this is a good idea, it should be a recommendation, you know, many of the barriers that have actually been enacted have already been removed. It’s not like it’s going to be a surprise when it comes out at the end of the process.

Q: Right. So are there any sort of main issues that are shared among these stakeholders or anything floating to the top already, given where you guys are in the process?

A: Well, I mean, I think a common thread for all stakeholders is that risk management is a cost-benefit exercise. So whenever you’re faced with any sort of hazard, there’s, you know,  a risk associated with doing nothing, and a cost associated with if something bad happens and you’re not ready. And at the other of the spectrum, you can, you know, spend so much money or effort that you’re no longer exposed to any risk, but at an enormous cost—maybe a cost that far outweighs the actual risk that you’re facing, so somewhere in the middle you have to pick where you want to be. What sort of risks do you want to prepare for? So, for example, in the city, to design buildings to withstand a category 5—sorry a class five—hurricane would be an enormous cost. You know, the additional structural and facade integrity needed for a class 5 or—you know, as opposed to a class, you know, 1 or 2 or— And I think that a class 5 hurricane is like a million year wind event—or actually I think class 5 maybe is a ten million year wind event. So there’s—

Q: Was Sandy class—

A: Sandy wasn’t even a class 1.

Q: Oh, it wasn’t even a class 1. Oh okay.

A: No, what it—it was when it was out over the water. But by the time it made landfall—that’s why they say Superstorm Sandy, because it no longer—the winds were not moving even fast enough to be considered a hurricane. So—

Q: Holy crap. [laughter]

A: Yeah. And even that was a fairly rare event. Defini—so, I would argue—and this is just personally—it’s like, yeah you should probably be ready for the one in one hundred year events. Like your city is going to be around for multiple hundreds of years, individual buildings are around for hundreds of years—to say, “oh, it only happens every hundred years, why bother preparing?” Ehh, that seems a little short-sighted. But to spend money to build a building and have it ready for the ten million year event, I think you’ll spend more money beefing up these buildings. So—and that— So that’s an example, but that’s just as true if you’re a home owner, you know, building your— And it’s true if you’re a renter, right? It’s like, ok, what should you do if you’re renting? Well, have a flashlight, have some water, you know? Should you have like six months worth of food in the pantry, just in case? Should you buy a larger apartment so you can store more supplies in case— No, that’s probably not a good cost-benefit thing. So  everyone makes those decisions whether they realize it or not.

Q: So is that where a lot of the conversation in this taskforce is?

A: Well actually we’re trying not to start there. We’re trying to start with, like, “ok what is needed technically to make buildings secure?” And actually try to start as a blue-sky exercise so that people don’t immediately say, “Well, that’s just too expensive. We’ll never do it.” Let’s start with, what would make the city safer, what would make the people safer, the infrastructure—well, not— You know, the building infrastructure—the buildings themselves. Then let’s get some cost on it—let’s figure out how— And then let’s make a decision where to go. But if you just start outright, they’ll be like, “Well, how much does that cost?” There a lot of things that, you know, you maybe won’t explore, because, it’s, you know, sometimes you won’t find the best idea until you work with it a little bit. So we try not to throw things out right at the beginning, so.

Q: So you’re finding that—do you find that some of the sort of things people are talking about are related to their experiences of Sandy? Or are these sort of ideas for what makes people safer coming from things they already had in mind before Sandy or—

A: Well I, I mean, I think both. We tried to get—you know, when we were looking for a—someone with some law experience in terms of building law, and we found someone who actually lives in Sandy Point, and whose home was affected. Great. I mean, to be able—you know for her to be able to speak from, like, what she saw and experienced and her neighbors and all that as opposed to just, you know, theoretical, that’s fantastic. I mean, I have a lot of people who worked in Lower Manhattan and worked with those issues, are still working with those issues, and that’s great. That said, you know, for a sort of holistic risk management thing, you don’t want your evidence to just be anecdotal. You want people that have experience with a broad range of risks—especially because we’re trying to consider risks that maybe New York hasn’t seen yet, and we want to be ready for them. So we do have some people that work for national insurers, national agencies and so, they’ve worked with events in Florida, down in Katrina, you know, New Orleans, like other jurisdictions and say, “Oh, here’s what we faced. Here’s some things you should be ready for in New York even if you haven’t seen it yet.”

Q; And are people pretty open to having that sort of comparison to these other places—the other geographical places?

A: Yeah. Yeah. You know, on the code level, people sort of work together pretty, pretty well. Like, people look to the national model codes as a starting place. And we have people from the National Model Code agency on the taskforce, so she can both inform us and say, “Well this is what the next version of code will say so you might want to include that.” And also if we come across something good, she’ll say, “Oh that’s good, we should get that into the next version of the model code.” We hadn’t thought of that, so it’s a two-way street. And, um– there seems to be a trend for people to go with the model codes and then make local modifications instead of every jurisdiction just write its own code from scratch—I mean, just for obvious reasons.

Q: So is New York bound by the national code system or—?

A: There is no national code, like—

Q: Oh.

A: —and that’s why I say—well, there’s no national building code. And that’s what they call model code—so put out by an independent company that is a non-profit. But no one is bound to follow—follow the, follow the ICC codes. Local jurisdictions can adopt them in all or in part with modifications. The exception is that if you participate in the national flood insurance program, which is a federal program, then you have to do certain things to your building to get a mortgage. But that’s not a building code—it’s not enforced by the local buildings department. And if you don’t need a mortgage and you’re not—and you don’t need flood insurance— You know, like if you get a mortgage, the bank says you have to get the flood insurance and to get the flood insurance, FEMA says, “OK, you have to do these things.” If you don’t need a mortgage, you don’t have to do those things, because you’re not required to get flood insurance. I think that’s one thing that’s being discussed at the national level is—should everyone in the flood zone be forced to get flood insurance? And what would that entail? But again that’s the type of question that our taskforce isn’t necessarily taking up—like, should everyone have flood insurance? We’re discussing, like, what constitutes, you know, building resilience against a certain height of flood.

Q: So what’s your guys’ concept of building resilience? Like, so, like, through the mitigation model, the adaption model, it’s-the-same-thing model—what does resilience refer to when you guys are talking about it?

A: Well there’s several levels of building resilience, right? So one thing that our current code handles very comprehensively is that a building be resilient enough that after an event, people can get out of it safely. And they can safely evacuate. So generally that’s defined as 90 minutes, maybe two hours. You know, stairwell lighting has to work. You know, the building has to be strong enough to not fall down—to withstand wind loads and things like that. What makes the resiliency effort different for New York City is that we’re trying to lengthen the amount of times the—the time that the building could be habitable so that people are not forced to evacuate. And this is important for a couple of reasons. One is people do not like to leave their homes—they’re worried about looting, they’re worried about safety, they don’t have places to go. So they like to stay home. And we saw after Sandy, a lot of people living in unsafe conditions because they did not want to leave. Second, the city only has limited capability to actually shelter people—you know, at shelters—and so the more people you can keep in a building, you know, the easier it is for the city to handle the people that really don’t have any option. So one level is just the emergency egress and just getting out safely. Another level might be what we call survivability. It’s like, “Ok, you can, like, survive in that building.” So what would that mean? It’s like, “Ok, well, it can’t be like freezing cold or deathly hot in the building or it’s not survivable.” Like if it—you know, power outage in the winter and it’s below freezing and, you know, it’s 10 degrees outside, it’s 10 degrees inside. Fahrenheit. [laughter] That’s not—

Q: [Laughter] 10 degrees? That sounds lovely.

A: Right, you’re like, “What’s the problem? Set my thermostat.” That’s not survivable. But if you can keep the building in between—you know, at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, then you can be like, “Ok, that’s survivable.” Like, you might under the blankets but you’re not going to die, you know. It might be an issue for elderly or kids, but a lot of like able-bodied people could survive in that. Maybe they would choose that instead of a shelter. Might not be very pleasant. And then the next level is what we’re calling habitability, which is, ok, well, if you can keep it at 55 degrees, maybe it’s not as warm as it would be with the heat on, but you could stay there indefinitely. And if you have stairwell lightning and—or could use the elevator. If you have basic lightning, if you have water—we found is one of the most important things after Sandy, was access to water. I mean, that was my personal experience. I had no problems with the lack of power, didn’t mind going up and down the stairs, have good windows, had flashlights, the temperature was mild so we happily stayed there, but not having water makes everything a real hassle. So we chose to go elsewhere, you know, for things like showers and things like that.

Q: So this apartment [in the East Village] was affected by that?

A: Yeah, we were out of power for five days.

Q: So is there anything sort of like water? In addition to water, something that is a sort of key issue for when these sorts of events happen?

A: So, yeah, we’ve identified the key elements as: portable water; stairwells and elevators—that you get like in-and-out of the building safely—habitable temperatures—so you’re not freezing or roasting—and fire safety. Like, you can have all those things and think you’re comfortable in your apartment, but if the fire alarm system isn’t working or if the fire pumps aren’t working—like, it could still be very risky if there was— And you know, people often tend to look at risks one at a time. What do I do during a fire? And what do I do during a power outage? And it’s another question: what if the fire happens during the extended power outage? What then? Like overlapping those risks is often the most dangerous thing. And of course, fires are actually more likely during the power outage—people are using candles and, you know, you don’t have the fire alarms working and, you know, sprinklers might not be working, things like that, so.

Q: Ok. What sort of problems do you think—so those are very immediate problems, right? Like—generally immediately post-storm. Are there any like long-term or, like, those sort of issues that you guys are working on—like months?

A: Hm. We haven’t set, like a, final sort of like, this is how long we have to be ready for. And in some ways, I might argue, like, well, if your building could be habitable for five days, it can probably be habitable for 15 days, right? Once you’ve sort of reached a steady state of habitability— We’re looking at what we consider, you know, events that are disastrous but still sort of transitory. Not like—“oh my god, we had, you know, such a terrible event that the power was out for six months in the neighborhood” or something. It’s like, no, that would be a different— Like, I’m trying to imagine what that event would be, but we’re not really necessarily considering it. But, but that doesn’t mean it’s just after the event—like lots of what we’re looking at are things that happened leading up to the event. So like the four sort of stages of standard risk response or a risk-assessment life style or what they call mitigation—trying to make sure that if the event happens, the effects aren’t as bad. Preparation—getting ready for the event because you know it’s coming or just always being ready. Response, which is what you do right after the event, sort of maintaining safety. And then, recovery, which is, ok, you know, sort of getting back to normal after the worst has passed. And so we’re dealing with all four of those parts. And mitigation, you know, normally means: ok, how do you make the effects of the event not as bad? But for us—we’ve been asked by the city to look specifically at the overlap between climate change mitigation—

Q: So Bloomberg’s office said, “Look at climate change mitigation, please”?

A: And also the city council as a joint thing. But they said, “Think about what are things we could do that will help buildings be more resilient if there is an event, but also help stop events from happening by directly addressing the climate change issue.”

Q: So how do you guys do that?

A: Well an example might be, if you’re in, let’s say, low-rise housing in Brooklyn and, you know, you’re on the top-floor of a four-story building or five-story building, and you’re elderly and you’re basically house-bound during, you know, an extended power outage. If you have a black roof and no AC, maybe the temperature would get so high in there that it could actually be, you know, risk of death. If you have a white-colored roof, the temperatures might get hot enough to get uncomfortable but you might survive. So the white roof can help the urban—urban heat island effect and help you need less AC in the summer, so we are using less fuels, so there’s less global warming—or less of the carbon emissions that lead to global warming—but also help you live during the event. So that’s a great example of like overlap—

Q: Or like triple-paned windows or those sorts of things?

A: Yes, anything that—that’s another example, if you’re in a building that has a very good envelope, so it keeps out the heat and cold, it will keep more stable temperatures even if the power is out. So, that’s another example—and it will use less energy all the time. Now it’s an open question what might—you know, that’s a good example of something that’s like, hm, it might be unclear how to regulate that topic. It might be something that’s, you know, like an education piece for buildings.

And one thing we’re doing on the taskforce is making a distinction between the commercial building sector and residential building sector. So to tell a commercial building that they have to maintain certain temperatures without power available, they would say, “well, that’s—people can leave. You know, it’s the workplace. If it’s not comfortable, they’re not forced to stay there.” Whereas for the residential building sector, they may not have as many options and there’s more of a, you know, “the city needs it.” So.

Q: So that leads nicely into a question I have about how Hurricane Sandy might have led to new opportunities that maybe you guys in your office might’ve been interested in before, but now there’s much more of a platform to do this sort of work on. Would you comment on that sort of thing, if that’s happening?

A: Uh. Yeah. I mean, some of these things are still under consideration for the technical details. And, you know, anything that may seem like a good idea but increases costs for the people who own and operate these buildings—I mean, there’s a lot of sensitivity around. So I’ll say that as a preamble. That said, you know, Sandy, I think changed the equation in the way people talk about climate change. And they knew there were still people who don’t think there’s climate change already here, but they feel a lot less comfortable speaking up. And I think that does raise the profile of items that, you know, overlap in mitigation and resiliency. Specifically, like, we’re at least considering—I’m not sure where we’re going to come out on it—but we’re at least considering the role that solar, you know, might play. A lot of people had solar and were unable to use it during the event because the way the solar systems were wired—if the grid wasn’t operable, you weren’t able to get power directly out of the solar panel system even if it was on your home or business.

Q: Oh, because it fed into the grid?

A: It fed into the grid, and goes from the grid back into your house. So no grid, no power. So that’s something that’s a technical issue and a financial one, but at least can be, can be, can be approached. We’re—you know, I think it’s worth looking at— You know, probably the most direct way to conceive of maintaining back-up power in a building that does not have grid power, some sort of generator. And I think it’s worth looking at systems such as microcogen that might be able to, you know—

Q: Like, within a building? Cogen [co-generation] within a building?

A: Yeah, within a building. So that’s something to explore—could those be used during— But then again, are you going to mandate everyone—put in microcogen? No. Could you encourage it or remove barriers to its adaption—because there’s a lot of regulatory barriers now. It’s, you know—that’s an opportunity. And I think it’s worth talking about what is the effect of the performance of the building façade and the envelope under the building when it’s not—you know, when the power’s been lost. Because that might have another benefit, you know, when the power’s on. But then again, there’s a lot of factors that go into the choice of how you do your building façade and this is just one of them, so it’s a tricky issue.

Q: Are you guys dealing at all with contamination or mold or that sort of thing that happened?

A: Yes, yes. Well, specifically in terms of building design and construction, we’re looking at what are the materials that should be specified—mostly below the flood elevation. And so that’s definitely one of the proposals, is to look at what should be said in that term. I mean, there’s also the issue of, like, after the event—like should you stay if this happened and how to get rid of the mold and stuff, but those aren’t necessarily code or rule things. So those are good things to know, but if you’re in an existing building and have mold-prone items and there’s a flood and it gets moldy, it’s not really a construction issue anymore.

Q: Right. Do you guys have different ideas or codes for, like, people around Gowanus versus people who aren’t around, like, pre-contaminated sites?

A: Can you be more specific? You mean in terms of, like, waters that might rise or—

Q: Yeah, so Gowanus is facing contamination problems.

A: Well, right. I mean—you know, FEMA guidelines are to treat all water occurrences into a building as basically black water that could pose, you know, toxic—because you don’t know what in it— You know, you don’t know what’s in it. And—so I don’t know if we would do something different and say, oh, yeah, it’s extra special bad in a certain area because there’s existing toxics. I mean, frankly, it seems like on case-to-case basis. Like, if your, you know, fuel-oil tank in your basement floats and, you know, turns sideways and spills fuel oil over—now your house is just as toxic as anywhere else even if you were on a piece of pristine land before. So.

Q: Right. Ok. How do you think how you guys are dealing with the climate change mitigation adaption thing—how do you think that’s similar or different to other businesses or NGOs that are in the same sort of business as you? [pause] In New York or outside of New York.

A: Well I’m just trying to think who are our peers in terms of the same business. I mean, in terms of urban sustainability and build environment, I think our organization, you know, is a leader in terms of looking at specifically New York City buildings and, you know, what are their effects and sort of what are the inputs. But maybe I’m not exactly understanding what—

Q: So, so do you think that other people will look to you and New York City and what you’ve done here? Like other cities along the coast or—

A: Oh. Yeah. I mean, I’m hoping that some of the stuff we work out is not—you know, it’s urban-specific, maybe some climate-specific, but not like, New York, totally New York-specific. And that there will be things that can be abstracted and taken. That said, it’s sort of, you know, amazing and almost dispiriting like—it’s like, OK, well, you can’t take it to like San Francisco because, like, they have a totally different set of natural hazard risks. You know, they are totally worried about earthquakes, we are a little bit. I don’t—do they have hurricanes on the west coast? I think they just don’t, right? Yeah, I just don’t think the west coast has hurricanes. I don’t think that—because the water is coming from the north where it’s cold instead of from the south where it’s warm. I don’t think they can form hurricanes. They have other things, you know? So— And like the wind load is like—there’s these national wind maps that say where, you know, where the winds are, you know. Chicago might be worried about tornados, but not about coastal floods because they’re not on the ocean and it’s like— And like Florida has much stronger hurricanes, so, you know, so some of the stuff— I mean, the stuff about power outages seems like probably the most abstract—abstractable part than the part about specific natural risks. But you know, once again, this is the good thing about having national model codes. Again, it’s not a national code that everyone follows but, like, you know, the American Society of Civil Engineers puts out these wind maps and these flood resistant design guidelines and they say, if you’re in this zone, do this. If you’re in that zone, do that. So you pick your zone and you sort of look at what it recommends.

Q: And the zones are basically like, eco—well, you said according to wind or according to landscape.

A: Right. For wind it’s—yeah, could be very specific and, you know, coastal zones are more obvious and based on elevation. But like the hurricane zones are based upon a whole mix of sort of climactic and geographical factors.

Q: So do you think that what New York—

A: Climatic, not climactic. [laughter]

Q: Do you think that what New York experienced was then substantially different than what like New Jersey experienced?

A: Umm… well, I’m not sure what you mean. You mean in terms of like the specific effects?

Q: The specific effects. Yeah, the specific effects.

A: Well there are some—you know, every event, every hurricane is different. And specifically, because the winds tend—you know, what they call the right-front quadrant of the hurricane— You know, because hurricanes tend to rotate counter-clockwise, and so in general— Like, for example, Long Island tends to get hit much harder than New York because the winds strike there first, and by the time they get to New York City, the winds have sort of crossed land and they’re not going nearly as fast and stuff like— This is interesting. I don’t—there’s not one answer. There’s a discussion that says, wow, you should really need to be more careful about winds out on Long Island because you just—where New York City is located, you don’t—it’s not as big a deal. Except like, if you look at it at as like, it’s po—it’s less likely but it’s possible that actually New York could get winds directly off the water. Like, oh, if it came from a certain angle or if, you know, sometimes hurricanes veer at the last minute because there’s like a cross wind—it’s very difficult to actually predict the exact, exact location for a hurricane.

So there are some sort of general ways in which you could say New Jersey is different. And certainly parts of coastal New Jersey don’t face the urban heat island effect that we might face in the middle of Bed-Stuy or something like that in terms of really elevated temperatures, but those are more like, I think, small things compared to the fact that like—yeah, generally it’s warmer in New York than it is on coastal New Jersey, but you could look at the map some summer day and it’s actually warmer on the coast of New Jersey than it is in New York for some specific reason. So those things aren’t absolutes, so my guess is that no matter what you looked at, you know, the—what you think are hurricane paths and stuff like that— Like, what’s good for Jones Beach or Long Beach is probably good for Coney Island, is probably good for Sandy Hook or whatever. Like— But—but I’m not that kind of expert so they might say, “oh no, there’s actually some specific things that you would do differently in terms of your barriers and stuff because they’re more exposed.” You know—like, I don’t know for sure.

Q: Are those differences going to manifest, you think, in your report—or are you guys pretty much just doing New York City?

A: Well we’re really focused on New York City. We—we particularly really focus on New York City. Now there are some state efforts and— I don’t know—do you know if like New Jersey has any commissions looking at—?

Q: I have no idea what is going on in New Jersey. And that’s sort of part of what I’m interested in. How even though it was the same storm, they actually could be different storms in how they’re manifesting now.

A: Yeah, I don’t know. Was it that different? I mean, I think they got hit—you know, some areas in New Jersey just got absolutely, you know, blasted. But worse than Staten Island? And even if it was worse, I think it might’ve been a matter of, you know, quantity not quality. It’s like, oh the waves were higher, and so more damage was done, but it’s not like it was a totally different storm. You know, the wave height was an extra foot or they didn’t have the, you know, the wave of dune-shaped, you know, whatever, and stuff like that. So, again, in terms of building—because we’re not looking at like dune reconstruction, you know, we’re looking at buildings. So, like, in a building, you design based on the design flood elevation. So if you’re in New York, you look at your design flood elevation based upon factors. If you’re in New Jersey, you have a different elevation let’s say, based on where you are. After that, like, the code looks the same—it’s like, everything has to be above that specific elevation.

Q: Ok. Do you think that the storm has changed how you personally look at New York City or experience New York City? Or this work that you’re doing?

A: [pause] That’s a really good question. I hate to have the—you know, you have to fast-forward through the dead air.

Q: That’s fine. It doesn’t cost us anything to have dead air for the transcripter.

A: All those digits. All the zeros. [laughter][long pause] Yeah, I mean, I think there was a—well, there— You know, I was not a…building expert, but like the overlay of building resiliency. So like I worked with the codes all the time, but the codes that deal with let’s say, structural integrity of buildings, and flood resistance and loading like— I assume that, well, we got that taken care of, so I’m focusing on other issues. Like, let’s say, on the energy use of a building or something. So for me to take a deep dive into the more basic stuff about the building has been great, and I feel like I have a better idea of, you know—to use an analogy—how the codes are built from the ground up. And I just have a much better idea of some of the history, which is interesting. Like, what was mandated for buildings at different portions of like New York City’s history. And, you know, obviously, there was a point where there was no building code, and they have gone through several major revisions that have changed, changed the requirements, and sometimes the requirements grew stricter and sometimes they grew less strict when it was determined that things were overly onerous than they needed to be. And so learning about that has been interesting. I mean, I was sort of an infrastructure buff already, so it’s not like I was shocked—shocked!—that you know this could happen. You know, it’s like, oh yeah—like, you know, with my experience working with utility, I had some, like, awareness of like the fragility of some of our, you know, electrical infrastructure and the subway and things like that, so.

Q: So how do you think this moment that you guys are involved—this post-Sandy coding sort of legacy moment—how do you think that’s going to play out in New York’s history, coding history?

A: Well, I’d love to answer that question in a year. I mean, there’s the sense that it’s a special moment. I mean, that the attention is really focused on it and people are very concerned about it. Which is true now, and people think it’ll be true long enough to make some real changes, you know, in terms of building resiliency. You know, it’s tough for me to predict—you know, there’s certain things that when they happen seem like they’re game-changers, and six months later, it’s back to normal. And there’s other things like 9/11—I mean, in terms of the building community, like, 9/11, there was a commission, very much like our commission, after 9/11 that made the recommendations for changes to the building code for greater safety for buildings, and those changes were, you know, implemented and enacted and now all buildings implement those changes. And people in the life safety community talk about 9/11 like it was yesterday. And like this very real thing. And even in the common parlance—I mean, 9/11 is still a very real thing and that’s been what? Almost, almost 12 years. So, will Sandy have the same effect? That’s, you know—

Q: I’ll interview you in a year.

A: —that’s really hard to say. You know, I was actually discussing with someone and part of him was like, if we don’t get something else, like, fairly soon—like, people will forget about this.

Q: You mean like another extreme weather event?

A: Yeah, like another extreme event. Like for whatever just like statistically lucky reasons, we go four or five years and, like, don’t get the threat of a summer hurricane or like any hurricane, I think you’ll see the pressure to build back down on the shore, and “why do we have this onerous regulation, it was overreaction.” Because I don’t think that people—I don’t think people are very good at being like, ok, so we’re preparing for the one in a hundred year flood. That means that there’s, you know, a 1% chance of this happening every year. That actually means you could go decades and decades without it happening, and it hasn’t changed the risk. And the risk is worth preparing for because the damage that was done was absolutely enormous. I mean, Sandy alone—50 billion dollars, you know, or more. Whereas if it like happened—you know, like, I feel that people are more— I feel that what happened with Sandy changed people’s perception of what didn’t happen in Irene. I think right after Irene, which you know hit upstate very hard, but didn’t hit the city very hard, people were like, “oh, it’s overreaction, you know.” They didn’t even care what happened upstate, they just thought it didn’t happen here so it seemed like an overreaction. I think after Sandy, people have more the idea of like, “oh, we really dodged a bullet with Irene.” And they start to lump it in to like, yeah we get like major hurricanes like every year. Even though actually Irene wasn’t a major hurricane for this, you know, 350 square miles that is New York City. It got, like, upgraded in people’s mind after Sandy and sort of lumped in. You know you hear people say, “well, first Irene and then Sandy, we really have to be prepared” even though there was no damage from Irene.

Q: Right. Hm, interesting. So, one of our questions is, some people say this is about by climate chance—do you think that this is caused by climate change?

A: Well, you know, as I’m sure you are well aware—you’re so well aware that sort of a leading question. It’s like, you can never attribute any individual event to climate change. Climate change is a change in the trend. So this could’ve happened even if the climate is generally cooling—we could still have had these two hurricanes a year apart. I’m certainly convinced that there’s climate change and I know these hurricanes happened, and I don’t have to be too concerned about the exact connection to care about both of those things.

Q: Do you think that there’s going to be an increased number of extreme weather events in New York?

A: Oh absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. And that was the way we started off the taskforce’s kick-off meeting. We had a meeting in a city council chamber and brought in Cynthia Rosenzweig who’s a noted expert and she like led everything—everyone—through the science and the charts, saying like, “here’s how many hurricanes we have now, here’s how many we’ll have by 2030, here’s how many we’ll have by 2080. Here’s the ocean height now, here’s the ocean height in 2030, here’s the ocean height in 2080. Here’s the number of heat events now, here’s the number in 2030, here’s the number in 2080.” And she makes all these little disclaimers about, like, “no one knows for sure, these are models, of course, you know.” And it’s true, of course you can’t know—these things are all statistical probability. They could never occur but I mean, to those who are in doubt that we’re currently in the midst of a global warming trend, they don’t really know what to say at this point.

Q: How was—how did the people assembled receive her presentation?

A: Very positively. I mean, people were onboard and ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Ok, say, here’s what we have to get working with. I mean, specifically— You know, it’s interesting—like for building resiliency, general rising surface temperatures, it’s like—it’s not really a resiliency issue—it’s not like, oh, so like you know it’s going to be, you know, over 100 degrees like five times a year instead of two times a year. It’s like, ok, well if I design my AC [air conditioning] to handle it twice a year, I can handle it five times a year. This may be an issue for the grid and grid stress, or for our total energy consumption, but it’s not like an issue for the building running out of cooling, you know. And even if you’re like, “no, it’s gonna get hotter, it’s not just going to 105, it’s gonna be 110.” It’s like, yeah, I don’t really need to design a whole different AC system for—it’s not like it was going from 105 to 150 and it’s like going to be— It’s like—so those things don’t necessarily play in. And there’s a bunch of things that are important to be aware of because they happen more frequently but not necessarily at a greater magnitude. So it’s like, well, if you design your building to be flood-proof, it doesn’t matter if the floods come once every fifty years or once every hundred years. If they’re flood-proof, it’s flood-proof– to a certain level. Whereas some things if you change like your design target—like, how fast you think the winds are coming or something like that—that might make a, might make a real change on what you decide. So you sort of have to peel apart all those different risks and look at them separately.

Q: So how do you think this dovetails into PlanNYC? Or does it?

A: Well I think it does. I mean, PlanNYC is a long-term vision for the city and I think that— And again, like for both the Green Codes Task Force, for which Urban Green was the convener, and PlanNYC, I mean resiliency played a part. And in some ways, some of the things we’re doing now on the resiliency taskforce were actually recommendations out of the green codes taskforce that we’re like,” ok, yeah, we should get to those,” and they just got pushed up to the front and said, ok, due to Sandy, there’s the political will and the public interest—let’s do these things now. And they seem more urgent. But I think both these things, you know, in terms of flood zones and what’s going to happen and— You know, there’s lots of stuff already in progress. FEMA was already in the process of like redrawing the flood map—you know there’s all this public outcry because the maps weren’t maps, and it’s like, OK, FEMA was working it. And if the hurricane had held off for another year or two, like, we would’ve had the new maps, without all the sort of angst around them, but this is how it happened.

Q: Cool. So, do you want to ask your–?

Q2: Yeah, so, as far as planning in terms of—you know, there’s different sections of the city where, you know, there’s different classes or races of people that maybe are concentrated in certain areas—how has the committee maybe planned around, you know, the differences in, you know, the cross-sectionality of the city in this regard?

A: Right, right. Well, we’ve worked very hard to make sure that we have owners and operators who represent buildings of sort of different rungs of the ladder, in terms of their economic capability. And so that’s both in public housing, but also market rate and also affordable private housing. I don’t look at it—for me, it’s more on a building-by-building basis. So it’s like, can a given building bear the burden of increased costs, you know? You could have a rich building in a poor neighborhood and a poor building in a rich neighborhood and I’m not looking at zoning issues, I’m looking at building issues. So for me, it’s, “do you represent buildings that have more limited, you know, more limited ability to bear costs.” But yeah, I think that very important. You can’t ask people to do something they can’t afford, you know, in the name of their own future safety.

Q: Do you guys talk about debt at all?

A: Uh, can you be more—?

Q: Debt—like when you guys are talking about the cost of things, do you guys ever talk about debt and debt as a factor in the way things are happening or how things happened—

A: You mean like whether people are currently in debt or whether it’s ok people are incurring debt—

Q: Bebt is coming up a lot in some of our other stakeholder groups, because of the FEMA loan situation for rebuilding and for types of rebuilding and that sort of stuff.

A: Because people are taking FEMA loans post-Sandy and so they’re incurring a debt in order to rebuild?

Q: Yeah, so you can’t get a grant until you’ve gotten [or been turned down for] a loan.

A: Ok.

Q: And so all these FEMA loans are coming through and something that was found in Katrina is all of these homeowners, in particular, were saddled with incredible debt. After eight years, the problem of Katrina was debt, as opposed to other sorts of things.

A; Right, right. So that, yeah—my overlap with that was, interestingly, I went to one meeting that was a round-table of these sort of discussions and it included—the mayor of New Orleans was there as sort of a guest speaker, and people from FEMA, and the New York City office of housing recovery—the guy’s name is escaping me right now. So this was the type of thing that they were really looking into—like, ok, you wan to accomplish better housing, like, how does it get funded? There’s people from EDC and EEC and all these groups. We talked about dealing with it on the taskforce and then sort of shied—you know, so, like, how are we going to finance this stuff? Should we have to— And we actually do have banks in the picture because of the fact that banks finance a lot of the construction side.

Q: So they’re one of your stakeholders’– banks?

A: Yeah. But like homeowner recovery—I mean, like, specifically like, how does FEMA structure its loans and are they fair? It’s like, eh, it’s probably a bit too far for us. It’s not really—it’s no longer a building technical issue, it’s like a financial and political one. And all these things are related, but I think to try to be like, “oh we need to talk about how banks should restructure loans”—it’s like, woah, that’s a whole other set of— So, we’re not dealing with that so much, but I agree it’s important.

Q: Do you have FEMA representatives on your taskforce?

A: Yeah, we don’t have a sitting representative—instead we have like links and we talk on the phone and have meetings. But we’re very closely entwined with SIRR, which works with FEMA, and also OEM—the Office of Emergency Management—which the woman who will be—So FEMA has this team called the MAT—the Mitigation Assessment Team—after each event and so New York City’s point person for the FEMA MAT is on the taskforce, so it’s a pretty strongly bridge there.

Q: Cool. Do you guys ever explicitly talk about race, class or gender in your building meetings?

A: Well I don’t know the extent to which you consider, referring to like market rate housing versus, you know, like, affordable housing—is that sort of getting at some of the same ideas as class or not? So I don’t know exactly what you mean–

Q: If—

A: —but that is something we discuss anyway. That is there’s different types of housing for people at different income levels… And, for those other things, we haven’t tended to discuss them and, you know, I think until we discover like a building-specific overlay, we wouldn’t. But— And, you know, one thing interesting about buildings is their longevity, right? So you have, all over the city, like, buildings built for rich people being lived in by poor people. And actually, buildings built for poor people being lived in by rich people. So from the building perspective, sometimes a building outlasts a neighborhood’s character in terms of those items. Certainly in terms of race—there’s constant ebb and flow in the neighborhoods in the city. And less fast, but still happens, in terms of class changes. I’m not sure about the gender overlay—probably in most neighborhoods have fairly similar gender breakdown. But I think one that you didn’t say but that comes up quite a lot is age and also ability.

Q: Yeah, I was going to ask you about vulnerable populations.

A: Yeah, vulnerable populations—it is a building-specific thing in terms of the elevators, in terms of who needs food and water after an event, how they get in or out. We’re really working very hard to deal with, you know, a lot of the long-term care facilities, you know—senior centers, nursing homes, whatnot. And—yeah, these vulnerable populations where people might not be able to evacuate, they might not be able to get in and out, and these are some of the greatest populations at risk.

Q: Ok. So that’s all. Do you have any questions?

Q2: I guess I’ll just ask. You know, as oppos—I know you said you’ve worked with some other models in the United States. Have you looked at any models internationally—maybe say, you know, something in Europe or in Asia?

A: We have—at least looked at— I did meet with, I guess, a couple of different teams from the Netherlands, and had some academic help a bit up at Columbia doing some code consideration in terms of European codes. The experiments were worthy, the results that tended to come back seemed to indicate that the effort to sort of translate both in terms of language and in terms of concept—like the way they’re doing it—sort of grafted onto what we’re doing is probably not worth the gain, you know. It’s like, “Oh, we’re pretty much doing the same things but with like a totally different way of looking at it. And here’s, like, one thing they’re doing maybe that we’re not.” It’s like, well that doesn’t mean we do things their way. It means we try to think of how that concept might apply to what we’re doing. And there literally were problems like, wow, no one’s ever translate the Dutch, you know, section of the flood code in English or something. Whatever it is, we’d have to, you know—how many months would it take to have a technical translation done? And so— And then also lots of stuff they do is infrastructure-based in terms of the storm barriers and things like that. I think the city at large might be looking very strongly—let’s say the Netherlands or some of the Asian cities—but, like, we’re not dealing with the storm barriers, we’re dealing with buildings.

And, you know, as an example, I went to see a presentation about what they do in the Netherlands, and they actually have buildings that can float—like all of the utilities and stuff or, you know, with flexible wires or there’s a pylon. It’d just float up and down and, like—the thing is that part of the Netherlands, it’s like, it’s sort of actually on a bay—it’s not on direct ocean, so there’s some sheltering. So when the water rises, they get like lots of frequent floods that happen slowly, and we get like very infrequent floods that happen incredibly fast, and, like, their system probably wouldn’t work for New York. And I looked at that and a couple of other things and was like, “eh, what they, no different work, no different work,” and I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know if this is—” There’s like so much to be researched in terms of what FEMA has already put out as like best practices that we need to look at. There’s already been like incredible amounts of research, so like to keep looking for farther possible inputs didn’t seem that fruitful, I guess.

Q: I’m just imagining New York City full of floating buildings and like the bumper-car effect of all of these type buildings. [laughter]

A: Right. And, well of course, as you’re probably aware, like in the Rockaways and Sandy Point, the bumper-car effect—the buildings was— One of the worst effect was people’s porches, you know, floating around and bumping in. And like houses bumping into other houses, and so, you know. And again, this is the type of thing where it’s like, you know, well, new code doesn’t—people are like, “But we have to change codes—these buildings can’t float around.” It’s like, we don’t have to change code. Like, code doesn’t allow that. Those are older buildings. New buildings don’t do that. You have to have—you have to be strapped down. You’re not allowed to—haven’t been for years—been able to build, you know, a home that’s not attached to the foundation in a flood zone.

Q: So what do you do about these older buildings?

A: Well that’s exactly it, you know. So that could be recommending to home owners, here’s things you can do to, you know, improve the situation. That or it could be requiring that they do it. And that’s where the section of the taskforce, where we bring in the cost—costing experts. They want to know, how much does this cost? And so, again, the costs may overweigh the risks—more than maybe things that are very low-cost that are worth doing, you know. But, you know, my feeling is that anything that you’re going to require by law of every homeowner in New York City had better be protecting against, you know, an intense risk that would be very costly if we do nothing and very inexpensive to fix. Because like the range of what counts as a homeowner is incredibly broad and any legislation that’s that broad has to be very well thought out and very, you know, really needed. You can’t just say, “Well, this sounds like a good idea—just make everyone do that!” And all of a sudden, you know, a million homes—or whatever, eight hundred thousand homes—have to be modified in that way.

Q: Hm. So what do you think the relationship between some of these more technical fixes on a building-by-building level and a systemic change in what is considered safe or doable in the face of climate change—what do you think the relationship between those things are?

A: Well, you know, it’s interesting. Again, going back to new and existing buildings—like, we’ll probably choose to make some number of recommendations on how to improve the current building code, like the building code we have now. But I think those would probably be like small tweaks, maybe plug a hole here and there. But like the current building code’s actually pretty good. And so in terms of resiliency—not necessarily climate change—but in terms of resiliency, like, these problems will be fixed through patience. Over time, like, the buildings will turn over as they get rebuilt. No building lasts forever and the codes are good, and eventually all the buildings—or most of them—we’ll build to the new standard and we’ll be find. So it really is, what do you want to do about the existing buildings during their current—current lifetime.

Q: Does that mean that most of the buildings that were the most damaged statistically were probably older buildings?

A: Yeah that is probably true. I don’t— We are hoping to actually, you know, in addition to the anecdotal evidence and stuff, people are still producing their post-Sandy assessments. And we hope to get what’s called “modes of failure” and say, ok, here’s how many buildings had incidents and here’s what the incidents were and like what happened, and you start to put it together. But anecdotal evidence—well, regardless of what happened, in the real world, there’s no doubt that the codes describe a situation that’s much more resilient. So for example, mandating strapping. Now, there’s a gap between what a code says you must do and what happens—there’s a code says you have to be strapped, but is everyone strapping their house down? It’s like, well, I don’t know. So to go out, you know, to go out in the field and say, of the buildings that floated, how many— And keep in mind, people did the right thing before it was code.

Q: Right.

A: So it didn’t have to be made code before—and in fact some people are always doing the right thing before it’s code because you probably just can’t suddenly make a code that like no one’s doing it. I mean, it has to be proved to be cost-effective. So, of the buildings that floated, how many were pre-code unstrapped? How many were, you know, post-code unstrapped, you know? How many were pre-code unstrapped to the strapping wasn’t sufficient, but you know? There—yeah. And so, there’s a lot of questions. But you know—but much of this stuff is not rocket science. I mean, the house is just sitting on a concrete block and it’s sealed up—it’s a wood structure sealed up tight. Like, when the water comes, it will float. To put a couple of straps on there? Ok, let’s look at the costs and see how difficult it is.

Q2: When you’re talking about cost—and particularly, construction of the— If it’s an upgraded construction of the building, whether it’s, you know, some type of, you know, the new construction, what’s done differently with the codes. I’m curious to know how the labor groups you said have been involved in, you know, some of the consulting, how they’ve maybe, you know, influenced or talked to you about—if there’s an overabundance of work, who is doing the work? Whether the work is done locally or if they would be willing to allow outside contractors to come in to, you know, perform some of this work? I mean, has any of that dialogue, you know, surfaced or is it just too early?

A: I mean, I think it’s a good topic for discussion, you know. We know that risks may occur. We know that after the risk will be this need for like, like a lot of work to be done very quickly. Does the need for the work to be done exceed the capability of you know the unionized labor force in New York City to respond? Like, I have no idea the answer to that question, and it’s probably different for different industries. But knowing that it’s a problem means that, like, owners and labors should be working in advance to have a plan, because if you don’t have a plan, then after the event, instead of like putting stuff back together, you may be wrangling about, “All right, are you going to give us an exception to this contract, because it’s an emergency and blah blah blah.” Like, wouldn’t it be better to have that worked out in advance? So… But again, that’s not a building code issue or a specific building issue, that’s like a financial or social, you know, labor relations issue and management issue, so. But I think it’s a great topic for discussion and I think a good part of social resiliency is, like, “Hey expect these things to happen. There are these discontinuous things. They’re not normal day-to-day operations. How do we intend to handle them?” And San—post-Sandy is a good time to sit down and have those discussions because they’re not theoretical for people.

Q: Right.

A: Everyone can sort of picture what that means and like why it would be a good idea to have that discussion. And that’s something, you know, the banks get in the picture and insurance is important—you know, the people that are paying for that to happen. Yeah.

And—and it’s not just a labor issue is the work and the labor –just like, any work, like, if you need work done in a hurry, I mean, you can’t just like say, “Ok, come and do it, don’t worry about the contract. Worry about that later.” You know? You need to have—you need to be ready before someone does work. And if you don’t have those contracts prepared in advance so that people can start work, there’s a delay while you work it out. It could be good to have those things worked out in advance.

Q: So do you think you guys are doing anything particularly interesting or cutting edge in your working group—your taskforce—that we haven’t hit on?

A: That we haven’t hit on… Yeah, you know it’s an interesting thing, like,  you want to encourage outside-of-the-box thinking, and on the other hand, like, much of what the taskforce will propose will, you know, be recommended for application city-wide. It’s not like, you know, it’s not like beta-test stuff. So we could say like, “Well what if, instead of doing it the way everyone—you know, a million buildings—have done it for a hundred years, we do this totally new thing?!” It’s like, yeah, we probably wouldn’t make that code this summer. Like, let’s let a couple of buildings try it. See how it works for a couple of years. So… But all sorts of wild ideas have gotten thrown out there, and I think the most cutting-edge stuff is, you know, some of the things we talked about in terms of, “hey, what are the opportunities in terms of mitigation or resilience overlapping?” We’re actually sort of commissioning separate studies to look at the building science of those issues. So…I think that—that’s— But again, where the results of those studies will take us—sometimes you get negative results and nothing ever comes of it. But I think the study is worthwhile, because I think it’s a good opportunity.

Q: Is there anything that you think we should’ve asked that we didn’t ask?

A: Let me just run through it in my head…[pause] I think one thing that’s—we didn’t really talk about too much– is about, like, social preparation and things like that. Like, you know, New York City already has like a process for what to happen when there’s an emergency—you’ve got the emergency broadcast network and websites and texts and, oh yeah, and blah blah blah. And, like, you know, probably the public response was not as robust as we would’ve liked to see it pre-Sandy, right? Not everyone actually evacuated who probably should’ve. Some of those people died, which is, you know, tragic in the face of a known risk and—you know, how often when we’re going to die do we get noticed in advance that we’re that much at risk? So that’s like—I feel is tragic. But even on a much more mundane thing—like, how many people didn’t bother to fill their bathtub with water or didn’t have a stopper that held the water in the bathtub, so they filled it and it leaked out overnight the first night and then still had four days with no water, you know? And, like—how do we— You know, how many people—like, yeah, so how do you get the word out? How do you get all the—if we have things that like you can’t really make into a code or legislate, but still are good ideas—like, how do you get the word out about that? Like, we try— whether it’s environmentalism, you know, health issues, public health issues, you know, whether it’s AIDS or whatever it is, you know—how do you get people do what’s, what’s healthy for them, you know? It’s like, it’s a big thing. And, like, we’re focused on Sandy right now, but I don’t think that the risk of dying in a hurricane is larger than your risk of dying of AIDS or like pedestrian safety. There are like these million other issues that are—it’s not like this is going to get top billing on every government piece of outreach for the rest of time, you know? So how are we going to get the word out about these things? And then on the building level—like, how do people know, ok, here are the units in the building with people who are elderly or disabled and can’t get out of the building and will need help during an event? Do we need a process for that? Just a best practice? Like how do you—you know? And, I do believe that there’s been some research, which you probably know far more about than me because you’re asking these questions, but either post-Katrina, post-Sandy, other disasters, like the, sort of neighborhood-ness and the knit-ness of the community like has a strong correlation to how well the people fare and how terrible they perceive the event post-event. It’s like, ok, that’s not something that anyone can mandate, you know. There’s a lot of interlocking factors that go into a neighborhood and people go and trust each other.

Q: We mandate you to knit closer.

A: Exactly. [laughter] Exactly. And—and I will say, however, that one of the city agencies on the taskforce is city planning, you know, who is really keeping this thing on track in terms of, you know, in the quest for individual building resiliency, we cannot ignore the things that make New York a vibrant and welcoming place to live. And make our streetscapes welcome, and help neighborhoods knit together. And you could build resilient buildings in terms of power outages and floods by having, you know, gigantic windowless concrete bunkers that, you know, blah blah blah. Like—that’s not what we want, you know? There’s a trade-off there. And—and— I don’t know why this is coming up for me, but I, you know, know an architect who said that it’s very important that sustainable buildings—and maybe I would say resilient buildings—you know, be aesthetically attractive and sort of architecturally pleasing. Because buildings that are sustainable or are resilient when they are maintained and cared for. And people have to like their building and love their building to care for it. And if it doesn’t look nice, it’s not—it won’t be cared for it in the same way, so as a result, good architecture is a part of sustainability, you know. It’s a part of resilience—to sort of draw the analogy. But again, that’s something that could be codified.

Q: Interesting. The beauty scale. Anything else or do you have any questions for us?

A: When are you going to release your first paper?

Q: We have no idea. Yeah, we’re still doing interviews. And especially things with policy-makers—they’re trickling in really slowly.

A: Hm. So who else are you interviewing?

Q: Who else are we interviewing—like, actual people’s names?

A: Well, or general types of people.

Q: So, we have four main types. We have policy actors. So we’re having trouble getting to Bloomberg’s office, but, like, Office of Emergency Response we’ve got all sorts of sort of things on— MTA, we’re getting into a lot of public housing, we’re getting into more of those sorts of guys, and then senators. Stuff like that.

A: I can imagine, like, nineteen of those folks must be terrified to speak on the record. They’ve been under such fire.

Q: Well, yeah. So, we’ve—but there are a lot of like public housing activists who work with NGOs, who work with—

A: Oh, I see, ok.

Q: But I mean mostly—like, yeah. So then—then that’s the second group is NGOs, which is basically what you fall into, NGOs, community groups, a lot of churches. There’s a guy who just does, like, religious sort of leadership and sermons. Actually, sermons are his main source material when he interviews people.

And then another group are first responders—professional and not—so— I mean, include sanitary in that, actually. But also Occupy Sandy. We can’t seem to get into FEMA, but, you know, FEMA-like sort of things that aren’t FEMA. And then our fourth are residents of, who are most affected. And we’re focusing particularly on Coney Island, but not exclusively—also other sorts of places. So those are our main groups.

A: Have you talked to other people on the taskforce?

Q: No. If you have—

A: I was just like, you’re extremely patient with the description of what the taskforce is, you know—

Q: Well, I’m very interested in it. So if you think there are other people that you think we should interview…

A: You can certainly go on our website and see who’s on it.

Q: Ok.

A: So…that may spark some—

Q: And if we can’t get their contact info, can I email you about contact info potentially, and then you can decide what to do with it?

A: Yeah. Yeah, I can definitely email and I’ll check in sort of with Russell and see. I mean, we’ve asked everyone on the taskforce not to speak with the press like until a report was released.

Q: We’re not press? Also—so we are giving everyone the opportunity to redact their transcripts.

A: Right, and that’s why I’m really not worried about it. I’ll sign a thing and you can read my real name and I’ll read through it, and I don’t think I said anything that’s particularly, you know— I mean, I think, again, the most sensitive stuff is about, I think, the mitigation—you know, the climate change mitigation thing, and like, people perceiving— It’s like, “it’s not overlap, it’s—you’re getting cover for the green stuff you wanted to do anyway and using Sandy as an excuse. It’s just going to increase my costs, and is it really necessary,” and– Sometimes there’s a disagreement about the measures proposed and if they’re important, then sometimes it’s just like a cost-sensitivity and sometimes it’s just like a political disagreement about the right way to go about it and our way of being honest actors by melding those things. So that’s the thing where it’s like, ok, well, I really don’t know how that one is going to play out so I don’t necessarily want you to release a thing, like, after we decide not to go forward with it because it was too much of political football.

It’s like, “Cecil Sheib  says we should definitely do this” and it’s like, “I thought we already discussed this?!” It’s like, “Oh I did the interview before,” you know? It’s like—so.

Q: Yeah. Are you guys actually worried about people saying, like, “oh you crazy greenies, you’re taking over because of Sandy?” Like that sort of—

A: Oh, we’ve like had that discussion in the meeting about some of the specific measures. You know, like, specifically about saying like, “Hey, building envelopes should be built to be more energy efficient.” And being told like, “Yeah, you people have been hammering on that one for years, and this is another opportunity, and, like, don’t tell me how to build my building. I don’t believe that, you know, keeping it warm inside for a few extra hours during a power outage is like a major, like, life-safety issue. I think you’re making a Mountain out of a molehill because it’s just what you want to do, and I don’t want it run down my throat.” And it’s like, ok, I disagree with some of the science about the stuff because our studies—our initial studies, not yet finished—really show that it’s not a few extra hours, it’s the difference between the building going to the outside temperature or being able to maintain indoor conditions indefinitely, just from like your body heat and basic passive house level. But that’s far above code, that level of insulation. And it would be expensive. And you can’t just like willy-nilly mandate stuff, you know? So.

Q: Are you guys looking at changing your language at all, like, shying away from—“we’re not going to talk about energy efficient, we’re going to talk about hurricane resilient”?

A: Oh absolutely. Yeah, absolute—well, not that, because energy efficient is still energy efficient. But like, for example, we were going to call it passive survivability, because that’s a term that some people use. And it was just, in terms of like, “Oh passive, people think a certain thing and that’s not exactly what we mean.” So we have to call it, you know, fail-safe, life-safety instead of passive survivability—we mean the same thing, but it doesn’t have a previous meaning. So, yeah, worrying about the optics of it is definitely an issue.

And actually there’s just a lot of things where it’s like, oh yeah, it’s—not even that people have a negative impression, they just have like a wrong impression of using a term they think they already know. You have to sort of constantly be coming up with new terms for things so you can have a chance to define them on your own terms.

Q: Right. Yes, yes. Cool. Great, thank you so much. It was very informative.

A: Hey, you bet. It was a pleasure. Fantastic questions.  I hope I didn’t talk too much.

Q: Uh, it was your job to talk as much as you wanted to.

[end of recording]

Download transcript here.

See Task Force Report here.

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Interview with Occupy Data member working with Occupy Sandy

Interviewee: Member of OccupyData/Occupy Sandy, male, white, early 30’s.  Chose to remain anonymous.
Interviewer: Max Liboiron

Interviewer: Alright, let me start my backup copy. Alright, so if you could start by telling me your experience of Superstorm Sandy?

Man: Sure. So I actually had the flu the whole week. So I wasn’t sort of on the ground helping. My experiences mainly came after it working with data that was collected through canvassing and volunteer data and budget data and all that from four locations: Staten Island, New Jersey, Red Hook, and Rockaways.

Interviewer: Okay. And who’s data?

Man: Occupy Sandy.

Interviewer: Occupy Sandy, okay.

Man: For all four of those.

Interviewer: Okay. Would you say that you’re part of Occupy Sandy or just a data–?

Man: I think broadly now, yeah. Yeah, I mean, so working with the data, I’ve sort of worked with a number of people who were leading up especially some of the data collection. And we met around February. We we’re still kind of following up then. And that’s–I’ve been in close contact with them since then in terms of, like, working with their data, understanding their data, etc.

Interviewer: Okay. And what’s your job in regards to that data? What do you do?

Man: So this was just part of the Occupy Data NYC Yackathon. So we had–we look at all sorts of data sets generated both by Occupy and about Occupy and about Occupy issues. And I think we had heard that there was some interest in working with this data and sort of finding out what was there and how it could be used for the future. And that’s how we kind of came by it. So it was kind of mutual, both the request and also we were interested in trying to analyze and visualize it however possible.

Interviewer: Okay. And does a lot of the Sandy-related–where does a lot of the Sandy-related data come from?

Man: It’s all site-specific. Each site has generated its own data structures and content. And it contains a lot of canvassing data. So a lot of the sites did surveys of structures and people.

Interviewer: Like door to door canvassing?

Man: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. There’s a lot of canvassing data, which is what I sort of headed up with the data thing. There’s also data on volunteers, including their skill sets, their availability, that kind of stuff. There was data on some sites about the budget and about donations that they had received. And then they’re sort of counting for that.

Interviewer: And those are the Occupy budget again?

Man: This is Occupy Sandy.

Interviewer: The Sandy budget.

Man: Hm-mm. And there was also kind of like infrastructure or hub-related information about the number of items that they have of different types and where to send them and where to go and how deliveries are going to made and that sort of stuff. There might also be one or two other sets of data. But those are the major kind of pools that were generated. And almost–I think almost all sites had something in that regard except for the budget. We didn’t have budgets for some of the sites.

Interviewer: Okay. And is the data from all these different sites commensurate? Like can they–are they sets in that they can circulate like sets?

Man: Independently or together?

Interviewer: Together and/or independently.

Man: No. [laughter] The answer is no actually to both. And that’s what we were trying to work to do. So some sites had–actually a lot of sites still had, especially in Jersey, still had paper forms that they hadn’t even entered yet. So we did–we were helping with data entry for that. Rockaway was the same way. And in many cases, even for something like canvassing data, there would be two or three spreadsheets floating around that were not necessarily even the same format. So we’re working to kind of aggregate it. And like the main thing that we’ve gotten done so far is to look–since I was doing the canvassing stuff–to look at every single survey that was given and try to see what are the questions in common. And I can share this list with you. We have about a hundred and fifty questions, I think, that weren’t on every survey but kind of represent, like, a good swath of what was covered. There was some–we also prioritized them. So we think that these questions are–again, this was future-oriented– So we prioritized them in the sense of these are questions that we think that in future cases people should be asking because there’s they’re extremely important and deal with sort of like emergency safety kind of concerns. These are secondary questions that, you know, could be interesting to know that are not as important. And there are a few tertiary questions that we thought were very site-specific or very kind of idiosyncratic to different surveys. But yeah, we’ve been working to kind of pull this together into one…one data set which then we could itemize and release–

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: –professionally so others can work with it.

Interviewer: So when you say future cases, do you mean the next storm or do you mean other uses for the data?

Man: I think–of all other uses for the data—but when we were talking about prioritizing the questions, we had in mind I  think other coastal disaster kind of situations because things–we realized that things like electricity, water, mold would probably be part of any future hurricane or flood or anything like that. So we kind of imagined it in that sense. I didn’t–we had a brief talk about whether this would generalize to sort of all kind of like crisis informatic situations. But we didn’t think that, like in an earthquake or something, it wouldn’t work in quite the same sense. This was more for, sort of, coastal regions.

Interviewer: Okay. So would it be fair to say, if I paraphrase that, that what you guys perceive to be the biggest immediate problem are what you prioritized for, in the–

Man: Uh huh.

Interviewer: Okay. And what was some of the biggest problems?

Man: Things like ‘do you have running water?’ Is anyone injured? Is anyone sort of not able to leave the house and needs immediate attention? We included mold as well because it’s such a sort of a pervasive and long-term kind of thing, but mainly immediate health and safety issues or if somebody needs to be relocated, for example.

Interviewer: And why did you decide on those?

Man: That was really with the site representatives or volunteers. So that was sort of what issues–if you saw this in a canvass, they would say ‘well these are ones that we would say has to be handled immediately.’ So it was kind of based on their practice of response.

Interviewer: Okay, so what they saw in these places–they’d be like oh my gosh! No one has running water. We didn’t even think–

Man: Yeah. In terms of like case resolution, when they would see the canvass data, they would say, okay, this is a priority case that has to be handled as soon as possible. And then other issues could be handled, you know, a bit later. Like if you need to–if you didn’t have mold but you needed to replace drywall or something, like that would be a secondary case that would be handled later because it wasn’t sort of an immediate safety concern.

Interviewer: Okay. And how do you see some of these niche–or does the data even worry about long-term need as we shift from one type of crisis to another type of crisis?

Man: A few of the surveys did ask for some additional information like would you be interested in community organizing? Would you be interested in volunteering? Would you be interested in information about social and economic justice issues? The kind of community-building type questions–those are ones we either flagged either secondary or tertiary because they were kind of tangent to the immediate issue. There were only one or maybe two sites that were kind of asking that type of stuff. There were a few other issues that would come up at specific sites, and actually questions that we kind of redacted like what’s your immigration status, which we thought that that was….

Interviewer: One, illegal.

Man: Yeah, and very problematic. But there were issues that–I think some of those were an adjunct for things like what languages do you speak or what languages do you need to be communicated in, which was a practical question. So–

Interviewer: Or like what kind of vulnerable are you?

Man: Yeah. There were some–there were ranges of the canvasses. Some canvasses were very—more—what would you call it?– objective or quantitative in terms of check off these boxes if you have water damage, mold damage, whatever. Others were very open-ended. And one question that a lot of people in the group really liked was the question what do you perceive as your biggest need right now. So letting the participants self-define what they think is their highest priority and then, you know, go from there.

Interviewer: And do you see any trends with that data?

Man: [laughter] We’re not quite there yet. There’s kind of–there’s temporality issues. So only one site, as far as I can tell, had a very rigorous case and case tracking system involved where they would open up a case for each issue, that they would have multiple follow-ups on that case, and they were able to see all of this in the system. There may have been a second site that I’m still unsure about if they have that. Many of the sites canvassed once. Maybe then they’d go out a week later. But we had trouble kind of establishing the temporality of the data and whether this is a follow-up or whether this is a first survey, that kind of thing. So we’ve had real trouble seeing trends so far, at least historical—like, time trends. We did publish some very basic, like, aggregate numbers about, like, number of diapers given out, number of water bottles given out, that kind of stuff, which was very easy to get. But in terms of canvassing data, we had trouble even just reconciling all of the data formats so far.

Interviewer: When do you think that’s going to happen?

Man: So we’re meeting on Monday actually to kind of–we have something that we think is a unified data set but we’re not sure. [laughter] So we’re meeting on Monday to test it. And then if possible, start visualizing it. So I think this next–this upcoming week is actually kind of a big week for us. We have two events. So I’m hoping that out of sometime in the next month we would have that release. And that’s on our website, which is

Interviewer: Okay. And for the record, today is April eighteenth. For the transcriber and the people reading this later. Occupy data–what was it?

Man: NYC.

Interviewer: NYC.

Man: Dot org.

Interviewer: Dot org. Cool. Great. Okay. Can you talk a little bit about your experience canvassing?

Man: I didn’t get to canvass.

Interviewer: Oh, you didn’t canvass?

Man: No, no, no. This was all–I sort of received it after the fact. I could talk, I think, a little bit about people’s experience canvassing, but that’s all second-hand.

Interviewer: Sure. Then what filtered down to you would be interesting.

Man: Sure. Let me collect my thoughts for a second…[long pause]. I think people found canvassing to be somewhat physically stressful and also emotionally stressful because sort of witnessing that much trauma. But I also think that most people really enjoyed it because they got sort of face-to-face contact with people, and they actually felt like they were helping. My understanding is that several–I don’t know what area this was. I can’t remember. But in many areas, the Occupy Sandy canvassers were the first ones to have any contact with residents there. So they were able to kind of reassure residents that they weren’t alone, that you know someone was there to help them or try to help them a little bit. So having that first point of contact, I think, was also rewarding. And for many people, they said they loved canvassing. We loved talking to people and kind of having that experience, I guess.

Interviewer: Okay. How do you think or did social or mass media play into sort of your experience of Sandy or what you’re doing with data or how you might use data?

Man: Sure. Well that was my main experience of Sandy because I was sort of getting it from behind the scenes. I think that it has informed some of our kind of research interests in the data in terms of to what extent–was Occupy Sandy a first responder or what gaps did it fill? And how did community come together to fill those gaps where government and charitable organizations did not sort of fill those gaps? So I think that has been–to make visible that work has really been our driving interest in this. And you know, I think Sandy–Occupy Sandy has received really good press, I think, from what I’ve read, at least compared to sort of Occupy Wall Street a year before that. But I don’t know that–I can’t say I’ve seen a more detailed account of what that was. It was just sort of like ‘its great that people are coming together and helping.’ You know, Occupy has turned into something that’s working or more possible. Or that’s sort of the media impression I have of it. But we haven’t, again, seen specifics or seen, like, a direct comparison, I think, of Occupy Sandy compared to other groups, which is why we’re interested in that.

And I’m trying to remember from social media my perception at the time. The only thing that comes to mind specifically is the sort of the needs hashtag that had come up that I think was effective at both highlighting needs and also getting people to respond to those needs. And I think I was surprised by the effectiveness of the hashtag in doing that because it’s kind of a–a hashtag can be a pretty blunt tool given that anybody can use it for any purpose that has nothing to do with the hashtag itself. And it’s also very limited in terms of how much data it can contain in a tweet, for example. But I was pretty impressed with how that was able to manage so much of the communication load in a very informal way.

Interviewer: Cool. Did any of that data end up with what you guys are working with?

Man: We have tweet data because we do regularly collect tweet data on a lot of things. We have tweet data on it, and I don’t think we’ve looked at that yet. So thanks for the reminder on that actually. [laughter]

Interviewer: We would also be happy to look at that data with you.

Man: Yeah. Let me see what we have on that. I’m trying to remember what point–at some point–I can’t remember. Maybe it was around December, we made a more concerted effort to try to collect tweets live. When we noticed an issue popping up. And I don’t know where this fell on that or how many we have, whether we have a random sample, whether we have everything, etc. So I can definitely get back to you on what we have about that.

Interviewer: Cool. I was recently at a conference. And these people who are not New Yorkers were looking at Sandy-related tweets in the first three days after the storm, and they couldn’t figure out—they were like ‘And contrary, you know, to expectations and popular belief, there just weren’t a lot of tweets coming out of these affected areas in the days after the storm.’ And I put up my hands and was like, there’s no electricity in those places after the storm!  And they’re like, oh. It’s like yes, local grounding to sort of figure out what’s going on with your data is very useful.

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: They’re like, oh yes.

Man: And that’s something that in a way came up with the canvassing issue, because they had to use paper forms in many instances because there was no other thing available. And there was a lot of discussion of, would we like to see electronic devices used to capture this information digitally so that it wouldn’t have to then be entered. But you know, there was a lot of discussion about that may not be possible and paper seemed–paper was definitely the preferred method because, you know, it didn’t require any of that electricity like the cell or wireless or anything like that. So yeah, that was a really pressing issue. Also, we noticed that people were capturing, like, people’s phone numbers. And we were really curious about whether that was useful or not because, you know, they may not be able to contact them at all. Or some groups maybe have asked what’s your phone number and does your phone work as a follow up, yeah.

Interviewer: Right. I also heard a lot of people who talked about, when they had a clipboard, how it worked as a boundary object that people would gravitate towards them visually because they were– sort of the type of thing they were doing administratively was apparent.

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: So that’s also something that doesn’t happen with like–with a hand-held like a phone because everyone’s got one and it could be a private thing–

Man: Sure.

Interviewer: –as opposed to a public thing.

Man: Sure.

Interviewer: Let’s see here. So a lot of people are making connections between the aftermath of the storm and inequity, particularly in terms of class is very strong, and then race and gender sort of pulling up after that. Sort of what do you think? Is the data talking about that or that side of the data?

Man: No, but I’m working to put it in census blocks, which have demographic information. So that would be a point of comparison. But we’re dealing with sort of, like very, very small geographical segments, like super tiny pieces of the city. So I actually don’t know how sort of rich that data will wind up being.

One thing I will say that we want to kind of follow up with and we’re going to talk about next week is we’ve been reading–we saw a couple of stories about banks that have been buying up properties that were damaged and then turning them at great profits because they’re–

Interviewer: Flipping them.

Man: Yeah, flipping them because they’re beach front properties, etc. And we wanted to talk about is there data out there on that even in the property record that we could obtain and kind of try to visualize as kind of a continuation of this because a lot of the data we have now is six months old. And not that it’s not interesting–it’s more than six months old. Not that it’s uninteresting, but we would like it to be a little bit more sort of future or present oriented at the very least. And certainly I think it can help inform other people what went on. We would like to look at some future-oriented things, and the home flipping thing seems like an ongoing issue and something that will continue for awhile. So we wanted to do something with that.

Interviewer: So are you–is people no longer gathering the raw data from the ground?

Man: Not that I’m aware of. My sense is that it’s much more informal at this point. So the canvassing happened mainly in, like, maybe a two or three week window in November. And that’s where all of that data comes from. And then maybe some of these sites with case files are still doing updates on the case files if they’re still unresolved ones. But my sense is that it’s become much more informal at this point.

Interviewer: Can you define what you guys are meaning when you say case?

Man: Sure. They were–my understanding of it is that it would be a residence. So a case would be– Actually, I’m not sure about that. It could be either geographic or residence and then issues at that residence or it could be a specific issue like this person doesn’t have water, could be the same as this person doesn’t have electricity. But those are two separate cases. I’m not exactly sure. I believe it’s residence-based.

Interviewer: Just like ‘these people and their problems.’

Man: Yes. Yes. And then follow up on that.

Interviewer: Okay. I was talking to another Occupy data person. They said we don’t have data sets; we only have cases.

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: And that was the difference. And I think that’s what you were talking about.

Man: I think we’re talking about the same person.

Interviewer: Yeah, it’s not standardized enough to be…to be data sets at this point.

Man: Sure.

Interviewer: Okay. Can you–it seems like, when you were talking about the house flipping data, that you were making this point latently but I want to see if it’s explicit, a connection between data and activism or like data visualization and activism may be in particular. Can you talk about that relationship a bit more?

Man: Yeah. I think it’s–I think visualization is important for raising awareness of many of these issues, and because it makes things that are hard to see or often invisible patterns visible. And it makes them more concrete and able to understand. I think it brings awareness to a much wider audience with that. In some cases, I think it also has more actionable capacities to it. Actually, you know, it’s able to identify specific locations or very specific things sort of analytically that you can target to make an impact. So I think it can be used both on the general sort of consciousness-raising sense but also in the planning sense in terms of what…what to pursue. So if we find, for example, if there’s one particular area that house flipping is sort of rampant in, that could be an area that people might want to do a direct action in. But if it’s a much more distributed geographical issue, then maybe that requires a different approach. But at this point, we don’t really know what that is, but I think visualization can give, some, you know, an understanding to that.

Interviewer: How are you hoping to circulate the visualizations? Or is that even on–?

Man:  So it’ll be–yeah, it’ll be web-based, first of all. At minimum, it will be up on our website. We do distribute through social media. We distributed through some listservs. I was pleased to see that we got a mention in The [New York] Times a few weeks ago. There was an article about Bloomberg’s geek squad, which is about his sort of data miners within the Mayor’s Office. But then, later in the article, someone pointed out to me, it said ‘oh, and there’s a lot of civic hactivism going on and Occupy Data recently convened and started to work with Sandy data.’ So I think that there is some interest in the press about this. So I think we would want to approach them as well as kind of a mass media tool. But I think that since we’re primarily working with the individual Occupy Sandy offshoots that they can be a good broadcaster of their own data. In some ways we’re just kind of facilitating work for them. I don’t think–I don’t see our work as totally independent of them. And I think it’s–we’re just helping them with this one piece of it, and so helping with other pieces of their projects.

Interviewer: You just mentioned the word “hactivism.” Do you guys consider yourselves hactivists?

Man: We hold hackathons. Yeah. So yeah, and we’re actually having a yackathon next Saturday, the twenty-fifth, I believe, to in part discuss issues like ‘what is hactivism.’ Some people talk about ‘civic hacking,’ which seems to have a base, which some would say is apolitical. So we would like to discuss issues like that and see what, you know, people think about that. So I think the yackathon is both to present some of our work and talk about it, but also to discuss some of the bigger issues here about the questions that you raised.

Interviewer: Is it open to the public?

Man: Oh, absolutely. It’s at The New School. And it’s actually listed on our website. I want to say it’s around noon or two. I forget what the start time is.

Interviewer: Cool. I will try and be there.

Man: Great.

Interviewer: So we have a bunch of questions too about climate change.

Man: Okay.

Interviewer: I assume–maybe this is a horrible assumption that you’re on board with climate change; you’re not a denier.

Man: I’m not on board with it, but I’m aware of it. I do not support climate change,[laughter] but yes, I’m aware of it.

Interviewer: Excellent. We have a special sort of set of phrasing questions for people who are deniers but I assume that Occupy Sandy people in general aren’t, so.

Man: Agreed.

Interviewer: Okay. So how–so I’m interested, again, how the data relates to this. Does your data at all interface with climate change-nish like adaptation or mitigation or–like you’re talking about future…future-leaning data, right? And if you are on board with climate change, then you assume this will happen again, right? That’s implicit in some of what you were talking about.

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: So is there anything that’s climate change-ish about what you’re working on?

Man: Other than the cause of the situation, obviously. I think–the way that I’m thinking most immediately about this is to look more at the data structures. So I think to think of this in sort of ethnographic way and think about how people came up with the data structures and what the data structures did for them and how it facilitated their needs and their work around these issues. So it’s kind of like a meta-analysis of the data and more about the data, again, the data architecture more than the data content itself. I don’t know what in the content would directly answer or directly address some of the climate change issues. And I don’t think that came up on any of the canvasses, which is also an interesting thing to consider for the future too, to ask people, or to engage that discussion with people around it. But I think—I’m–we’re all interested in not only the data itself but the process that we came to all of this with. And I think that the idea is not to have kind of like a centralized system for activism, certainly not. It’s more to, I think at best, to provide a kind of best practices guide in the same–I’ve talked about this in the same way that there are, like, street medic guides or other kind of guides that orient people to some of these issues. I think there could be serious work on some data guides that explain kind of how to set up these things or what kind of principles to consider when you’re, when you’re developing these kind of systems. So I think understanding how the systems were built and maybe talking more to the people who built them. And how those decisions got made if they were intentional at all would be really interesting, and I think revelatory for what we can do in the future and what might arise in the future, and how we can maybe learn from this and improve for the next time.

Interviewer: Do you have the names of some of the people who are on the ground making this, because I would love to go and ask them those questions?

Man: I have them somewhere.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: I think you’ve talked to one who seems–who I think is probably the most data-savvy and also on the ground, fully in both senses.

Interviewer: Is that Nate?

Man: No.

Interviewer: Okay. I haven’t talked to anyone else yet.

Man: Okay. Okay.

Interviewer: I have things set up but I haven’t spoken to them.

Man: Okay.

Interviewer: Okay. I want to go back to this data structure issue.

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: Can we talk a little bit more about what you’re thinking or discovering or sort of–yeah, about these data structures?

Man: We started off very generally just asking everyone–and we had almost every–all the sites represented. There was–maybe New Jersey wasn’t but we have their canvassing. And we started off and just said ‘what kind of data do you have?’ And we just threw everything up on a board and then actually quite quickly it clustered into those five or six categories I talked about: canvassing data, volunteers, budget, distribution, and maybe some other kind of hub information. So it seems to me that that’s some evidence that whenever this happens in the future, there’s going to be these kind of data structures. Given that, we can start to think about how they should relate to each other, what kinds of data have other people found useful that you might also find useful, are there particular tools we can recommend to build some of these things. I think it would be great if the data was inter-operable, meaning the sites could communicate with each other and their data. I think that would be good for both sending volunteers around, for sending materials around. But that…that strikes me as quite a ways off, that there’s a lot more kind of people-oriented discussions that have to happen first before we start even thinking about data inter-operability. But I think that even if that last part didn’t happen, the earlier steps would get us so much further than we were coming into this where we had multiple spreadsheets all over, very inconsistent formats even within a site. And I think we’re also kind of responding to a problem within sites where people say ‘our data’s just a mess. Like we don’t know what to do with our data. It’s very hard. We’re working very hard to manage this and to make good use of it, and to respond to these issues as soon as possible. But we’re doing a good job with it, but we think we could do better,’ because it’s just a huge undertaking and a huge amount of work and huge complexities in it.

Interviewer: Do you think–this is, a I don’t know, a provocative question. Do you think there’s such a thing or a genre of data or data structures called, like, disaster data, that it would be different from other–

Man: I’m starting to think that. And I’m actually–a colleague was talking to me about what’s called “crisis informatics,” which is in part looking at data and community relations around crises. And we started to think about how people in our profession could maybe help with that a little bit more and help give what we know about data and what we know about data management really, to sort of lend to that. So yeah, I think that there are–I think that’s what we saw when we looked at all the canvasses, that there really were kind of reoccurring questions or reoccurring categories of questions, and that those would be useful again in the future. Again, I can see it shifting a bit if you’re talking about kind of a coastal issue or an inland issue. But beyond that, I think that most of the things we saw would be useful in the future. There would be a kind of disaster information structure, yeah.

Interviewer: Do you think–maybe another–just based on what you’ve already said, another characterization of disaster data might be this binge and purge of getting data, compared–and then also this intense localization that needs to maybe not be local but is anyway because of how data gets gathered.

Man: Yeah, I think that there–I think it ultimately falls to a few people on the site who are willing to sort of mine over it and handle it in whatever way they can. And we saw some people were–some people were running reports and making maps even of sites that needed immediate attention. Other people were color-coding things. Everybody has their own kind of process for managing it, but it gets managed no matter what. I think it would–I think that it would be–I think that in general, in the public, there’s not quite an awareness that data plays in getting people and things where they need to be in general. So I think that may be an unforeseen thing that is part of any of this. And if it becomes more of a foreseen thing, then people like me and other people who work with data–I think we would be able to sort of help out as much as possible with that at a local level. And I think that that–that might be all that there needs to be. I think some people definitely came into–with bigger ideas about kind of a centralized system for doing this or a software even or a code-based kind of thing for doing that. And that runs into a lot of issues because you have different information literacies in these groups. Some people, you know, are comfortable with some level of database work but others, you know, don’t feel comfortable beyond something like Microsoft Excel. So coming up with a standard system is extremely hard then because it’s likely you’re not going to be able to reach all of those things, which is why I think that guidelines or even just an awareness of this problem, which would then lead you to seek out people who can help with the problem, would be a more practical approach, frankly.

Interviewer: Hmm. And so that’s why you’re advocating this sort of like best practice guide as opposed to a kit, a software kit or something like that.

Man: Yeah, yeah. I think–and again I think I’m modeling that on some of the success of things like the street medic guides. It doesn’t–you know, often you need to receive physical training to work with that. But you can also read the guide, for example, and get a base level of information from it. And I think that that’s powerful. And it certainly raises your awareness of the issues behind it because I think most of the guides that I’ve seen stress more things like principles or background kind of values or decision-making processes–and then yes, you’ll have a specific list of ‘check for these things or do these things,’ but really if you learn the background principles, you know, you’re probably okay in terms of making decisions. I’d like to see something similar in the data realm. It’s just extremely hard because data’s also so new that we, even we don’t know everything that’s going on with it. And it’s constantly evolving, so it’s hard to freeze it at the moment and kind of try to come up with practices. But that would be the ideal, I think, in my view, at least for the moment.

Interviewer: And beyond the sort of categorization of distribution, all that sort of stuff that you mentioned before, what might some of these principles be? Or which ones would you like to be in there?

Man: I think a simple one would be something like making sure your data is cut up in ways that’s filterable in the ways that you want. So if you know that you need to find out which houses have mold, you need a question that’s ‘does your house have mold, yes/no?’ Some of the surveys we saw were very free response kind of things or in the comments, they would provide actually some of the more emergency contact information, which someone may or may not see. So it’s not really on the canvassers to kind of, you know, make up those structures; it’s really on whoever’s making the form or whoever is sort of training or coordinating the canvassers to be thinking about that. So just thinking that, you know, what are the ultimate actions you’re going to need to take on this data and making sure that the questions or the way that you ask the questions or code the questions gets put into that format, I think, is crucial.

Interviewer: It’s interesting that didn’t occur to people.

Man: It did to many but, again, there were some sites that were just, ‘do you have any damage?’ And then you’d get a free response of ‘water damage, mold, whatever.’ And I don’t even know–I couldn’t even say what the paper canvassing said. The person entering data seemed–my guess would be, just looking at it and understanding how people do data entry, is people would kind of roughly standardize it. So they’d see ‘water damage’. And then if you were entering the forms for that day, you would always write “water damage” or always write “mold damage.” But somebody else might say “no hot water” or “some mold.” Right? So–and you can see kind of–I was able to see some patterns or clusters of that kind of stuff, which to me suggests that the people entering the data were thinking in the direction of how do I make this clean and standard, etc, but there wasn’t enough coordination even in the spreadsheet format with columns, for example, to let that happen enough. So I think people are roughly aware of actually the–some of the issues but may not know, from a technical standpoint, the best way to solve them, or may not be empowered to do that, because they may just be handed a spreadsheet that’s already set up in a certain way and they have to just work within that.

Interviewer: Right. Yeah, there is a bunch of literature about how when someone’s given a standard system and they’re confronted with a situation that is not standard, how they basically gerry-rig the form with, like, little things on the side or they’re not–or skipping certain questions or something like that to make it conform and make it more useful, but then how that gets taken back by the standardized system is super difficult, right?

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. Interesting. Okay. Let’s see here. How do you think your experience of this storm might be different from other people’s experience of the storm?

Man: [long pause]. Well again, I was not–I and my property were not directly affected by it, which I think is the most important difference to note. But also, I think–I had talked to some people who volunteered, not with Occupy Sandy but maybe with Red Cross or some other organization, and were extremely frustrated because they…they felt that all of the response was massively disorganized and were very frustrated that they had, say, food rotting on their shelves when other locations needed it. And why can’t–you know, why can’t they just know that it needs to go over here? And seeing some of the data from just one slice of the response and knowing that even if the slices–you know, there was Red Cross, FEMA, Occupy Sandy, etc. Even if they had their own data internally consistent, it still wouldn’t play together. [laughs] I’m like, that’s–I’m surprised it worked as well as it did. Like I’m actually…I’m actually, you know, amazed at how well the response went and how nimble it sort of was considering, you know, considering the situation. So I think I have a little bit of a different, more of a top-level view of it. And I’m a little bit more forgiving of, sort of, on the ground frustrations because seeing the top-level architecture of it, which again was quite good under the circumstances, but still very difficult to work with and very hard to communicate, very lack of communication channels, I think, between these things. I’m actually surprised how well it went. And I’m much more forgiving of some of the on the ground frustrations.

Interviewer: What do you think accounted for some of the nimbleness?

Man: I think the local organization, frankly. The fact that I think people had sort of just face to face communication and were able to make decisions sort of on the spot and didn’t have to kind of contact a hierarchy or anything like that, were able to just see a problem and respond to it or see a–not a specific problem, like a particular house, but just a general problem about how are we going to get water for these people, and were able to kind of come up with a plan on the spot and do something. So I actually think the local organization is extremely important, in my view.

Interviewer: When you say local organization, you mean?

Man: Each site being able to sort of run itself.

Interviewer: Okay. So like Occupy Sandy as opposed to FEMA or–?

Man: Yeah. Not that I know much about how FEMA works, but I assume that there is much more of a hierarchy there and much more of a protocol and a bureaucracy there. I did hear also about a lot of–from a policy standpoint, for a minute, things like–so we had Hurricane Sandy, and then we had the nor’easter. So I heard stories about, like, Red Cross coming in for a day, setting up shop and then having to withdraw because the nor’easter was coming. And I assume their policies prevent them from being out in the field under certain conditions. And I think that was very disheartening for the residents and also, you know, created this space also where sort of Occupy Sandy or activists had to step in to kind of make up for that deficit. And I think we weren’t bounded by some of those policies. So I think sort of the autonomism of it, letting individuals choose whether they wish to go out and canvass, you know, under these conditions, I think, has a lot of benefit to it if people are–obviously if people are willing to do it, whereas some of the structured ones, for legal reasons, wouldn’t allow them to do so.

Interviewer: Yeah. I remember the photograph of the door that said “FEMA closed due to weather” because it, like, circulated like crazy. Like it was everywhere. You didn’t even have to criticize it; it was just self-evident. Did you join Occupyness because of Sandy and Data or were you already part of that network?

Man: Yeah, I was already part of it.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: Okay. And then, the last main question is when do you think the sort of crisis is over? Like when do you think recovery has happened or is happening?

Man: I think it’s deeply connected to the economic issues. So my answer is actually not never but quite a long time, until those deeper issues get resolved, because I think–you know, I talked to other…I talked to other people who have families in the area, for example, who’s families have stayed during the storm. And you know, I think an initial question is why did they stay? Why didn’t they leave? And they said, well you know, they’re too worried about looting after a storm and this is all they have. So they don’t want to leave it. And I think that underscores some of the structural inequality issues that lead to that mindset and create that situation. And those, you know, are exacerbated by the storm and don’t go away when the storm goes away. And even if the immediate kind of property damage issues are resolved, which in some cases I think they’re still not resolved, those deeper issues remain. And it’s still an extremely vulnerable area. So you know, I think it’s quite a long time before the aftermath of that is over. I think my big concern is that we’re now in a time when this is the first of what will be many occurring incidences. And I think this is obviously part of why you’re doing your research too. And that concerns me a lot because I don’t see it getting better any time soon, frankly.

Interviewer: So what you said maps on really well onto what a lot of Sandy and other activist organizations are saying, is that the crisis is ongoing and the storm is a punctuation mark on a longer crisis that happened before the storm and continues to happen.

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: And so what’s interesting to me is that it sounds like you have fairly specifically storm data as opposed to crisis [data]–

Man: That’s right.

Interviewer: So like how are you thinking–or do you even think about how to reconcile those two things?

Man: I love the–I actually–I love the kind of canvassing idea. I think it’s a really powerful tool because it puts people on the ground. It gets them talking to people in the neighborhoods. It brings out issues that maybe we didn’t see or didn’t know about or didn’t have documentation of before and then can broadcast. And so I would actually be curious to see if that canvassing model can be generalized for several other purposes, both in these areas and in other areas. And I mean frankly, at the moment, the only one who’s ever–the only time–pretty much the only time this ever happens is with census data, maybe with some polling where someone comes and asks you what you think. But that’s in a very, very narrow, very narrow sense and very insensitive to different situations and geographic locations because it’s completely standardized across the board. So I would be interested—as in generally like with the data guide, can we talk about the value of canvassing or–I don’t know if that’s the right word but the value of canvassing or outreach, if you want to call it that, or data collection. And use it for a number of other issues in other areas as well.

Interviewer: Do you think there’s any plans for that right now? Or is that something you just thought of?

Man: I–it’s not something I just thought of. It’s something that I thought of about why would we need a guide. And I thought the guide would be bigger than just sort of this crisis management or storm disaster recovery. But I think it’s a way of thinking about doing activism that kind of we have to put out there. So I think it would have to be a much bigger process and a much bigger conversation with lots of groups before it really caught on.

Interviewer: Hmm. I like the idea of data canvassing and collection as a new form of activism. It’s not something that I’ve heard sort of out there very much.

Man: Yeah. I mean it strikes me as, you know, in some sense as governmental but not in a creepy sense or a bad sense of governmental [laughter]. Because, you know, a lot of the government data is used for planning or is used for action. And I think that’s the intent of things like census, right? But it doesn’t address important and specific issues enough. And I think it’s not–I don’t think we always have to throw out the entire mechanism. I think there are good parts to the mechanism. We should keep them and use them for ways that we want. So I can see real uses for having that kind of model. And then, you know, rather than having a constuct–again, rather than have a constructed notion of what people need or what the situation is, going and asking them what’s happening and getting out that–their self-understanding of the issue, I think, would be valuable in itself.

Interviewer: It sounds like that would be the difference between the creepy government mentality–like top-down versus bottom-up data creation.

Man: That’s part of it.

Interviewer: Yeah. Have you read “Seeing Like a State,” by Scott–

Man: No, I haven’t actually.

Interviewer: It’s about that sort of thing where one of the sort of tools of state-craft is to get data, but get it in a way that’s legible to the accounting systems of government. So like taxes, real estate, deaths. And so it’s like a systematic simplifying of thing–of complexity–so that it calculates, into the things that the government is already interested in. And it sounds like what you’re saying is, like, yeah that, no. We want messier–we want to deal with the messier sort of stuff and figure out where the mess is. Alright, well that’s all of the questions that I have for you. Is there something that I didn’t ask that I should have asked?

Man: Not that I can think of.

Interviewer: Great. Do you have any questions for me?

Man: Well, I do want to know more about what the lab’s doing, where it’s going. I’m very curious about it.

Interviewer: So we are–I mean–

Man: How did you start? How long have you been working? That kind of stuff, yeah.

Interviewer: So we started partially as a call from the Institute for Public Knowledge for funding about Sandy. And it was basically a couple of people who were really invested in climate change. And basically one guy’s investigating climate change and me because I invested in research activism as a model for doing research. He was like hey, this is an opportunity to do something –to make those things come together really seamlessly. And so we recruited a bunch of our, basically, friends, people that we knew. Almost all of them are sociology graduate students. And then there’s me, which is not. And then, like, now we have a couple of other people as well. And they came together and applied for this grant, and through the course of doing things realized that through either living in coops or being part of Occupy or other sort of things, that we all knew process. We all knew how to do distributive decision-making. We all knew how to do facilitation in a non-hierarchical way. And we we’re like this is clearly a chance to do something different as far as how research goes. So we decided to become a mutual aid research collector. We did a little bit of reorganizing to make sure that the people that were in the group–that was their value system–

Man: Sure.

Interviewer: –which involved some slightly unpleasant maneuvering at the beginning. But now it’s amazing. Like I love going to work on Mondays being like, hey guys, what do we think about distributive authorship today? And that’s what we talk about. And so right now we’re still basically in data collection. A good two-thirds of the people involved are still doing coursework. Right, they’re at that stage in their graduate work. And then I’m like a post-doc, so I can basically do what I want whenever I want with whatever money. And so we’re sort of doing a lot of maintenance work, laying a lot of ground work, getting a lot of structure in there while we’re gathering data. And then starting in the summer, we’re just going to–we’re going to do the analysis sort of part of it. We’ve already done some analysis and actually got an environmental justice award for it—for doing sort of what you’re talking about, making certain things legible that aren’t legible because as far as we can tell, we’re one of the only groups doing not community-based research but cross-stakeholder research, which is actually pretty rare for activists to do, right? Most activists–like the model for activist research is to do community-based research and basically advocate on behalf of a very specific set of people. We can’t do that if we’re talking to the Mayor and to Coney Island residents, right? So it’s really interesting that way. We hold–have held, and continue to hold what we call “salons.” I don’t really like that name because it’s very French and frou frou, but I don’t know. We’re–like people like you and other people we get together and are like, hey, what are your guys’–what’s going on?

Man: Okay.

Interviewer: And the last one we did was extremely academic. And we want to move away from that. Like it turned out a lot of activists were also graduate students. And it turned out all of us except for one had a university affiliation. We were like, uh, okay, let’s try this again. We’re looking at publishing Op Ed pieces, laypeople pieces as well as academic papers and books. We’re looking at putting together symposiums. We’re very invested in mentorships. We have undergraduates that we work with now who have internships that are actually just full-blown memberships, right? So they’re learning all these techniques. So we’re also trying to change, like, the material things that are going on in the world with our research. We’re going to do a white paper for the government because it looks like the government is saying ‘we did a really good job. We just have to do a little bit more a little bit faster next time.’ We’re like ‘no, structurally we think there were things wrong and there’s what they are’. And here’s the fundamental difference between the grassroots and the government response and how they don’t have to be grassroots and government responses if–because they–I mean they will be, but you can blur those lines a bit for better effect. Yeah, so that’s sort of what we’re up to. We have a very open–oh right, so we’re looking at sort of changing the materiality of structures on the ground for New York City, but also in academia, right, changing what it looks like to do research with actually robust mentorships/internships where they get paid as much as we get paid and distribute–like applying for grants as a group and then distributing those according to needs. And kind of like a socialist grant–

Man: That’s great.

Interviewer: –making or something like that. So it’s going really well. And it’s really exciting. And we are hoping to produce papers about how we operate as a group as well as a sort of best practices guide for activist research.

Man: Yeah, because you’re putting forth a new model of a collective really, of how this works.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: It’s really interesting.

Interviewer: Because the only other way that I’ve seen is community-based research, participatory action research, where it’s like the messiah and his or her community, and the messiah is a very facilitated model, non-hierarchical but it’s still that model. And I haven’t seen anything being like no, community-based is not the only form. And that’s exciting. So yeah, that’s what we’re up to.

Man: That’s great.

Interviewer: And we’re going to be up to it for at least a couple of more years because that’s what we have funding for, so.

Man: Okay, great.

Interviewer: Yeah. So I’ll keep you–let me turn this off now.

Man: Sure.

End of recording

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Interview with Devin Balkind, Sarapis & Occupy Sandy

Interview with Devin Balkind, Sarapis Non-profit, April 29, 2013.
Interiewer: Max Liboiron, Superstorm Research Lab

Q: So sorry. Could you start a little bit again and start with again your name and your affiliation.

A: Sure. So Devin Balkind, of Sarapis, which is a non-profit that advances the free libre open source.

Q: Free what and open source?

A: Libre. Free libre open source. I mean all, it all gets real political.

Q: Okay.

A: So, you know you want to cover all the bases. Technology solutions—technology in a broad sense. I first got involved in the Sandy effort actually through Occupy Sandy and because of my previous affiliations or work with Occupy Wall Street and the kind of the work that we had done there developed into the tech infrastructure that got utilized by the Occupy Sandy effort, you know, to a pretty significant extent. And that’s, and that was kind of, that’s what got me into it.

Q: Okay. What infrastructure was that?

A: The website, the constituent relationship management database, and you know, then like, all the kind of peripheral stuff, so lists—lists that—the whole set of stuff. And that kind of by nature gets used by the community. The website was up very fast, because it was an inter-Occupy network multi-site, a WordPress multisite, so you can just one click. One click, create a new one. And the CRM was the same.

Q: This CiviCRM?

A: CiviCRM. Yeah.

Q: Yeah.

A: So we had a bunch of those in general lying around in various states of development over since, since OWS started. So that was the inter-Occupy one.

Q: So what was your experience of, of Sandy like from your perspective?

A: Well I mean in the early days it was the frenzy. The frenzy was cool. The frenzy was very much an effort in the earliest days to get people using the same spreadsheets. There was like a proliferation of Google Docs to manage information and like, bring those slowly together into fewer and fewer Google Docs—was critical [laughter]. And the social media work, which was not something I was involved in, was just kind of consistently bringing the frenzy—consistently like, bringing the frenzy around.

So in those early days it was like, the frenzy was then getting added into the CRM system. Because when people would come, they would fill out the volunteer, the online volunteer form when they got there, articulating their skills and their interests, and like what they have—like I have a car, I want to help out in Brooklyn, and Thursdays are good for me. So we got a really tremendous amount of highly valuable data into the database, that we then used kind of during that time, but during that time it wasn’t as necessary to kind of do these mailings, these targeted mailings to various segmentations of these lists.

And then, so then the kind of the middle phase was much more—those types of mailings; getting the website into improving the website and its capabilities to do the mapping right. And I mean, it was, it was all just—it was a shit show. [Laughter] It was a consistent shit show. And one of the amazing things was that, something in the middle phase, we started early. I started going more to these voluntary organizational and disaster group meetings, these VOADs. And they had a data committee, and so I got to kind of see the internals of how the voluntary organizations, which are very much not like the city, manage their information. And, and I thought we were disorganized and they were—they still are –just pretty pre-disorganized [laughter]. They haven’t hit the level of disorganized yet.

And it was pretty frightening, because a lot of—because a disaster takes place and an inevitable outcome is that a lot of organizations that don’t normally communicate with each other are going to communicate with each other, which is abide by the nature of a disaster. It’s not like “oh this disaster that happened and that disaster that doesn’t happen.” It’s like by nature disaster, it’s like how are you exchanging data, how are you exchanging information. And that, that conversation hadn’t really taken place within the—hasn’t really been taken place within the VOAD community.

The city is a whole other animal. The city is a—it’s hard to describe them as anything but nefarious in the way that they—not only hold their information, and make it inaccessible, but also lead people astray, lead groups astray. I’ve been pitching this article to journalists and I’ll send you my pitch. It’s actually kind of a long pitch about how the city in the early days was like, “Oh, we’re going to get up the system that you’ll all be able to use. It’s this collaborative—it’s this work order system so we can all see what houses were hit and what status they are in terms of their being repaired, their mold, etcetera. And just, the system never– Like, “Oh it’s coming. It’s coming soon. It’s coming soon. Like next week. In two weeks.” And never came. It never came. Meanwhile, the group that did that was supposed to put that together got like a half million dollars from the Robinhood Foundation. It’s like, why. Another part of that is that the National Guard did like a massive canvass of the Rockaways, and probably I was more interested in the Rockaways at that point and now I’m more interested in Staten Island, but they—all their data went through the same group, this Global Dirt Group.

Q: Oh, what group?

A: Group’s called Global Dirt.

Q: Global Dirt.

A: D—yeah. Global D-I-R-T. Have you heard of them?

Q: Yeah, I have. Yeah.

A: Yeah, so like no, no software support for the volunteer organization community now, so they also disappeared, this first level, this first round of a canvassing data. I haven’t seen it. I haven’t talked to anyone that’s seen it. Maybe you can find someone whose seen it.

Q: The people who—

A: And report back to me [laughs].

Q: So who, who collected it? The Global Dirt people?

A: Well, the National Guard collected it.

Q: Okay.

A: On tablets provided to them, is my understanding, provided to them by the National—provided by Global Dirt which, went into their global Dirt database, which could’ve been a CiviCRM [laughs]. Let’s be real. This stuff’s not that complicated. And then no one’s seen it; people in the city, city government hadn’t seen it and had been talking about how they hadn’t seen it. The Red Cross—the people in the Red Cross who are in the data committee and other people in the Red Cross hadn’t seen it. No one I’ve talked to have seen it—and I was in the data committee for a few months, so I don’t know where this information is. That was the most critical information for the voluntary organizations, disasters groups, and groups like community groups and groups like Occupy Sandy to be able to do the triage. And it just got taken and lifted. And then, once you canvass someone once, you know, it gets harder and increasingly harder to canvass—get good information out of them. So like the amount of damage that that canvass with the information that was disappearing had is, it was highly significant, but I try to explain this to journalists and they’re like, “When you say data, what does that mean?’ And it’s like, okay. It’s not going to happen. So yeah. So it’s all very frustrating. Other things that are frustrating, should I just start talking about them too? Are you even enjoying this?

Q: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

A: Other things that are frustrating are that there’s no—that the amount of support—so, during this mid-period, this middle period of time, the community groups, the non-profits that were acted in the disaster—most of them not VOADs but some of them are VOADs, organized locally, kind of facilitated by FEMA, loosely facilitated by FEMA into these long-term recovery organizations or long-term recovery groups LTROs, LTRGs, whatever. And then those groups kind of become their own non-profits, and the Lawyers’ Alliance has been good about how like helping these coalition groups kind of get their 5013-C status applications in, etcetera. So these LTRO groups are here—ya know I, I’m active in the Staten Island one. And there’s no, there’s no help for them. The millions and millions of dollars have been raised—billions of dollars have been allocated for Sandy relief, meanwhile you actually have community groups who know, who are actually doing the work of relief in their communities. And, and yeah, everyone’s somehow powerless to fund them. So what I do and my organization of a few people does, or we’re being to do more is just providing tech support to these groups, making sure that they’re using the right data management practices and they’re using databases and publishing, you know, and know how to use their WordPress websites and publish to the calendar and things like that. You know, because these groups need tech support.

So that’s kind of where we are—that’s kind of where we are now, and we’re also—one of the other things that we did in the beginning of the Sandy experience was we started talking to the Sahana Foundation, which produces these python based disaster management, open source disaster management solutions, which are really quite large and extensive and pretty amazing. And if I could do it all again, I would’ve—you know, knowing that these solutions exist to like these could be like extremely useful for everybody—any group that, or any large coalition, regional disaster group to have access to have people configured, have people trained, and because you can really l do just a lot of everything on it. Primarily though it’s good at logistics and good at mapping and it’s got built into the logistics you need to warehouse, to manage inventory, share that inventory, share that information about inventory, manage assets, share assets, log where assets are, etcetera. So this solution is now — we kind of—I was—I really tried to get it used by Occupy Sandy in the frenzy phase, and it was not—I mean it was used a bit, but it wasn’t, you know, we weren’t organized to be able to use a solution like that. And now—

Q: What, what do you mean not organized to use that?

A: Just because, you know the fields were different. The fields were not, you know for these organic grassrootsy things, you’ve got to just take what people have done and—and kind of support that. And bringing in some alternative solution that needs a bunch of training isn’t what I would recommend in general. But it would’ve been great. [Laughs] It would’ve been great if we had that turn key on day 1, it would’ve been—we would’ve—all of our data would’ve been very well managed right now and our data would be so much better managed than any of the other organizations. It would’ve been quite a coup. But now the need is still there, and it’s so frustrating to see how the warehouses that exist now that are still trafficking and that are still moving supplies from place to place don’t have inventory solutions. And so we have the Sahana system that we need to move into one more round of implement—one more round of customizations to make it stupid-easy for the, these warehousers that these LTROs, some of the LTROs manage, some other organizations manage, do connections and do the work for the stuff and like and meet the reporting requirements. Meanwhile, the group—where’s the money? What, what, I don’t understand what, what all this other stuff is that, is getting all this money, and how, how I can, and of the people I know, and the people with whom I work, and all of these people who do all of this Sandy relief work, how none of them, how are none of them, how does no one tapped into this funding mechanism? And it’s just a miracle. It’s just, it’s consistently, it’s consistently miraculous. So, we’ll see. We’ll see how things go, because everyone’s always saying, “Oh, the LTROs are going to get a million dollars from this large profit; a million dollars from that non-profit; five million from that large non-profit; until the checks in the, until the money’s in the bank account, I’m not going to believe it. It’s really, yeah, it’s quite remarkable.

There are—there’s a lot of good work funded, but it’s not support work. I haven’t seen any support work get funded. It’s all applique, you know, tearing down the house, like gutting the house—the muck outs. That stuff’s getting funded, which is good. So I’m thankful for that, but yeah, it’s quite remarkable. One of the other things is that people in the disaster industry will tell you that ya know, the best way to is—that you never ever want to get anyone affected by disaster money, you know. Because once you do they’ll go buy a television, you know, and take care of emotional needs.

Q: Meaning you never want to fund individuals affected by the storm.

A: You never want to give them money. You always want to give them money to their creditors or to the service provider for them on their behalf. You basically want to fund things on their behalf, but not actually give them the ability to make any decisions for themselves with the money.

Q: What do you think about that?

A: I think that it’s troubling. [Laughs] Super troubling. It’s a terrible idea. And—I mean if, I understand the psychology behind it, and like I think the psychology—if we were living in a more perfect world, where everyone had a case manager and you could call your case manager, and the case manager would, you know, is really involved in bringing you back to where you had been, you know, and getting your back, getting your life back together, then it would make, it would make a decent amount of sense to just let the case manager handle all of that and not give you know, not create all of the opportunities for fraud and not, you know, etcetera. I do think the personal, when people say, “Oh, they’re going to go buy themselves a TV, because ya know, they went through this disaster and now they want to like relax, you know.” It’s like, well if they want to relax, like they should probably be able to relax; maybe, maybe they need a TV, you know. [laughter] If they feel like they need a TV, maybe they should get a TV.

Q: Maybe, maybe they understand their own needs.

A: Yeah, maybe they understand their own needs. But the more problematic part of all of that is that I think that psychology is what, is, gets extrapolated upon one iteration or more, and then it’s like “well these long-term recovery organizations, these local groups, that are in the thick of it—how are theyThey’re all emotional! They all know people who were affected. They don’t know—we can’t give them the money.” We need to make sure that they treat these long term recovery groups, which are coalitions of like sixty organizations—in Staten Island there’s like eighty organizations, a hundred organizations, it’s insane. Like large and really well managed from my perspective. And it’s like, no these folks could like, could really do quite a bit with some funding. So they’re—so yeah, it’s the same story everywhere, right: the powers that be, the powers that have access to money don’t want to make the money locally available. One of the reasons why is one of the things that we were planning to do, and we still kind of are planning to do, but it’s something needs to shake out a bit more. It’s like, basically implement a participatory budgeting program within these communities, you know. Use, use what the innovations have been made in that field to a, you know to introduce people to participatory budgeting. Let the community spend their own—spend money. Billions of dollars have been allocated; millions raised. How about this community gets to determine how like five million dollars is going to get allocated in their community? So you know, if we got five million dollars like that shit would happen. It would probably be the largest participatory budgeting, you know—

Q: Ever.

A: Ever. Yeah. [Laughter]

Q: Yeah.

A: So, you know. There’s a reason why the powers that be don’t want us to—they don’t want to see things like that happen. One of the reasons disasters are such an amazing opportunity is because large checks get written and large resources get allocated differently for a while, and if we can tap into—we can fund a lot of innovation, try out a lot of new models if that money were freely flowing. And these LTRO groups would love it. And we did in one of our Staten Island surveys, one of our canvasses, we—you know we asked people would you be interested in basic participatory budgeting? I think it was phrased “would you be interested in attending meetings to determine how recovery money are being…”

Q: Spent?

A: Allocated in the community.

Q: Yeah.

A: And it’s like, seventy, sixty percent, seventy percent, eighty percent—I can’t remember the exact numbers, it’s in the file. But, yeah. People are interested in it. But the powers that be aren’t interested in that type of thing taking place, because that screws up a lot of business models. And before you know it, every time there’s a disaster, you’re going to see a massive leap in democratic participation among people, like “uh oh.” [laughs] So you know, I think any one of the, one of the concepts I’m really interested in now, after this–I’ve heard a lot about disaster capitalism, but… Disaster can be organizing when it’s just like—is like the way to go. It really is just a very powerful opportunity to make huge, huge strides. I mean the amount of strides that my community, the community, the Occupy-based, New York Occupy-based community has made since Sandy, is insane.

Q: Do, do you think that putting like a question or a therefore field once it gets put into a database about participatory budgeting, using—do you think that does work?

A: In terms of?

Q: In terms of, you knock on someone’s door and they’re expecting like, do you have food? Do you have water? Questions. And then the additional question is would you be interested in deciding this yourself with a bunch of people in your community that you might not know yet? Do you think just asking someone that does something?

A: Oh yeah. Yeah. Sure. Absolutely. And one of the things in Jersey Operations, the Jersey Occupy folks, is that they put three questions in all of their canvasses from the beginning about, like, are you—“before this storm, were you working? Are you familiar with what a worker-owned cooperative is? Would you be interested in having a meeting with other people who have a similar set of skills as you do, that are about worker cooperatives? What are your skills?” That type of thing.

Q: And I hear that they’re actually forming worker cooperatives over there.

A: They—yeah. Well they form their own for their organizers. Yeah. I think they are. I mean it’s easier said than done and—what a surprise. Not a lot of money. Not a lot of resources available for that type of activity. But they had a fundamentally—I know those guys. I know a lot of those people from Occupy work before, and they’re very, they’re very focused and—but they’re also kind of a smaller core. They have a smaller core group that does all the stuff. You know, that does the organization. Like we, have a function core group of tech people who process requests and make outcomes happen, but we don’t—they basically, they pay themselves salaries. They really did it what I’d consider responsibly. They really kind of organized up and—

Q: This is the Occupy Jersey?

A: This is the Occupy Sandy Jersey folks.

Q: Yeah, okay.

A: So they really kind of, they enlarged the core, you know, used the funding to make themselves sustainable, got strategically aligned with each other, etcetera. Occupy Sandy New York City, no. No. [laughter] No one got paid. No salaries was an earlier rule, which was really how tough for the tech side of things, because, I mean, it’s one thing if you can make like sixty or eighty or a hundred dollars an hour doing tech work. It’s hard; it’s hard to get that person to do it for free.

Q: It’s hard to get them to do it for free.

A: It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty impossible, it’s very difficult to get consistently reliable support and all that type of stuff. So that’s a real, that’s a real problem. And if we had been, if my organization had been a little further along–like we got our fiscal sponsorship like a few months into the storm– if we had been further along I would’ve much rather tried to develop an alternative revenue stream and get that type of work done. But so it goes.

Q: Yeah. As we pay ourselves at Superstorm Research Lab to deal with burnout and so that you make time to do the good work. Even though it’s per hour less than you’d make at other jobs, it’s still potentially sustainable.

A: Yeah. And you know the tech group doesn’t—the tech group I feel like has a lot less burnout, you know, because we—most of us are freelancers. So we have the ability to turn the dials up and down on the amount of income that we’re generating, you know, over a month or two period. And there’s always demand for the work. The work doesn’t—rarely takes you out of your own home or coffee shop or whatever. So it’s a different—it’s a bit different, but people get worked up, and then they yeah. Techies burn; the tech crew burns out too, which happens, yeah. It happens. But there are all types of difficulties with that. Anyway, yeah the—I think the questions—canvassing—things that should exist that don’t exist, that were pretty simple, “oh wow a disaster’s happening in a community. Where’s a good generic canvas for it?”

Q: Or what do you have to consider in the canvass farm, right. You should probably put a time stamp in there or something.

A: Yeah. I mean the amount of, the amount of forensics, forensic data that we have about like, if looking back at our old Google Docs, what types of documents are important, you know what I mean? How or how are they formatted and extrapolating spec specifications and templates and recommendations is, it’s all secondary. I can show you, it’s all on the large Google file.

Q: I would love to see.

A: It’s huge. It’d be great to, to….

Q: Push that into the world?

A: Yeah.

Q: That’s what we’re here for.

A: Yeah, that’d be really good.

Q: Yeah. Yeah.

A: Yeah and we can share—I mean we also have the database stuff, which is, which is cool. I mean right now we have—to give you a sense of scale, this is my understanding and I’m not always the best when it comes to numbers so excuse, pardon me, if I’m wrong. The Red Cross, the New York Red Cross is the largest Red Cross in the country. And they kind of pride themselves in their ability to mobilize people to go out during the disaster. I think, I think they have information about—yeah see, I’m going to screw up these numbers. But basically they, they have information about maybe twelve to fifteen thousand volunteers. It could be five thousand—it’s either twelve to fifteen thousand or five thousand volunteers in the New York area. And then they brought out either—they brought out either five hundred during Sandy or four thousand—I can’t remember which, which one it is. Occupy Sandy has really detailed information about well over twelve thousand now, probably fourteen thousand now.

Q: I heard seventy, when you combine all of the different sheets together.

A: I’m not—

Q: In the first weeks.

A: Well we have, we have that many people signed, gave an e-mail address, but I’m talking about “where do you want to work? What are your skills? What are your days?” Ya know, really segmentable data, which is—it’s great stuff for, I think it’s probably fourteen thousand people. And you know, once you de-dupe that sort of stuff it’s probably more like eight—I think we have phone numbers for like nine thousand, but, and, ya know it’s—that is so valuable, I can’t even… I mean we have to figure out what to do, what to do with it, and how to keep it updated. But that, that’s you know, within one disaster event we basically—we got out well over ten thousand people in terms of just like who flew the Occupy Sandy banner in the first weeks. So, in one event we outperformed the Red Cross’s volunteer management operation by, you know, depending on how my memory works, two to eight times or something. And that’s really significant. And like people—and the FEMA people, because they’re not, they’re differently involved; they’re not involved in the same way as the VOADs. This isn’t kind of, it’s not their job in the same way, because they’re—

Q: FEMA, it’s not FEMA’s job in the same way?

A: Yeah, ya know FEMA does funding. They do finance work and they do, you know, they’re liaisons. They’re people who are here and then they’re in Ohio, they’re just hired for this one event. You know what I mean? The VOADs are more professional, professional organizations who do great work, don’t get me wrong, they just don’t have the data part figured out. The FEMA people just think we’re like the coolest people in the world.

Q: Why’s that?

A: Just because they have a non-politicized perspective on the Occupy Sandy effort. So they recognize what gaps we filled and continue to fill and just, yeah. This guy named Seth who is the New York, the main New York FEMA vow coordinator, he’s good. He says really nice things. I went to the National VOAD Convention and no one was talking about Occupy Sandy, you know, up at the podium, but he went up and was just like, “Hey guys. I think we all know [laughs] that like those people right there from Occupy Sandy, from the Occupy Sandy crew, like really just were the outstanding participants.” His quote was like, “If you don’t like Occupy Sandy, it’s because you’ve never worked with Occupy Sandy.” Which, I don’t think is true, because I know a lot of people in Occupy Sandy who I can’t, I can’t work with. [Laughs] You know? But it’s still a great—it’s nice, it’s nice to see that type of thing happen. And I think it’s also nice to see the grassroots and mutual aid style of organizing can be extremely effective in a disaster, which, if you’re afraid of Fascism, you know, the general narrative of the conspiracy theorists is like as disaster happens, martial law’s implemented blah, blah blah. You know it’s like, disaster just equals bad. Disaster capitalism — all the opportunities get seized by the, by the….

Q: The ones who are already in power?

A: The authoritarian structures you know, and it’s nice to see that that doesn’t—not only does it not have to be the case, but that it can really go the other way — a bit. If we can tap into that money it can probably go much further. We’ll see.

Q: Cool. I’m going to back out through some of the things, some of the things you’ve said to draw out if you—

A: Oh you just texted me.

Q: Oh. [Laughs]

A: My phone was just—

Q: Little bit of a delay.

A: Yeah.

Q: So you’re talking—you were talking about the frenzy state and then the middle state, and then I assume there’s a state after the middle state.

A; Well ya know there’s the four stages of disaster: there’s the mitigation—gosh, what’s it again? I haven’t done that test in a while. Mitigation, response, recovery…?

Q: Is it—So you’re referring to the sociological, like, 1975 stages.

A: Yeah. Right. There’re four, right?

Q: Yeah.

A: There’s the mitigation—what are they? Do you remember?

Q: I don’t remember. Mostly I don’t know them, because in a lot of grassroots things, they’re generally discredited. To be like no, this is not the correct—like because it’s mapped on to a curve, right? Or how much time, how many days, and you know that sort of stuff and a lot of people are saying “no, that actually doesn’t hold. It didn’t hold for Katrina, it doesn’t hold for other sorts of things.”

A: Yeah.

Q: But if you could, if you could periodize Occupy Sandy, as far as the frenziness, as how long did that last? The middle stage, what characterizes the middle stage? How long do you think it’s going to last?

A: Well, so I mean, we went though—you know we also went through serious space changes. So you know we have Jacobi, and then we had 520 and Jacobi. Yeah so it’s hard, I mean, I think there are—there’s definitely obviously periods that are pretty clearly defined. But because of the space dynamics you know, which were at the mercy of– that, that adds an extra variable to any serious periodization. But I’d say in the beginning it’s, from my— it’s kind of the first few days is a real ramp up, then, then there’s like a pretty significant frenzy period, where it’s basically people coming to central hub and dropping stuff off and that stuff going and all kind of within the same day or two.  I thought as a newbie, I thought like, “oh we should be—we need an inventory system for this stuff.” Like ya, no, not, not really.

Q: Right. Word of mouth and getting out there was sort of—

A: Inventory and stuff like that, you know, you just learn a lot of stuff. Like okay—a nightly check of quantities would be super perfect in that type of– you know what I mean? But, I don’t know. I don’t know. So yeah. So there’s kind of a frenzied phase where everyone is coming and going, and then within, you know, that ends within a month, in terms of like the real, the money coming in, the people, the donations, things become a lot more, need a lot more discipline then. And there’s just kind of from the hub perspective—from the distribution type perspective, not from the kind of peripheral hubs, although that’s the case too. But it’s different because the peripheral hubs, there are a lot of religious groups, a lot of high schools, colleges, like affinity groups, groups like that who will, who want to be able to schedule weekends or days out doing work in the field. So they kind of, there’s a different type of—there’s different types of access to labor that you get from there.

Basically you know, after, after, from after kind of the frenzy first portion, which you know, maybe, maybe it extended like to two months, even. You know, the media goes away, people think everything’s gotten solved, and you’re left with a core group of people, some of who are highly, highly, highly productive, others of whom are or were—don’t know how to reactivate themselves within the changing landscape of things. And then I think you get into a period of confusion, because the long-term recovery organizations weren’t formed and there’s confusion around who’s—or what meetings were turning into long-term recovery groups and all that stuff. And I think that there’s a significant period of confusion. I feel like we’re re-emerging out with the long-term recovery groups and these various, these various areas and more regular meetings. People know each other now. It’s—information is flowing informally easier, but now’s also the great time to make it, to introduce more sophisticated information data sharing tools that would make information flow super easy. It might be highly, highly useful. But then that—it doesn’t have to be so relationship based, which is what it is now. You know, like “I know the guy. I heard this guy say he had 80 mattresses in his warehouse, and so oh you need a mattress? You should call that guy” It’s not a way to run an operation. So yeah. So I think we’re in that. I guess we’re in that third phase of longer term rebuilding—the playing field is becoming more visible to everybody, and the capacity for us to organize, you know, to facilitate these long-term recovery groups or self-organizing and getting them access to the tools that they need to be really effective and then bringing those groups all together into a coalition to kind of be the alternative to the state-backed development plans that everyone knows are coming. It’s kind of the game plan, and more and more people are really recognizing that as the game plan. And now after this, another disaster came like, really understand the game plan a lot better from the beginning and make life a lot easier. So that might be my periodization.

Q: So, one of the questions they’re asking everyone is when they think recovery will happen or has happened? And whether recovery is a useful term even.

A: I mean recovery is the last stage, right? Like what does that mean, recovery? I don’t know if it’s a useful term.

Q: Part of what some people are saying is that a lot of the places that got hit weren’t hit before the storms, so if recovery means returning it to as it was before, that’s fundamentally not desirable.

A: Yeah.

Q: And if the problems that plague these places are systemic, then what would recovery look like?

A: Okay, within that context, I’d reframe some of the stuff I was saying earlier about like the participatory budgeting and say, you know, the, the structure doesn’t want to fund authentic recovery. Yeah. They have the institutionalization that exists, you know, requires the status quo to kind of continue and develop slowly. You actually—I’d say that because of a disaster, unlike most anything else, you actually have an opportunity to try to recover, because if America is screwed— [laughs] if America is in this thirty year decline, forty year decline, that I think a lot of people think it’s in, then you know, authentic recovery really means some serious innovation about how communities work and how they derive their power and their resources and etcetera.

So, that brings me more into having more opportunities for really innovative organizing—that type of recovery than, it is getting people’s houses fixed. Because that’s really different depending where you are. In Staten Island, I think it’s the communities that were active and seventy or eighty percent homeowners versus NYCHA housing or the first few days of the Rockaways, where you just have—even work in the Rockaways was just this massive spectrum of homeowners into NYCHA residents, and you know that creates—and recovery means very different things for these groups. So, what does, what does that ultimately mean? I don’t know. I mean I think that—for me, what motivates me in all of this, in a lot of ways, is recovery and the whole Zuccotti Park experience to me was one big disaster site that we were providing recovery to. You know, we were providing recovery to Lower Manhattan basically, and it turns out people need a lot of therapy [laughs], a lot of therapy and a lot of things that we’ve now gotten better at doing because of Sandy work—like “what is case management?” People weren’t talking about case management back in Occupy Wall Street days, even though there were a lot of people there who needed you know housing support, they needed health, they needed the type of support that case management provides. So, disaster gives out the opportunity to re-envision how people are going to help each other, so yeah. That to me is recovery. What recovery would look like, dozens of organizations in a single open source logistics platform, so they can move goods and services from point A to point B, and you know, you have that in the city, you bring that out to the country, the region or you know do more outreach more regionally, share that with the people who work with the food markets, you know.  Then you begin to approach kind of this ad hoc open source… The ad hoc community –open source community– that people provide the type of information management that a supermarket chain has, you know, or any type of chain has. So what are these businesses? Really, at the end of the day, what’s Walmart? It’s, it’s a—it doesn’t exist without its information management systems, you know. And if you can bring the information management systems without the corporate governing, without the hierarchy, the questionable values—you can get really far, very fast I think. So that’s kind of—that’s a part of my agenda and I’m quite open about it. When I was in Zuccotti I was quite open about it, too. That we have an opportunity to use these open-source technologies to model a more effective service provision. More effective mutual aid sort of a way, a way to perform more mutually efficiently than the state does, because the state, the larger organizations, don’t do it, don’t do it that well. If we outperform them, then we get, then we–then we win. Then we get to be the deciders, you know. Then we get to, we get to make decisions that we see fit, and we don’t have to ask.

Q: So it seems pretty clear that one of the ways you’re thinking about how data and tech can be used in activism in this sort of large-scale social change is to grease the wheels of mutual aid by documenting and then facilitating need and aid, to meet in the middle, right? Is there another way—or, is that the main way or are there other ways that data and tech can perform activism and social change and structural change?

A: Well I think—yeah. There are lots of other ways, but that’s accurate. I think that also, what gets neglected often is that a vast majority of people don’t know how to publish on the internet. Or they don’t think they know how to publish on the Internet. They know how to publish on Facebook, you know? They know how to publish on Twitter, but they don’t recognize that they can be—they don’t see the benefits of—they don’t know how to publish on WordPress or their own platforms. They don’t see the benefits of publishing on those platforms, and they don’t recognize—they don’t see those platforms as the first step towards enterprise grade—be able to participate in the economy as a producer and an enterprise level, as opposed to just a consumer. So to me that’s a really significant onboarding–that’s a really significant revolution and onboarding mechanism. In the future I would want to live in, on one hand, have mutual aid based service provision. On the other hand though, is the agorist, you know, enterprise, where people are just compelled out of their own passion to exchange with each other. You know, not out of the straight definition of mutual aid, but out of you know, personal self-interest. Like I want to make crafts, it’s just, I want to make something. How do I do that, you know? I’m not going to — some people will make a whole table and be like “I just want to make—oh I did this for the person who needs it the most.” Other people are going to be like “Oh, I don’t want to make this table because I want a chair.” You know? And both of those two elements are kind of, the red and the yellow that make the less coercive future really, really possible. And I think that they can share the same platforms. [Laughs] They need the same tools in a lot of ways. So, you know, it doesn’t—what I find on, on the the right side of the anarchist, you know the self-identified anarchist-capitalist community, is singularly focused on the agorist—how do we do exchange, you know? How do we officially exchange outside of the states, the states matrix or whatever? And on the left, it’s like how do—when the left is doing it right–it’s like, how do we provide mutual aid to one another to create a culture of mutual aid? But put the two together, shake a bit, and I think we’re just in the future and everything’s great. So that to me is the really compelling—that to me is a super compelling vision. There’s no reason for them not to both be wed and happy and working together, and I find that the cultural differences on both sides—both communities have really self identified with one or the other –just need to get along. You don’t have to, you don’t have to be everyone’s best friend, you know what I mean? You just need to—

Q: Okay. So, so if I’m paraphrasing—just to paraphrase to make sure— The internet—Wordpress or any other sort of publishing platforms can help individuals scale up into a new mode of production that is fundamentally not the status quo in capitalist and these other sorts of internal government structures.

A: Well it’s not—it could be really capitalist.

Q: Oh okay.

A: It could be super capitalist, but it’s not…

Q: Top-down?

A: It’s not corporist.

Q: Oh okay.

A: It’s not dependent on—it’s not dependent. And, and, and there’s a level of freedom that’s made possible through this type of activity. Just you know, in the same way non-profit organizations or businesses–I mean a lot of the people I work with get really excited just about getting people onto open-source platforms. A) because the policies of open-source are just cool and great, but B) because once you’re publishing on WordPress, if you’re—once you start publishing, maybe, you’ll pick up the invoice plug-in, and then you can start invoicing people and you don’t have to—you can just manage your own invoice, manage your own account. Maybe you’ll pick up the you know, the shopping cart or the donation plug-in, you know then you’re starting to collect money outside of– without being dependent on some third-party. Maybe you think about e-mail signup form and you start getting people into a CRM or some type of mailing list and you can start doing your own engagement. So there’s a lot of, it can just really extend out. You can really hook people—we’re getting to a point now. Like CiviCRM—databases are at that level, databases aren’t that complicated: you’re defining fields, you’re grouping them, you’re running reports, you know? And then you can do just not massively complex technology, and everyone should know how to use this stuff, right? Now that CiviCRM can be, can live in WordPress, I find Drupal to be more complicated and off putting. But WordPress is so friendly—if we can get more people to learn just simply how to manage WordPress and how to manage a database, how the management system in a database system, that’s—that technology, people couldn’t access five years ago and ten years ago. So it’s a really significant step. It is databases becoming accessible to the public. And that’s game changing. I mean how many businesses exist, how many non-profits exist, like these big massive legacy organizations or government agencies exist simply because they were there with the first database, the first data management structure that everything just got fed into and got uploaded. If we have more people understanding how these systems work or how they could be working more efficiently, it makes it a lot easier to tell them a story about you a future where systems work better, where there’s less coercion necessary. There’s more people empowered with the means of production, more people have the ability to—if the means of production is increasingly information, why are we talking more about—

Q: Data literacy and—?

A: Yeah, data literacy and some things like that.

Q: Yeah. Cool.

A: So. And there’s a lot to do. Like once you’re into ERP, the enterprise resource planning, like the Sahana Inventory Management, you’re beginning—it really begins to—the ecosystem that’s available, the open source software system that’s available, really begins to feel more complete. And it’s not like we just constantly need to be developing these bigger solutions for more significant challenges. There’s this horizon which is always receiving—but instead we’re basically, we’re getting really close. We’re really getting there. We’re getting databases and WordPress systems. We’re getting accessible inventory and logistics management for network systems. This is what we need for a bioregional economy. This is what you need for real alternative institutions or organizations or groups to have the same type of enterprise-grade information management systems that these huge bureaucracies have and better.

Q: Okay. So how, how do you think that sort of ideal and those sorts of systems shake out or deal with two of the big issues that come out of Sandy—one being climate change the second being inequity in terms of race, class, and gender? Do you think they can deal with that or they have to deal with that or things have floated up through those systems or—?

A: That’s tough. Climate change is a big old can of worms. Because, you know, I’m of the belief that I’m not interested in climate change from the perspective of global warming, CO2 rising, because to me it feels like a red herring. If instead we built up people’s sense of injustice around their local environment then collectively, problems will get solved. And there’s not this ideal, this CO2 number that needs to come down or go up—to me feels like an easy way to lose arguments with a lot of people or not convince a lot of people of things. And it’s a battlefield that doesn’t need to be engaged with—that I think that the not in my backyard community is never going to get climate change, so let’s all get more into not in my backyard, you know? And if I’m not into my backyard and you’re not in my backyard— [laughs] if no one’s interested in each other’s yards it won’t go anywhere. So from a political perspective, that’s where I’m interested in things. I think that the impacts of climate change on New York—I think climate change is happening. What are the impacts on New York? [slaps the table] We’re in a lot of trouble. I can’t—last month I was at a meeting where people who were designing the big barriers or whatever, talking about the sand, building these things, it’s like the New York side—people on the New York side are not talking to New Jersey. The people in New York doing this work aren’t talking to the people in New Jersey doing this work. In Staten Island, this stuff is, –if that’s the case, what are we, what am I supposed to do with this? [laughs] It’s just really, it’s really problematic. And I find it amazing to talk to these people in city government and government and feel like completely un-empowered to do any change. I talk to people in the federal government, and they’re completely anti-federal government. They’re like, “if you’re looking to the federal government to solve these problems, don’t do it. Don’t look to us to do it. We’re not going to do it. We can’t do this, you think we can do that? Come on!” It’s like wow.

Q: So if I make a connection with something you said earlier, do you think that say—

A: I’m surprised—I, I would love to know the tackle the race and the culture and that whole thing.

Q: Okay. Sure.

A: Right now in Staten Island, kind of the biggest gossip, the biggest news is that the Midland Beach Association, community association, which is like a middle class community association that is trying to develop beef with the Sandy relief people, because they say like, “Oh we fought against this homeless shelter twenty years ago and now they’re going to try and get this homeless shelter in here.” There’s a serious sense in a lot of middle class communities that like, “we don’t want poor people around. We don’t want people who are you know, immigrants around. We don’t want this segment of the population here. Now that this disaster’s happened, there’s more of them. And now there’s the opportunity where there’s political will to actually provide services to people in need, so we have to resist that.” So this is taking place now –I’m sure this happens in a lot of places. This is taking place now in Staten Island. And in the media, in the local media, the local media tries to play it kind of both sides. They look like fools! So I think there’s a lot of recognition, I think, culturally within the disaster relief community that’s like “hey we’re all here together. We’re all people. If I have bad luck, if I suffer; if I have bad luck, you suffer. Maybe you suffer more, because of the types of institutionalized discrimination, racism, stuff like that.” But I think there’s another, a huge, massive opportunity to come in with more of a social justice message and be like, “Hey, remember that time when your basement got flooded and how bad that was? Imagine if your basement was always flooded—or you don’t even have a basement” [laughs] People get softer, you know, they can. So there’s a lot of opportunity there. When it comes to the technology and the data stuff, I mean for me—two years ago you couldn’t put CiviCRM in a WordPress. And CiviCRM plus WordPress equals effective non-profit tech solution. Now that you can do it and it’s getting better and better—and a disaster like this, to me, looks like I’m looking at eighty non-profit organizations, long-term recovery groups, and this is a great opportunity for me to get eighty organizations, eighty WordPresses and Civi, and they all get trained—all of a sudden I guarantee you you’re going to see new opportunities arise for all of these organizations who can actually track constituents, who can do online donation processing. If you look at–I’ve done surveys of non-profit websites in Brooklyn—less than twenty percent are using a content management system that is reasonable—reasonable modern content system, you know? How many of them are actually processing donations even properly on their own websites? Very small percentages.

These technologies are here, they’re abundant, they’re freely available, they’re fun—someone’s got to come out and raise the capacity of the sector. If everyone’s working on these WordPresses, more of these organizations were using WordPress, there’d be more opportunities for them to come together and say like, “Hey, I want that feature. I want that feature too.” Like a coalition of ten organizations who are all using the WordPress platform could come together, throw 1,000 dollars each at something, develop a really awesome plug in that could be used in Vancouver and at [inaudible 56:26] and all that stuff. So there’s—and that’s kind of the work that I do—I want to be doing. I’m trying to orient myself and a few of my compatriots to get into. How do we get all of the nonprofits that we, as many non-profits as we can, onto a few open-source technology platforms, get them into conversations about the features that they want, and help them pre-support networks themselves, so they can solve their own technical problems, so they don’t have to go to consultants or out of network to do it. And can collaborate with each other and actually get some, get some victories and be in conversations with each other around “how do we get this feature, how do we solve that problem?” Because the tech platforms are there to facilitate that type of interaction. So disaster stuff makes the need for that very clear, makes the opportunities for that very obvious.

As that improves, people don’t need to wait around for some big fund, some big grant to come down and give them a decent database solution. If they want to help out undocumented workers or whatever, they can just do it themselves and they don’t have to ask. So the self-sufficiency opportunities, the increase in self-sufficiency opportunities, is just massive. And I think that is what ultimately solves most of these problems around, you know, inequality. Asking people to be nicer just historically doesn’t work that much. It’s like arming people with the ability to tell people they need to be nicer works better. Or not caring if people are nicer and letting them just grow out of it or not—see historically it does work I think.

Q: So what are some of these groups that you’re talking about, that you’re working with?

A: Like in Staten Island? Like in Staten Island there’s a long-term recovery organization—a  bunch of groups in there. For right now, I’m just helping them get there. I mean they have a website, they have a Civi, that training, they’ve got a training. Every week basically I go there and offer trainings to people. The group that’s most interested in trainings is a group that’s kind of been cultivating the LTRO, which is an organization called Project Hospitality, which is—it might be the biggest non-profit in Staten Island. And, it is a unique place. It’s a unique place. I mean, it’s really the power of a really sharp, really –just unbelievably smart –lady who’s the Executive Director, who’s just really smart and just crazy and who just has  boxes of papers. Just every wall just has boxes and boxes of papers. You know what I mean? It’s a real, it’s a really unique place. So there—to me, it has one of the largest service providers for homeless shelters, HIV treatment, case management. Their tech infrastructure’s a complete mess, like the boxes are. There’s a big opportunity there to work with them and actually kind of build out a document how to do a full-scale social services group, and open source tools. So there’s a big opportunity to do that. And there’s just you know, “oh you need a website? Here’s a WordPress. You figured out the WordPress? Maybe you guys want a Civi?” You know? That happens, but groups—people generally don’t believe you when you say that, “Oh I’ll show you how to do X or Y.” So we’ve gotten a few bites. We’ve produced a few websites for them. But it’s a lot of strategy. Do I spend my time– I work with two other people very closely, so do we spend our time doing the LTRO and then doing…?—we did the LTRO. Now do we spend our time on training on that LTRO website? Do we go into helping Project Hospitality more? Do we help more of the organizations in the LTRO—do we go to the Brooklyn LTRO, the Queens LTRO, and get them set up instead? So you know.

Q: Right.

A: My instinct is to set them up. But very quickly, there’s a one-day a week Staten Island thing, which I can justify for myself. It becomes –what is this going to become? Two days a week? I’ve also got to do Queens and the Rockaways and then three days a week? And then five days a week? [laughter] And all of a sudden my disaster relief hobby is becoming a profession. Meanwhile, the VOAD community, the national VOAD and the state VOAD and all these different groups, they’re all in the same boat as everybody else. I showed them Civi. They’re like, “What!? Like the people we pay to do this stuff say these things cost a billion dollars!” [Laughter] And then they all get real sad and they feel like they’ve been taken advantage of and then often times they go sulk for a while and they don’t know what to do. So then there’s all those guys. Like do we set up the national VOAD or the state level VOAD so they actually know how to use their website right now? They can’t even, they can’t add content to their website, because the guy who was doing it left, it’s a Google site and now one knows. And so this need is just massive. So now we’re trying to figure out, find grants for you know, to pay us and other people to do these basic trainings—very quickly though, talk to people who build WordPress site, free lance WordPress site developers who do this for a living about doing training. They’re like “Like why do you want to tell everybody how easy it is to make a good WordPress site?”

Q: Right.

A: It really requires—we need more people, you know? We need donors who understand these dynamics. Apparently you and I are real savvy people [laughs]. Other people just don’t get, they don’t get this train of thought. And especially people who consider themselves savvy who are kind of conditioned into thinking about technology from a proprietary perspective like the venture capital community have such a small of an understanding of open source. You can talk to them and talk to them and talk to them about it, and they’ll be like, “okay, okay, okay.” But, but for them it ends in Pinterest. Or it ends in a—they don’t understand why this is.

Q: Alright. I need to leave in about ten minutes.

A: Yeah, me too.

Q: Yeah, okay. So, is there anything I haven’t asked that I should’ve asked? Any insights that you have from working Sandy stuff that we didn’t touch on?

A: I mean, I think [laughs]—one of the things that I’m really interested in–I’ll just tell you things I want to see. Things I want to see. I want to see someone; I want to see a power map. I want to see a map of who makes decisions about money and where these resources flow. Who makes decisions about—what these decision making structures are like, because from my perspective, we have no idea who any of these people are, and it’s like anytime, “oh the city’s going to come to the meeting to talk about it,” they send someone who has no idea what’s going on, and by the end of the meeting you could yell at the guy, make him cry, you can feel bad for the guy—whatever you want to do, you’re just not going to get any information out of these people. So I have no idea who, like, what’s going on when it comes to the, this, these types of decision making structures. I think there’s a lot of potential in finding that first round of Global Dirt data. And I don’t know my freedom of information request stuff—I don’t really know how that shit works, but if I figure that out, if you want to figure that out, someone wants to figure that out, I think that would be a treasure trove, because what’s going to show is that the city is how, how bad things were those first two weeks. And they’re, I think they were just really, really, really terrible.

Q: You don’t think that’s reflected in the Occupy data at all?

A: No.

Q: No?

A: Not close. Because our—that’s the thing, you could also dig through that Occupy data, you’ll find quite a bit of info. But, but I mean nothing was done to that level of comprehensiveness. I think that—I guess the question that I think you should ask is where the good resources for—where are the resources? Where do you go to get your news and information about this stuff? I’ll tell you. I can go anywhere [laughs]. I just live basically completely within a network of people who try, try to keep each other informed I guess. But — The news sources are crappy. The media has no idea how to tell a story about data or logistics or how backend, how the backend of things works. It’s all comes down to “and this is why you should donate to these people. There was this puppy there and it was just so sad and these people just made everything so happy.” Ya know, it’s, I don’t know.

Q: Okay. Well thank you so much for taking the time—

End of Recording.

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NYCHA and the Hurricane: Public housing learns from Sandy… What’s the plan for the next big storm?

When: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 8:30 AM – 10:00 AM
Where: Theresa Land Communtiy and Student Center,  55 West 13TH Street, 2ND Floor

The wrenching experience of thousands of New York’s public housing residents following Hurricane Sandy revealed vulnerabilities of physical structures and human services. Volunteers, tenant associations, social service providers and NYCHA technicians all stepped in to do what they could through the worst of the aftermath. What did we learn? What about next time? What will a carefully planned and managed disaster response look like in New York City’s low-lying, low-income neighborhoods?

A conversation with:
John Rhea, chairman, New York City Housing Authority (NYHCA)
Wally Bazemore, Red Hook community organizer
Jennifer Jones Austin, executive director, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies
Eric Klinenberg, New Yorker writer and professor of sociology and metropolitan studies, NYU
Constantine Kontokosta, founding director, NYU Center for the Sustainable Built Environment

Moderated by:
Andrew White, director, Center for New York City Affairs at The New School

Admission is free but you must reserve a seat: RSVP

The cost of risk: the post-Sandy realities of flood insurance

The policy changes made by the Biggert-Waters act, discussed in the last post in this series, make a lot of sense in the long term. But they also have a real human cost. Although Biggert-Waters passed before Sandy occurred, people who were hit hard by the storm see this as insult to injury. Although the rates were subsidized in the first place, people see this as a rate increase, not the expiration of a special deal. Post-Sandy media coverage in the Rockaways, especially Breezy Point, and the Jersey Shore offers story after story of downtrodden homeowners balking at the material costs of raising their house above flood elevation.

But as interviews done by Superstorm Research Lab attest, the problems with the flood insurance program are more complex than the issues addressed by Biggert-Waters. The implementation of the program, as with so many elements of federal disaster assistance, is slow, bureaucratic, difficult to understand, and poorly communicated. As a volunteer helping to rebuild homes in the Rockaways pointed out,

We have people we’ve worked with who are like, no one has told me anything about my flood insurance rates going up yet so I think that’s bullshit or like we’re not going to raise our home ’cause that’s so much money. (Mold Remediation Volunteer)

Some of the affected residents who SRL interviewed also spoke of a keenly felt sense that the federal assistance programs cared much more for some people than others:

For us here in the Arverne area when we go down to FEMA we go through there are a whole different drawn out plan.  And having friends in Breezy Point and having acquaintances in Breezy Point heard they didn’t have to do half of the things to be assisted by FEMA.  So you can see even from the federal perspective they made the choice… the loss that most landlords suffered it is tremendous because there are some areas because it was a rental they were not helped by FEMA. And those that did not have flood insurance were not helped at all. (Pastor in the Rockaways)

It is absolutely true that Breezy Point endured terrible destruction through fire and flood. But it is also true that, on average, people who lived in Breezy Point had a great deal more in the way of material resources than communities like Arverne and Far Rockaway, resources such as cars and insurance and money for hotels. In communities like Far Rockaway where these resources were scarce people were trapped after the storm in areas with no food, no public transportation, and no electricity.

Q:        Wow.  So this entire area had no power, nothing?
A:        No power, nothing.  My building was the first one to get electricity back, and that was two and a half weeks. So two and a half weeks and then that’s not even hot water or heat. That was just electricity.  A week later we got hot water and heat. (Interview with resident of Far Rockaway)

Even for the segments of the community who were eligible for FEMA assistance, it was difficult to get access to money and to understand how the aid system worked. Nearly a year later, SRL spoke to multiple people who had yet to receive any federal assistance at all despite being eligible. One volunteer with Respond and Rebuild described the situation faced by many of the people she was working with:

FEMA might give you your first check not all that long after the storm but it might be, like, a few thousand dollars. And then you apply your SBA loan, and maybe you get a little more money. And then you get another check from FEMA because you appealed. But it’s not like you know very early on how much money you’re going to get and what you’re going to be able to do with that. And so, like, do you decide when you only have twenty thousand dollars in payback that you’re going to rebuild? Like what do you do with that? Or do you just replace your car that also got destroyed? Do you know what I mean? So because people don’t get whatever assistance and money they’re going to get in one chunk, they just have no idea what they’re going to be able to do. And I think people’s lives are fucked up and they wound up having to take care of that with little pieces of that money along the way. (Respond and Rebuild Volunteer)

The many different levels of government assistance – state, and local as well as the multiple federal agencies offering assistance – didn’t communicate with one another. And because most of the aid programs had caps on the amount of assistance that someone could receive, multiple people were put in the position of being recipients of money from multiple agencies and then having to pay some of it back. On top of this, the NFIP added a new complication for those receiving flood insurance on mortgaged properties:

What they were finding was that when they got their insurance payments, the banks with whom they had mortgages claimed that it was their right to hold onto that insurance payment, because the house was actually the bank’s, right? They hadn’t finished paying their mortgage. So the bank held onto it. And then would disperse that pay amount. (Rockaways hub coordinator)

As noted in the SRL white paper, A Tale of Two Sandys, these problems are representative of larger inequalities in the recovery process. There were the renters who were displaced from their homes, whose landlords would not make repairs, who were not homeowners and thus ineligible for most forms of housing assistance, who suddenly had to come up with a new apartment (complete with new deposit) in a housing market which was already tight, and suddenly faced the loss of thousands of units. There were the renters who didn’t move and faced an extended period of time in substandard housing stock – a situation especially dire for rent-controlled or rent-regulated tenants whose landlords wanted to force them out.

Some homeowners had enough put aside in savings or other emergency funds, or had a large and wealthy enough social network, that they were able to endure for the many months it took to start getting federal assistance for rebuilding (though this endurance came with unimaginable stress). Then there were the homeowners who didn’t have enough emergency reserves, couldn’t sell their houses for anything close to pre-storm prices, whose investments and homes were both gone. This is, of course, assuming that they didn’t have a mortgage-holding bank which had already claimed their NFIP payment.

The Biggert-Waters bill addresses the problems of the National Flood Insurance Program in the abstract, but it doesn’t address the problems that actually manifested on the ground when the NFIP went into action. Entrenched inequality, the glacial pace of disbursement, the difficulty of navigating the bureaucratic ocean – these problems were enough to sink families after the storm – if they were eligible for flood insurance in the first place. So what is the point of having the NFIP anyway, when so much of it is apparently broken? The next, and final, post in this series will address that issue.

Interview with Respond and Rebuild volunteer

Interviewee: Female, 35. Volunteer with Respond and Rebuild
Interviewee: Tom Corcoran

Interviewer: Okay, so thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I have several questions about your experience of the storm to get a sense of what happened and what is happening. You don’t have to answer any of the questions that you’re not comfortable answering if you don’t want to. You can just skip them and move along. So I have questions more focused on your experience of the storm, and then a second set that are more focused on general things like the storm’s causes. So to begin briefly, tell me about your experience of Sandy.

Woman: The actual storm?

Interviewer: Yes. Were you here? Were you close by?

Woman: Yeah, I was in Brooklyn. I was in Fort Greene. Honestly, like, while the storm was starting, I was still kind of preparing. I really didn’t think anything was going to happen after Irene.

It was not memorable. And kind of freaking out about that a little bit. It just didn’t–you know, I didn’t really feel like it was–just actually just the way they presented it seemed so out of line with, like, any kind of predictions we ever had before. I actually thought it was just sort of over the top and a media hype sort of thing. At one point, I went to park our van at Pratt because I have a parking permit there, and everybody who was on campus was wearing a hard hat. And it wasn’t even really raining. I had a rain jacket on but you didn’t need an umbrella. It was totally fine. And I was like, well, maybe I should start taking this a little more seriously. And so, you know, just walked around, bought a little bit of food, was totally laid back. Nothing, you know, was really going on. That night we actually drove around in the hurricane and we were looking at some of the flooding on the East River in north Brooklyn. And it was kind of interesting and, you know, sort of like exciting because it was just weird. But it all–it just didn’t–you know, we figured that there would be some flooding along the coastline, mostly in industrial areas and kind of just went to sleep that night and woke up the next day and sort of realized exactly how serious it was, you know?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: We kind of felt like jerks for having taken it so lightly.

Interviewer: Okay. So how did you end up out in the Rockaways?

Woman: Well, the first day after the storm, I went into the East Village because I’d heard it got hit real bad and I had a friend over there who we knew didn’t have power. And I know a lot about where she hangs out in her neighborhood, checked on her, kind of checked on another friend who lives at [Inaudible 2:57] And they were doing some stuff to help out some people. And then I wound up having to actually go to work because I work so close to where I live and couldn’t really call in sick or have any reason for not going a few blocks away. And I’d seen some websites pop up like the recovers website, like the Recovers websites [Inaudible 3:14] Recovers, Astoria Recovers, Red Hook Recovers. And I volunt–since I knew I had to be stuck at work, I just volunteered to administer one of the websites and basically kind of field any requests for aid that came in and basically coordinate, facilitate people’s donations and things like that or ability–you know, volunteer offers to work and trying to coordinate matching those things up and wound up kind of getting a pretty good sense of, like, which areas were hardest hit and what people needed. And then the day after that, I think the full extent of the storm was known and I started coming down here and first just brought donation stuff to one of the Occupy hubs and brought as much as we could fit in the van down. And when we got down here, we realized there was a ton of volunteers and there was a lot of distribution happening, but people just didn’t know what to do and they needed somebody to talk to. And there were FEMA and there was no Red Cross. There was nobody going door to door even just trying to explain to people, like, here’s the next step. And just people were really in shock and felt really abandoned. And so we started going door to door and kind of collecting as many volunteers as we could, especially who seemed like maybe they maybe had a little know-how with construction or something that would make them feel a little more at home and not completely a fish out of water in a disaster zone, and started talking to homeowners about what they needed to do to clean up and why for health reasons and for the integrity of their building and things like that.

Interviewer: Okay. And you went to what area in the Rockaways first?

Woman: The first place that we went was 113 in Rockaway Beach Boulevard where YANA is, or the first Occupy Sandy hub. And a little bit in the beginning we went to–which was Veggie Island, Ninety-eighth and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, I believe, and just dropped some things off wherever we needed to and just got, you know, just kept–as we were coming back and forth, just kept doing runs of supplies. And at the same time, we started calling around to friends to see if we could get generators and pumps because they were all sold out for, you know, as far as you really want to drive. We were able to get people to bring gas-powered water pumps down from Vermont and we made a plan to start pumping up people’s houses and having a mobile pumping unit out of the van, which no one was doing, in which people thought we were price–they thought we were charging for that. And at first they didn’t realize that we were, you know, trying to do it for free and help out. And then that kind of brought us mostly in Rockaway Park but probably into Arverne a little bit.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: We were in that probably between like the Sixty, Seventies and One Twentyish for the first week or so.

Interviewer: And you said how long…how long was this after the storm?

Woman: We were down here doing distribution and, you know, bringing donations and things like that two days, I guess Wednesday after the storm. And then by Thursday or Friday, we had the pumps and started pumping people out.

Interviewer: Okay. Alright. And like you said, the pumping out started in Rockaway Park, is where you started. And then you slowly moved over to Arverne?

Woman: Well word got out and so we didn’t really know at first how to let people know that we were available. And we just kind of went door to door a little bit right around YANA in Rockaway Park and put up signs in windows saying that we had pumps and our phone numbers. And we put a big sign on the van that had our phone number and let people know we had pumps. And in the beginning, we were just doing it right around YANA because people would just come over and nobody had power and nobody had a phone. They would just come over and say hey, we heard somebody had a pump. But really quickly, within a couple of days, word got out and people started calling us from Long Beach, from Jersey, from Staten Island, from Connecticut, all having seen a picture or–we didn’t really know how they got our numbers but they had found out we had pumps and didn’t know that we were just a couple of people in one van, like, helping out and didn’t know, like, to what extent we could serve the entire area, which I think was revealing in terms of the scope of the disaster and also the scope of people’s kind of sense of abandonment and the scope of, like, kind of complete lack of preparedness, like, on any kind of municipal level or neighborhood level or individual level. I mean people calling from sixty miles away and we’re the only person they can find with a pump. It’s kind of crazy.

Interviewer: Yeah. So we started to talk a little bit about some of the problems then. So what were the main problems that arise because of Hurricane Sandy?

Woman: Obviously it just destroyed a lot of people’s homes, the base–everyone’s basement in Rockaway, it seems like, was destroyed. All of their contents in the basement were destroyed. And a lot of people’s first floors were destroyed, particularly if they were at all close to the coastline. One of the problems is that there was really no information about what that meant for people, what they needed to do next. People didn’t really know that they had to gut their apartment. People didn’t really know that they had to–that they had to expect mold. People didn’t know that they had to gut above the flood line. There was a lot of mixed information. The insurance company said, you know, gut six inches below the water, so you can prove where it flooded to, but if you’re gutting six inches below the water line, you’re letting the water that saturated the wood soak up and actually leading to having a more extensive mold problem down the line. And so there was a lot of kind of misinformation. And we were–like the information thing was really a big deal because obviously with a storm like Sandy, you’re going to have a lot of damage. But if people were more informed, they could have acted quickly. They could have acted better. Like they could have acted more efficiently. And people really didn’t have the opportunity because they didn’t know what to expect. And there really was no information available that wasn’t–that I saw, I really feel like there was no information that wasn’t being made available by volunteers via either word of mouth, door to door, or fliers. And that’s pretty interesting for a place that’s–I mean speaking of the Rockaways–like a place that’s a glorified barrier island. I mean there are some places where it’s like three blocks wide. You would think that people would have some concept of what to do in case–and really that didn’t exist as far as I could tell.

Interviewer: Okay. Recording again. Alright, so we were talking about some of the problems that arise because of Sandy. Tell me about problems that arise during or right after.

Woman: Yeah, so before I was talking about how information was really just hard to come by and also, I mean because we had been so specifically focused on mold, one of the things is when people were able to get, like, the internet, everything was on a different page. Like if you went to the EPA or the DEP or the FEMA or Red Cross website, everybody would tell you to do something different. And so it made it really difficult to be, you know, like show up as a disaster relief worker and try to be authoritatively telling people what they can do about the problem when they would, you know–they would look at the Red Cross website or whatever it was and it would tell them something totally different. And then we–you know, just keeping people on the same page about anything was really difficult. It was really–and then, yeah, that’s just more information stuff, like how that was really difficult to navigate. Also because we dealt with mold so much, everyone who lives by the beach has always dealt with mold and has always dealt with flooding, like, to some extent, not anything obviously like we saw. But with the flooding–I’m sorry. With the mold, people would always tell us, like oh, we’ve got mold for years. We wipe it up with bleach and we paint, so it’s fine. And it was difficult to convince people that this time it was different because the level of saturation and the level of water damage. The mold thing–we think that in the beginning a lot of people were trying to, like, live in their homes as much as possible and living with the mold for awhile, which is really obviously terrible for your repertory home. And it’s not good for your home to let it sit. Another problem is that people really, you know, particularly people who didn’t really have a place to go and people who were undocumented and didn’t think that they would be entitled to help from anyone or a place to stay. They were really anxious to get home. And we saw a lot of people, like, rebuild over top of what was probably mold and what’s probably too much water damage to rebuild over safely. And there were some pushes with that too, like a little bit of a push if anybody had the ability, like, right before Thanksgiving even though that was kind of soon. And a lot of people didn’t have power yet, but particularly for Christmas because people had–some people started getting power back. But everybody wanted to be home for Christmas. So a lot of people, like, threw up sheet rock, you know, threw some insulation in, painted it up, and moved home. And what we think–you know, it’s hard to sort of keep track people like that because they kind of end their relationship with you as a volunteer at that point, but what we think probably happened was like, they’re probably going to start once the weather starts getting nice, like seeing the mold come through their walls and having spent, like, thousands, tens of thousands maybe of dollars rebuilding when–

Interviewer: Okay.

Woman: And again, a lot less of that would have happened if there was clear, authoritative information and, like, a consistent message across different agencies and trusted organizations from the get-go, which there really wasn’t.

Interviewer: Okay. So it was a lack of communication across a number of organizations, not just one per se, not just, not just the city or state or federal.

Woman: Yeah. And I mean as far as we knew, I do think the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did have pretty accurate information up and did have that information accessible pretty quickly. It’s just not really where people looked, you know.

Interviewer: Uh huh. Okay.

Woman: People don’t really associate that as a disaster relief organization, and so I don’t think people were like, oh, let’s go to that website first; it’ll be the most knowledgeable.

Interviewer: I see. Okay. Do you think–actually, tell me a little bit about the extent of the–did we go over the extent of the problems?

Woman: Like how widespread they were or–?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: I mean my experience in some ways was limited to the Rockaways. I know that we encountered the same problems with the mold and the water damage information, like, literally across the entire peninsula. I know that we tried to talk to people in Breezy Point about a more trusted method of doing mold and what not to do, and not to just spray, and not to just–you know, that it wasn’t a quick fix, something you could buy at Home Depot. And we brought, like, paperwork and explanations about this stuff. And at one point we handed some stuff to this lady and she was like, to be honest, I’m not going to give this to those guys. They’re firemen; they know what they’re doing. And so in some cases, like that–again, I’m sorry. My information is so specifically oriented around mold a lot, but so you know, anybody with a uniform–if they wound up giving a donation and a bunch of weird detergent or weird mold killer or anything and handed it out to people, people just trusted that they knew what they were doing. And so we had to sort of fight a lot of confusion. And I do know that that was really widespread. I know that there were people doing mold remediation in Red Hook and the mold came back pretty quickly. And people were feeling pretty shitty about that. And I know–yeah, in Staten Island–like the city–they didn’t really get together the funding and the coordination to do, like, mold awareness trainings or classes or anything for at least three months, if not, a little bit more. And you know, by then, we had already started doing them. And obviously we weren’t doing them at the same scale that the city wound up doing them. But really it didn’t take much. It took fliers. It took talking to people. It took just developing a really quick curriculum. And we were just kind of amazed. You know, we would do these sessions in a church or something and people would say, you know, thanks for coming but why the hell isn’t the city here? Like why is it you guys? Like you know? And it’s not even to say that they trust us but they–again, I think it’s a sense of abandonment, that people just couldn’t believe that it was us. Like who are you? Thanks, you know. Yeah, and they know. There are definitely some compounding factors that I don’t know how they could have been fixed or they could have been different. But like with gas, our only way to get gas was through someone who had a vague relationship with Red Cross and who could get to the front of lines, you know, for gas and who could get special treatment. But that really hampered the relief efforts. And I know that DSNY is not–sanitation’s not considered first responders. So they, I’ve heard, were actually, like, sitting in gas lines for six hours, like, when they weren’t even on the clock because, you know, they didn’t have the same kind of privileges to move to the front of the line or, you know, to flash a card, and they’re a first responder. And I think in the future, because they played such a large role from the beginning, it’s something that needs to be considered, like giving them whatever status they need to be able to respond more effectively. Even though they did a great job, but you know, they did a great job despite huge obstacles because of their status.

Interviewer: So it impeded some of the trash pickup then because they didn’t to have–you’re saying they didn’t have gas.

Woman: Yeah, they didn’t have gas. They couldn’t get access to it very quickly. And you know, there are certain benefits and efficiencies that are related to being a first responder that they just didn’t have. And I think that they should.

Interviewer: Uh huh. Okay. Do you think that there’s edges or boundaries to where the problem begins and ends?

Woman: I’m not sure exactly what you mean.

Interviewer: So for instance, you know, we can talk a little bit about who else has been affected in the other areas, the other neighborhoods. You know, could you elaborate maybe a little bit more upon, you know, the space and time of the situation. You know, how long are we looking at?

Woman: Okay. In terms of, like, geographic edges and boundaries, like, it’s interesting because, you know, in Bell Harbor, which obviously is in Rockaway the more affluent area, like people’s houses were a lot more destroyed. People had a lot more ability to deal with that. They had money in the bank. They had better insurance, for the most part. There are retirees. There are people that have been there for years. There are people living in apartments there. But a lot of people just–or even just a social network, you know, friends and family with bigger houses who could take them in while they repaired their home, even if it had to happen slowly, whereas the further east we went down on the peninsula, people were poorer, people had less resources, people didn’t have any savings in the bank, you know. And Arverne where we–where our office is–the median income is twenty-nine thousand dollars a year, whereas in Bell Harbor, it’s sixty-nine thousand dollars a year. So obviously that’s a huge difference in resources available to people. And I think that, you know, obviously the immediate response was really centered–all the relief agencies and stuff were centered around 129th. And I think there’s grassroots–it’s grassroots groups who right away [knew] that Far Rockaway, which you know, obviously being identified as poorer and blacker, was not being reached as much, and did reach out there and started distribution and started seeing what people needed. And then I do think a lot of the middle of the peninsula was really forgotten about, like from the 70’s or 80’s down to, like, the 30’s until you got to like East 38th and there was another volunteer center, volunteer hub. So in terms of those kinds of boundaries, I think that the middle of the peninsula there was left behind for awhile. It just really didn’t have the same kind of help. And I forget the other part of the question you asked.

Interviewer: Oh, I did mention, you know, spatial or geographically, but also in terms of time, you know, what we’re looking at as far as, you know, when the problem I guess will be resolved or come to some type of closure.

Woman: Yeah, I’m not sure. You know, it’s–okay, so a couple of things. Just a couple of things about that. I don’t know when closure will come. I mean six months in, there’s a lot of people who still really can’t put a–can’t really put a time on when they think they’re going to be back. And I think that they’re really shocked that it’s–the woman who’s house you were at today, Maureen–I mean she’s really far from being home. She’s just having her house gutted. And then we’ll–even if people were going to work straight through every single day and she had all the funds right now, she’s not getting home for at least a month just with the number of man hours that need to go into her getting back. I don’t think–and that’s not counting being subjected to only volunteer labor and things like that. So I mean I think the problem started before the storm in a lot of ways because the Rockaways is so on the periphery of New York anyway. I think that you don’t have to know what’s going on in the Rockaways. You don’t drive through the Rockaways. You don’t really hear about the Rockaways and maybe just come here to go to the beach and having a good time. Then you go home. And even, you see like, hearing about from local residents and stuff about corruption and stuff in the government. Like I think that a lot of different things have been able to sort of go on in the Rockaways that might not–that might get a little more notice in other places. But yeah, I mean I would probably–in the best cases, I would be surprised if people were rebuilt in two years.

Interviewer: Okay.

Woman: And there’s really no–I don’t see anyone paying any attention to community economic development. And I see millions and millions, hundreds of millions of dollars coming in in private, in the form of private donations, whether it’s like Robin Hood, you know, and all these different organizations that have pretty good funding. And none of the people getting those jobs are from the Rockaways, you know? And so the way that…the way that recovery is being addressed is not actually helping a lot of the long-term problems that led this being the kind of crisis that it is.

Interviewer: Okay. What types of levels and hierarchies exist to bring this problem about? What is it?

Woman: I think that there’s been a lot of city planning choices and just kind of historical developments that create a lot of divisions in the Rockaways. People of Bell Harbor often–and obviously this is a generalization. But often people are really, really quick to differentiate themselves from people on other parts of the peninsula. They’re, you know, upper-middle class. They’ve got decent houses. They’ve got a tight community. And they all belong to different social groups and churches and things like that that have been able to support them. And just there’s a lot of social capital there. And then there are places like Arverne, like where we were, or Far Rockaway, where you know, there’s a lot of really great, hard-working people but they’re very aware that they’re a few blocks away from projects where they hear shootings a lot. Like you know? And you know, it’s interesting listening to people. Like a lot of people in Arverne don’t think any of the businesses that were destroyed are really going to want to come back because they were always getting robbed. Or like they had a bad crowd, quote unquote, in there, and they don’t think the owners of the businesses, like, are going to think it’s worth rebuilding because the clientele stuff. And I also think you see different divisions like, first of all, like all these projects–you know, I hope I’m not exaggerating but I’m pretty sure that Rockaway has something like twenty-three percent of Queens public housing, which is a lot for a pretty small space. And then there’s only a hundred and thirty-three thousand people here. So to have–that’s a significant number of people in public housing. And people were kind of pushed out here after, you know, various plans went through to do slum clearance in places like Brooklyn and other parts of Queens so that they could bring those neighborhoods–you know, do urban renewal, different programs, whatever. And so people were, again, pushed down to the periphery, pushed out into projects. And you know, now I think in the last probably, like, six to ten years, there’s been a new attention paid to the Rockaways because of the changes in the demographics of New York and the sort of ever-increasing wealth gap and ever-increasing attention and our current administration. Everyone pays to the higher end–I don’t know–just to wealthy, you know, accommodating the wealthy. And I think that’s when you–like where Arverne by the sea is, you know, I think that you’ll see more of that here as a lot of the houses in that area that were damaged really badly. If people can’t afford to rebuild, I think that they’re going to be cleared and most new developments will come in that are not actually affordable to the people who are living there now to keep staying in the same neighborhood and, you know, new housing.

Interviewer: Okay. So do you think–people talk about this, and we’re talking about it in terms of neighborhoods–do you think this is–well, other people talk about it as a global problem, you know, people being affected. How do you think about this? What do you think it is? Is it a local problem? Is it much larger than a local problem?

Woman: Yeah, I mean it’s a local problem. It’s a global problem. It’s a city problem. And it’s just really a microcosm of, you know–it’s just very–it’s one small area that I think is so sort of, like, small and insular. It’s just an interesting place to see all of these things play out because you can see it all. It’s like looking under a microscope. So you can just see it really well. And it’s really clear. And the racial lines on the peninsula are really stark. And so it just makes–it puts all of this really sharp. And it is, like, a problem of, you know, the kind of like system of global capital and movement of global capital that we live in. But you know, and I think that–and, you know, the racial thing–all of those things are there. But obviously I think if you’re involved in–it’s hard if you’re involved in relief work not to think about it as a localized problem because, you know, in order to really get anything done, you have to think of it even as household to household problem because that’s kind of the scale at which it’s easiest to help people. And I mean we kind of came in knowing that people would get displaced. And if they had many more–you know, people are going to be displaced anyway, but each obstacle that was put in their way was going to increase the chance of that even more. And even if maybe this area shouldn’t be as heavily developed or even if certain kinds of architectures or housing really don’t belong in, like, this precarious a place, we just wanted people to have that choice on their own and not be pushed out, you know. And maybe if people were able to have a safe home–you know, we got to give people space to maybe be part of, like, some kind of planning instead of just being subjected to, like you know, whatever vagueries or capital that’s moving in or being taken out of the area, would happen after the storm.

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: Help give people more agency in that process.

Interviewer: Okay. Because we are talking—were talking about Arverne in particular, you mentioned or touched upon briefly some of the changes that have gone on in the area or are going on in the area. Tell me a little bit more about the construction that’s going on, the recent construction that’s going on.

Woman: Well okay, so Arverne-by-the-Sea I think is about eight years old, ten years old. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Arverne when there’s been like a particularly, like, high tide or rain, but the storm drains are really compromised. And at first that that was solely a problem that happened after–that maybe the hurricane caused the storm drains to be compromised. And you’d see flooding in the streets, you know, a lot. And when I was talking to people, they said well that’s something that’s always happened here but it’s been happening a lot worse since Arverne-by-the-Sea was built. And people have explained that to me a little bit. And I don’t know enough about the kind of public infrastructure that goes into, like, clearing storm water or rain water to necessarily understand that. But pretty much everyone will tell you that the flooding, like the day to day flooding has gotten worse since Arverne-by-the-Sea was there.

Interviewer: Okay.

Woman There’s also about a hundred acres of, quote unquote, undeveloped land. And I think it is primarily undeveloped for the most part, that’s coastal in an area that we would call Edgemere but they’re starting to call Arverne East because, like, for real estate purposes, like a lot of things are named in New York. And that has a big swath of beach where there’s really not a lot of concessions or, you know, recreation. But there is a thirty-five acre, I think, nature reserve, but it’s a reserve for the piping plover, a type of bird that, you know, I guess is endangered and has a habitat there, which a lot of people really, like, really kind of smirk at. And you look and locals have–like residents have these Facebook groups. Whenever somebody brings up a piping plover, everybody is like fuck those things, you know. And you know, because some people believe the space on the beach would be better off, you know, developed to have some kind of like water recreation, sports, something. And instead it’s sort of unused. You’re not really supposed to walk through there, except it does become a space for people who are already on the margins. And other people are afraid to go near there because they think that, like, that’s where all the riffraff goes. And how much of this is what’s really happening and how much of it–I don’t know how much of it is really happening. I don’t know how dangerous that is of a place to go. And I don’t know how much any of that’s dependent on it being a nature reserve. But what we do know is that the rights to develop that land are basically in the hands of a developing company. I believe it’s Bluestone Development, Steve Bluestone. And what’s funny is I went to a sheret. Have you heard of the sherets going on?

Interviewer: No, I have not.

Woman. Like sherets are kind of a meeting where people discuss urban planning. And they’re supposed to be taking feedback from the community and using that as input into how to re-develop, post-Sandy. But you know, obviously a sheret doesn’t have to take place in a disaster. But anyway, I went to a sheret that was hosted by the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance. There were a bunch of students from NYU there who had been doing some kind of project on NYU. And they wanted people’s input on how to develop Arverne East. And the entire thing was sort of framed as though, you know, they were really trying to get legitimate input. What do you guys want? Do you want more stores? Do you want housing? Do you want transportation–? Like what do you think Rockaway needs? But then come to find out from locals, like, everyone’s known for years that this particular development company owns the rights to develop that land and what they’re probably going to do is some combination of housing like Arverne-by-the-Sea. I think that they’re planning on doing, like, a thousand units of housing. And you know, whether it gets developed or not has already been decided. And so–and it’s like probably–I mean a hundred acres of New York City waterfront land that is relatively undeveloped–I mean that’s a goldmine, right?

Interviewer: Sure.

Woman: So I think that we’ll see similar–I think that you’ll see similar developments like Arverne-by-the-Sea kind of creeping down. And I think that, you know, you’ll see community-based organizations in Far Rockaway worried about that and worried about people getting priced out and worried about people kind of being pushed out. And then you’ll see people on the western side of the peninsula kind of celebrating getting the, you know, riffraff out and kind of like, you know, making more and more of the peninsula a place that people from here want to go, people from Bell Harbor, people from the western side of the peninsula. Not that it’s not–I’m sure that it’s going to bring amenities that people in Arverne or Edgemere or wherever will enjoy as well, but they’re also going to bear the brunt of any displacement or, you know, rising housing costs that wind up resulting from that.

Interviewer: Okay. How do you think the redrawing of flood maps is going to impact what you’re speaking of?

Woman: I think it’s going to have a huge effect on just average, everyday people. And I think it’s going to have huge effect on–like I feel like a huge portion of Rockaway population is, like, retired civil servants like cops or firefighters, or current, you know, like in Breezy. And I’m seeing something that–should I wait?

Interviewer: Okay, so we were talking about the re-zoning of some of the flood maps and how this was going to effect the residents in some of these communities.

Woman: Yeah, it’s going to effect the residents of the communities a lot. One thing is that I was talking to some people from FEMA, and don’t know how, like–maybe. I don’t know. I guess I don’t know sometimes whether it’s supposed to be common knowledge or not, but it’s fine for the purpose of this. And they were saying that in a lot of disasters, like, people understand it’s going to take awhile, like, to get things, to get moving at all, let alone back on your feet. But what the local government will do is to see what’s going to come through FEMA, see what’s going to come through federal government, see what’s going to come through government bodies, and then to fill in the gaps, they start using the private money. But they say that what Bloomberg has done–this is their understanding. What Bloomberg has done, A, since he’s going out and he wants to go out with a bang and he wants to have a political career in the future, he actually took all of the private donations and dispersed them really quickly. And so you have a lot of, like, volunteer organizations and different sort of like funds for people to start rebuilding. But they may be rebuilding houses that cannot actually be mitigated to a point where they can actually satisfy requirements of new flood zone mapping. And they’re not really–like the people in the houses won’t be able to, A, either be able to afford the flood insurance anymore after the remapping is done or–you know, they’re supposed to elevate it and it won’t really be a house that you can elevate, and things like that. And so they think a lot of the private donations have just been flushed down the toilet because these people aren’t going to be able to stay.

Interviewer: Okay.

Woman: One FEMA guy actually said to me–just real quick. He said that he’s been through two hundred and fifty disasters and never before was he just like these people are fucked, before he came here.

Interviewer: And now, is this the case of residents across the Rockaways in general or are there differences, again, in the different areas and neighborhoods? Is it…is it more complicated than just, okay, I can’t afford my insurance or I can’t afford to reconstruct my house in the way that the flood zone wants me to reconstruct it.

Woman: Well, what they were doing as they remapped the flood zone–some more people are in Zone A and then a lot of people are in something called Zone V, which has something to do with, like, the potentially velocity that the water can come at, which can actually be more destructive than just like flooding. And that is where you really wind up kind of screwed, you know, in terms of what your insurance will cost. So just a few things. One is that a lot of people don’t believe that this is really going to happen. They’re like come on, this is New York City. Like we would make such a stink if this happened. People would be up in arms. It would be a revolution. They could never do this. And people would be like what’s happening. You know, and they did actually go really far in one direction, and it looked borderline, like, apocalyptic in terms of what it would mean for the community. And they retracted from that a little bit. And there’s fewer people who are the most screwed by the remapping. But I mean you are talking about, if you have a mortgage, you can–there’s something where, like, you can pay in advance now for a certain amount of period of time and get grandfathered for a couple of years. But eventually these different changes on the flood maps will affect your insurance. And if you have a mortgage, you’re required to have flood insurance. And people are talking about going from paying, like, a few thousand dollars to like tens of thousands of dollars for their flood insurance. And that’s just huge for people, you know? But again, a lot of people don’t really believe this is going to happen. They’re just rebuilding and they have intentions or ability to elevate their home at some point. And if you own your house outright, you don’t have to get that insurance. But if it’s mortgage, you do. And even if you did own your house outright, if you ever want to sell it, no one coming in buying the house unless they were buying it flat-out in cash. If anybody was going to mortgage it, you’re going to have a really hard time selling your house because nobody is going to want to pay, you know, whatever, five hundred thousand dollars and then also have to pay twenty grand in flood insurance every year on top of whatever else they have to do. So I think it’s actually going to have a huge effect on who’s able to stay in the Rockaways. I think if you own your house or your house has been in your family, and you don’t have a mortgage, you’re obviously better off. And I do think it’s a little bit different. Like Far Rockaway, a lot of parts of Far Rockaway just–Far Rockaway’s, like, wider. So you know, over here the peninsula is really, really narrow. So like when the ocean met the bay, as people talk about all the time, just like everything in the middle really was completely fucked. But in Far Rockaway, there were areas that really just didn’t flood that badly. And so I think in Far Rockaway they’re a little bit more protected, and there’s probably fewer homes percentage-wise that are going to wind up having to have the crazy flood insurance. But there’s also less homeowners out there. I mean that’s not entirely true. But a lot of them are high-density housings out there too.

Interviewer: Okay. So in the areas you’ve been working in–and again, you’re working in some parts of Bell Harbor, Rockaway Beach, and Arverne–what are you seeing? You’re seeing mostly homeowners or a mix of homeowners and renters?

Woman: Because of what we do, we kind of see mostly homeowners. But also, we understand that renters were in a really bad situation. I mean–like even when we were like a couple of months, two months, three months in–some people hadn’t really been called by their landlord. And so we have something. We ask are you the owner? You know? And usually if someone says no, like there’s some few instances where we can talk to the landlord if they have a good relationship and we sort of deem the landlord to not be–like we don’t want to be doing free work for people who could totally afford to be paying other people to have this done, you know, because we don’t actually think that would be beneficial to most people. But there are a lot of property owners here who just don’t really have that much money. But maybe, like, they have a house with their family that they bought a long time ago. A lot of like–we saw a lot of, like, single female heads of household, like retirees kind of people who had, like, rented out, like, units in their house. And that was their primary income. And so, you know, that’s another thing. We would see renters and say do you own their house? And we kind of knew they didn’t. but turned a blind eye to it because it was pretty clear that whoever the landlord was, you know, wasn’t doing anything and that the renter was intending to rebuild on their own. And we’re kind of assuming that if that’s what people are doing, they’re doing it–that’s a calculated decision and they’re doing it for a reason. And so we kind of–sign here. You know what I mean? Which sort of protects us and–

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: You know? But because of what we’re doing and because we’re liable and because if you’re–like some landlords do just make too much money for us to work for them for free. We work primarily with homeowners, like people like the pastor who, you know, construction guy. He owns a house. Not rich. Sandy fucking wiped him out. And so it’s mostly homeowners. And I would say mostly people with mortgages.

Interviewer: Okay. Okay. How do you think your experience was similar to or different from others?

Woman: For one thing, I think I was out here sooner than some other volunteer group types because–and that might be different because I think, A, people were really vulnerable. I think that we developed a pretty close relationship with a lot of our–the people we’ve worked with. We–really in Rockaway Park, there was a few families we worked with, like, really closely. I think we got to know people more. I mean people–I guess it depends on who the others are but like Team Rubicon or–I mean any of the groups that kind of just went door to door and banged out all this demo work, like we came in. We talked to the homeowner. We told them what was going to happen. We asked them to leave while we did the work because it’s really painful for people to see everything brought out. Like and so just by virtue of, like, taking that kind of care in the kind of work that we’re doing I think has differentiated us from other people doing similar work. Also because we kept checking back, you know. We were like, okay well, I know we put on this list for a long time. Where are you at now? Or I know we did your mold in February; where are you at now? Like do you have materials? Do you have this? And so we really check back with people a lot. We’ve checked back when we’ve had access to, like, free air testing to make sure that, you know, A, it looks good for us, for us to be able to prove that the houses that we’ve done are in good shape, but also to make sure the houses that we did are in good shape, because obviously we’re happy to go back. You know, like we have enough. We’re New Yorkers, and we can, you know, do that differently. So in terms of disaster relief people, I think having that connection to the community and also just feeling like this is our home town is a little different because we have a different sense of accountability to people. And the disaster relief industry people can be in and out depending on what it is that they do. And I think that’s different for us. And I think it’s different in particular for me because I have a background in doing, like, some community organizing and just being involved in my various communities as an activist in certain ways. And particularly for disaster relief people also, I think I have more of a desire to be an advocate and part of a struggle if that needs to happen, like, alongside people who are trying to have some kind of agency in what’s going on in their future. You know? And disaster relief people are supposed to be completely apolitical because disaster relief is apolitical.

Interviewer: Okay.

Woman: Just like development is apolitical.

Interviewer: So how about…how about your–you mentioned, you know, other New Yorkers, the people of the community, residents, in terms of other responders, how about policy actors? How’s it similar to or different?

Woman: I mean I have nothing to gain. I’m not trying to get reelected. I don’t even–I mean I trust the work we do. So I don’t even have to really play too much politics to, like, make our–stand up for our work or anything like that. But I mean policy people–the super-local policy people at least talk a very good talk about how behind all these people they are. Obviously we have yet to see what happens with that. And the only thing they really have seen is, like, Malcolm Smith and fucking Dan Halloran–is that his name–who got arrested?

Interviewer: That rings a bell, yeah.

Woman: Malcolm Smith was the local state senator who was having monthly meetings with residents where it was basically like, we’re going to get all this money; how do you want it to be spent? And like inviting, you know, the Knights of Columbus and various churches and all these places and you go. And all these people get two minutes at the microphone. And I really think it’s a place just for people to vent, like, so they feel that they’ve vented in a place where somebody of power, like, listened to them. But I really don’t think it actually even was intended to have an important impact on policy. You know, a couple of people take notes. The city council people just waltz in and out, like, to make an appearance. And I think that obviously most politician are going to wind up siding with business and with developers and with real estate. That’s how New York is. I mean New York never even had, like, a comprehensive city plan, in part because real estate has dictated how New York has developed, unlike Chicago, which did have a comprehensive city plan. The people who did that were obviously, like, moneyed elite. But at least they did a plan. You know what I mean? New York has not really had the same thing because it’s just sort of taken for granted that, like, finance insurance and real estate guide New York and how it develops. And that’s not going to change. And I mean if I had to predict what’s going to happen without a struggle, it’s going to be a lot like–a little like a train where a lot of people have to leave, except for I think that those vacant spaces will be filled in very quickly whether it’s with hotels–I mean you can build here if you have enough money to build–to last here, you know. It’s just not going to be able to be done by the people who live here now.

Interviewer: Alright, so I want to shift gears a little bit and ask some more general questions.

Woman: Sure.

Interviewer: How has the storm caused you to see, think, or experience New York City in a different way?

Woman: I mean in some ways I’m not sure if it really has. I think that it’s been an interesting thing in terms of, like, what it means to do sort of like–just people are such a vulnerable position and people have been so emotionally distraught throughout this. Like the level of, like, accountability you feel–for me, like I feel having gotten involved in this is really extreme. You know, like I just–I would feel– I feel like it’s a little bit impossible to walk away from it. And again, like I studied disaster-relief. I’ve studied humanitarian relief, things like that. And I know how it works. And on some levels, nothing I see happening is all that surprising, except for there’s a different…different, like, emotional impact when that’s happening to the place where you live and to people that you’ve gotten to know, you know, even if it’s people who six months ago I wouldn’t really think I’d be friends with, you know? And so once you know about their lives and, like, how they’ve gotten to where they’ve gotten and what they lost, it’s a little harder to, like, step into their life and step out really quickly. And so I think it’s made me more patient in terms of doing activism or that kind of stuff because this is going to be a long process. And it’s kind of interesting.

Interviewer: How is this going to change your relationship to other New Yorkers?

Woman: Again, I don’t know so much that it has but it’s weird to live in Fort Greene and we’re on a hill and we’re totally safe and it’s kind of a fancy neighborhood and nothing really happens, and then, like, the day after the storm people were just standing in line for brunch again or people were, like, going shopping for fancy dresses again or walking their dogs. Like it was just nothing was different except for we were coming down here every day and doing really long days and, you know, there was no street lights. There were no rules. You could just, you know, driving over remains. There was no power. There was no cell phones. There was no nothing. And then we would go home and everything is completely the same, you know, normal. And then just kind of seeing the disconnect between people in those neighborhoods and people that are here and kind of the lack of desire to really know what’s happening, you know. It’s not necessarily like they don’t care but they just don’t care to find out. And you know, coming down here obviously it’s not like Haiti but, like, seeing like all the–like when we were Haiti, there was just, like, rubble lining all the roads because there was no place to go with all the refuse for over a year. And then here, it was like you come down and there’s, like, fucking insulation and asbestos pile just like broken up and discarded couches on the side of the road.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: And you know, at the same time you don’t need to bombard areas that are already, like, pretty horrible. Like it’s just crazy. Like people just haven’t seen that and have no idea what it actually means or don’t know that some people still don’t really have power, you know?

Interviewer: Yeah. We did talk a little bit earlier about some of the differences in neighborhoods and the communities. But to be more explicit, some people are making connections between the aftermath of the storm and inequality. What do you think about that?

Woman: If that’s making more people make that connection, I think that’s great. Hopefully there’s a positive outcome from it. But I mean, again, like in some ways I just don’t think that’s surprising. There are people who are really vulnerable and who don’t have a safety net and who have very little buffer between, like, living an okay life and, you know, living paycheck to paycheck or whatever it is. And there are people who have it a lot better than that, you know. And you know, when you add an acute crisis to that, yeah, it will make it more visible. But I’m not necessarily surprised by that. I don’t know. I do think there’s a lot of people who are sort of–you know, there are New York Times articles about these women coming down from their apartments in Manhattan and getting here and kind of realizing how people were living and feeling embarrassed that they drove down in the Lexis. And like, there was one New York Times article–a lady’s like, at least my Lexis was really dirty, you know. And so, I don’t know. Does it help maybe for people to see how other people live? And that could produce some kind of compassion that produces sometimes them to act on that in some way? And that’s great. But I don’t know. I mean we’re pretty densely crammed together in New York. If you don’t have any clue how people who are not rich live, I mean if you didn’t have a clue about that last year, I don’t know. There may not be much hope.

Interviewer: Okay. Do you think this is about class, race?

Woman: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean on a number of levels. Look at all the, like, disaster relief organizations that are flying people in, you know, flying, like, young people in to do this work and getting them housing and giving them a living stipend and giving them all their food and, like–because that’s what they do. There are kids who, like, travel, who do disaster relief. And there are young people who are intrepid and adventurous, and get them out here. And there’s tons of money that could be–like I think there’s, like, a thirty-five percent unemployment rate, particularly in, like, Far Rockaway for people ages, like, eighteen to twenty-four or eighteen to thirty. I forget. It’s the youngest census–you know what I mean? Adult census track or whatever, or grouping, you know. And no one’s making an effort to get those people jobs. Those people who need it most and those people who if they had jobs, would have had a buffer and, like, maybe would have had money to repair their homes and not live in a hotel for six months, eat at McDonalds, and drive an hour and a half to get their kid to school. You know what I mean? And so–but it’s just–it’s predictable but still infuriating that there’s just really no attention paid to having those people included in sort of the influx of–benefiting from the influx of money sort of coming in at this point, you know. And the way disaster relief works, it’s not meant to do that. And it’s not going to do it unless–I mean again, there would have to be a pretty strong push to make that happen.

Interviewer: To get them involved in–?

Woman: To make funders and the people who are in charge of that money include those people in, like, who gets hired. You know what I mean? It would have to mean a huge change in just how those things just work.

Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah.

Woman: And there’s nobody trying to make that change, you know? There’s so many things going on. Even if you are a community organization, there’s things to fight for like fighting to change, like disaster relief on the mega scale is probably not what you’re looking at if you think you might lose your house, you know?

Interviewer: Yeah. What about gender?

Woman: I mean there was a couple of months where we noticed that we were working for a lot of single female heads of household who rented out a basement unit or something. And at that time, FEMA was not giving people any money for rental units because that was considered a small business. But the small business loan–people weren’t eligible for it because they didn’t have enough income because they didn’t have the tenants. So they were stuck in this huge spiral. And they really were falling through the gaps because they didn’t–you know, they didn’t…they didn’t qualify for this save because of this and they didn’t qualify for this save because of this. And I think a lot of people were in that kind of situation. Like we saw teachers, single mothers, who–you know what I mean like? And so, that was one of the things about being around [Inaudible 58:46] was that we could make those people a priority.

Interviewer: Uh huh.

Woman: And in the big scheme of things we probably hadn’t done that many but we probably worked in twenty houses in that situation. Or you know–or fifteen houses or something in that situation. I don’t know how many. And you know, again, just like the way those things play out everywhere they play out here except for people are in crisis mode, so it plays out a lot faster. If you’re going to lose out on that, I mean you’re going to have a quicker trip to the bottom.

Interviewer: Have you experienced any sexism or different treatment?

Woman: Yeah, sure. I mean people, when I go to their homes to do a mold assessment, for instance, I definitely had some, you know, who’s this girl? Why is she here? And why should I trust her, kind of thing. And you know, like in the activist world, you experience that. Within the disaster relief world, you experience that. And that–I mean again, I don’t think it’s that much different than the rest of life.

Interviewer: Yeah. In your opinion, why did the storm happen?

Woman: I mean because we haven’t done anything in the last–I don’t know how many years–hundred years to curb the process of climate change or sea level rise or– And you know, and these things will probably happen more. Or some people say that they’ll happen less frequently but when they do, they’ll be really, really severe. But even just in terms of sea level rise–and you know, I don’t remember the statistics. But the kind of sea level rise we’re supposed to see in the next thirty years is going to be a really big deal for places like New York, you know. And it’s an interesting thing because, like okay, so do we rebuild those? I don’t know. We are. But it’s, you know, definitely seems to be like to that.

Interviewer: What do you think caused the hurricane?

Woman: I mean obviously hurricanes have always happened. But I think that, again, like if we had–you know, if sea level rise wasn’t where it is, would it have hap–would have been so severe? Also, you know, sixty, a hundred years ago, when all of these houses were built, nobody was thinking about the danger that the coast was going to be in a hundred years. And also, people didn’t really live here full time then. it was all summer bungalows. We’ve been in houses that, like, literally still didn’t even have, like, [Inaudible 1:01:47] Like they were still, like, pretty much built, like, maybe a little bit here and there like piecemeal. But I get–first of all, I don’t think that most places here were built to live in year around originally. And I don’t think that–nobody thought this could ever happen, you know, especially people whose families have been here for sixty years and it hasn’t happened.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: Clearly storms happened but I don’t know. So I don’t know how to explain that but, like, the disaster that happened was really a matter of, like, kind of human negligence on a number of levels.

Interviewer: Yeah. Okay. So that–you said human negligence. Is that why it was so bad?

Woman: Yeah, I mean in some ways. It was like–it probably was not really smart to really have, like, a bunch of hundreds of people–

Man: Bye guys!

Woman: Bye!

Man: Hey, have a good one!

Interviewer: Okay. You too.

Man: You coming out again, Tom?

Interviewer: Yeah, you’ll see me again.

Man: Yeah? Cool.

Woman: Bye. Take care.

Man: Bye!

Woman: I don’t know. I mean it’s probably not smart to have people living in some of the bungalows we’ve seen like the [Inaudible 1:03:03] sand. And they’re a hundred feet from–you know what I mean? Like they’re so close to the beach. It’s kind of–it’s just amazing to me. Even in Jersey, you know, on the shore houses as close to the beach. Some of the ones out here don’t have basements, you know. They’re on stilts.  But here, I don’t know what’s different about this sort of, you know, the ground that it’s being built into, different things like that. But it seems–like it seemed crazy for me to find out that people one block from the beach have a built out basement and people living in it and that they stayed during the hurricane.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: And that people went to their basements because it was a hurricane, and they’re afraid of wind and that it filled with water, and that’s a lot. Like if you look at people who died, a lot of people went to the basement for, like, safety.

Interviewer: So was it again–was it lack of information?

Woman: It seems like it. I mean, well also, I don’t think that the storm surge was really that comprehendible to a lot of people. I mean when you think of the hurricane, you think of the wind. You think of those kinds of things. But you don’t really think of just the ocean coming up, like there being a twelve to fourteen-foot storm surge. You know, like because a lot of places in New York, it doesn’t even rain that hard, you know? It wasn’t like we got eighteen inches of rain in a couple of hours or something. It’s that the ocean came up, you know. And you know, even when they talk about having certain kind of surge protectors, like if they put surge protectors in places that would protect lower Manhattan, they would actually jeopardize and make vulnerable other places like Coney Island. You know what I mean, because that water’s going to go somewhere.

Interviewer: I see. I see. Okay. Before I ask you that, do you think we’re likely to see more storms happen again?

Woman: Yeah. I mean I do. Who knows? We may not. But I think it’d be–knowing what we know just about climate change and things like that, I think it would be unlikely for it not to happen. And you know, a lot of people kind of talk about this being, like, a hundred year storm that–I mean we’ve never lived through a period of time where these kind of changes had already happened. So I think it’s kind of ridiculous to be able to say it’s a hundred year storm. And just really quick on the human negligence thing, I mean like Robert Moses being part of, like, moving so many poor people down to one of the–like just in terms of, like, weather-related shit, like this area is really vulnerable.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: I don’t know. Do you want to do human warehousing on a tiny fucking barrier peninsula? I don’t know. Maybe that’s not a good idea, you know? Or like the nights–I don’t know. It seems kind of–it seems like it’s risky.

Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So some people say the storm was caused by climate change. And why aren’t more storms like this because of climate change? Think about this.

Woman: I mean I think whether this has always happened–but again, I think it’s more severe because of climate change and I think its impact is exacerbated because of the increased density of housing in places like this. There’s just more people to be affected. And it’s not summer bungalows. Do you know what I mean? As real estate everywhere has become more dear–and you’ve then you’ve got, you know, Arverne-by-the– Actually, Arverne-by-the-Sea made it really well, but yeah, just in general. Like keeping and increasing the density of population here despite risks.

Interviewer: Right. Right. If the storm is connected to climate change, what can we do, going forward, to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t continue to happen or get worse?

Woman: Someone told me the other day that Bloomberg, in the course of his tenure, was part of a hundred and ten rezoning efforts. The majority of those were in waterfront areas. But most of those were–and a lot of those were also converting different kinds of buildings to housing. And I mean I think that’s one thing to think about. Do we want to create, you know, by huge numbers, the amount of people living right on the waterfront? I mean Williamsburg didn’t really get hit that hard but fifteen years ago, all of the development along the waterfront in Williamsburg was industrial. And so yeah, people were going to lose a lot of money. But they weren’t really going to lose, like, lives. You know? But now, all of the Williamsburg waterfront is all housing. It’s…it’s expensive housing. It’s probably–I don’t know anything about the way it’s built, but it’s possible it’s built in a way that’s more resilient, everyone’s favorite word. But I don’t know. I just remember thinking, like, when–do you remember under when El Niño happened for the–like and everyone was freaking out?

Interviewer: I do remember El Niño, yes. Yes I do.

Woman: And then they were talking about all these houses, like, on the cliffs on the coast and California and stuff.

Interviewer: California, yeah. Received a lot of attention.

Woman: Yeah, and I remember just kind of thinking, well, like why would anybody ever build a house on a cliff on the ocean and expect that–like we know what erosion is. Like you know what I mean? And how did we not expect the ocean to erode that and to have there never be a storm that would knock that out?

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: And I think–and then we’ve been kind of protected from that here for a long time. But now, you know, that this has happened, maybe not build right–like have city blocks within, like, a stone’s throw from the ocean.

Interviewer: Okay. Okay. So you go back again to Arverne-by-the-Sea. There’s–I want to say there’s been a lot of press but there’s been definitely some press directed at the success of what they did, you know, of well look. This area was not affected. And interestingly enough, Arverne itself lay behind this development. You know? I mean how did that play into–I guess it’s structural mitigation, right? That’s the term that’s used. You know, how did that play into this whole–?

Woman: Yeah, and I don’t really know the difference between–I mean I don’t know what it takes to structurally mitigate Arverne versus Arverne-by-the-Sea. And Arverne-by-the-Sea was a pretty new development. And it was kind of a clean– You know, they were given sort of a clean plate to receive from. And so, you know, is it maybe a lot easier to create a great storm draining system if you are starting from scratch rather than doing it patchwork throughout the neighborhood with houses of varying ages and design and, you know, whatever? And I don’t know to what degree this is true in Arverne-by-the-Sea but some–it may be smart to design houses in this area where the bottom floor is sort of like your garage. And then, like the actual living area is the next story up and, you know, just in terms of safety and not losing as much of your possessions as people did here when their houses were on the ground floor.

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: A lot of people lost everything that way. So I think there are smarter ways to build, but it kind of involves getting rid of what’s there now. And it makes it a little hard, you know, to say well maybe we need to get these poor people out of that Cooper Union and listen to architects talk about, like, what to do about Zone A. And somebody said something about people across the country getting tired of having to pay taxes that bailout people who live on the coasts in high-risk areas. And so maybe we just need to say, like, if you’re going to choose to live on the coast, you have to have this much X amount of money to bail yourself out. And so I don’t know. I mean people who live in Arverne-by-the-Sea aren’t necessarily wealthy, but at the same time, it’s a little bit along those lines, right, because that housing is definitely worth a little more than a lot of the houses you see on the other side in Arverne-by-the-Bay.

Interviewer: Right. Right. So are we talking about relocation of people? Are we–of full neighborhoods? Is that one of the solutions?

Woman: I mean sure. It’s a possible solution. Like whether or not it’s a very–obviously it’s a pretty tragic solution because there’s neighborhood ties and social fabrics that would be completely destroyed. I think that’s aligned with the question people have asked us about, like, do we think it’s maybe it’s a sign that people shouldn’t be living in those areas? Is it maybe silly to rebuild when this might happen again? But again, really wanting people to have their own choices, you know, be able to make their own choice and not end up, like, destitution I think is important. And you know, it turns out that probably FEMA’s going to offer a number of families a pretty significant amount of money if they want to elevate their homes.

Interviewer: Okay.

Woman: I don’t know. You know what I mean? And so I think it would be, in a pragmatic way, it would be a pretty–I think it would be premature to try to do mass relocation now before finding out, like, what’s possible in terms of mitigating risks.

Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.

Woman: Other ways. But eventually, yeah, I don’t know. I know that they’re conflicting ways to feel about things, but at the same time, I just feel like if people are relocated, what’s going to take the place? It’s basically going to be, like, a–I think it would just wind up–like everybody keeps talking about resorts and casinos or kind of like a playground for the rich, like, on the outskirts of the city–

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: –that they could get to by subway, you know?

Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So let’s see. The question I was going to ask you has escaped me. Before you started volunteering, what did you expect?

Woman: Well I had seen pictures and I knew that things were pretty bad. But I maybe thought it was going to be a little quicker. I mean seeing people like Maureen Smith, whose houses are being gutted now, you know, six months after, particularly with the thousands of people who flooded through here. That kind of stuff’s weird.

Interviewer: So tell me more about that, because you said, you know, the delay. What is the delay from?

Woman: Well I think some people just had to leave their houses. And then they’re just not here, you know? If you don’t have a car, and it’s going to take you an hour and a half to get here from the hotel at LaGuardia Airport and you have a job, you know, or even with rapid repairs, that was a very hard thing for working people because a lot of times they said they were coming on Monday but then at three o’clock they’re like, we’re running late. We’ll come tomorrow. And if that happens a couple of times and you don’t have, like, a union job or you don’t have a vacation coming or you don’t have five to ten paid sick days, you know what I mean? That actually puts a huge dent in your ability to do the kinds of things you need to do for your family. And so I think those kind of issues got in the way of people rebuilding in part or just the way that disaster relief works in terms of the way money is distributed. And FEMA might give you your first check not all that long after the storm but it might be, like, a few thousand dollars. And then you apply your SBA loan, and maybe you get a little more money. And then you get another check from FEMA because you appealed. But it’s not like you know very early on how much money you’re going to get and what you’re going to be able to do with that. And so, like, do you decide when you only have twenty thousand dollars in payback that you’re going to rebuild? Like what do you do with that? Or do you just replace your car that also got destroyed? Do you know what I mean? So because people don’t get whatever assistance and money they’re going to get in one chunk, they just have no idea what they’re going to be able to do. And I think people’s lives are fucked up and they wound up having to take care of that with little pieces of that money along the way.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: I have to go to the bathroom. I’m sorry. One thing about the delay I didn’t expect was I thought…I thought it was interesting how quickly Cuomo started talking about a buyout plan and there should be four hundred million dollars to–I think verbatim, you know like, that basically–well this isn’t verbatim but basically they’re like, you know, buy out the houses and let that land return to, like, park land or marsh land because there’s some area, you know, there’s some areas that belong to mother nature–was what he said, you know? But at the same time, while that’s happening, Bloomberg’s pouring–I think it was like a hundred and ninety-one million dollars into rapid repairs where they just replaced everything everybody’s boiler and replaced everybody’s electrical panel and didn’t even raise it up to the next floor. So you’ve got the Governor saying this is going to keep happening; we need to start thinking about climate change; we need to start thinking about if it’s wise to develop the coastline like this while you’ve got the Mayor putting everything back where it used to be. And so I think there was sort of a chance to at least articulate a clear message of risk, potential risk. But instead, you know, you’ve got two–and of course way more than two–completely different messages. And so, while maybe people still need to have the choice, there could be a consistent message about the potential risk of this happening in the future, you know?

Interviewer: I see. I see. So with the difference between the two plans, I mean do you think that there’s–I’d say collusion. But do you think that between the two government agency’s–because essentially it’s the city versus the state–that there is some type of planning between the two or is it just a miscommunication?

Woman: I don’t think they’re on the same page. I don’t think–I mean I don’t think New York City politicians really like to take advice or be told what to do or have to subordinate themselves to the state particularly. You know, like New York’s the capital of everything, so what is New York State?

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: Who cares? But also I don’t know. I mean you had Cuomo saying that there was going to be a buyout plan and they would pay people pretty stern prices for their house in order for them to leave. And then you had Bloomberg kind of starting to talk about a buyout plan. But instead of returning to marsh land or creating some kind of, like, public recreation area, the area would be available for redevelopment because well let’s see what we can do. Like maybe it should be redeveloped and it can be redeveloped in a resilient and smart way that’s going to be profitable for the city. Do you know what I mean? And so we had those two messages. And frankly, I mean I have a hard time imagining that Cuomo, like Cuomo’s plan was going to play out that way and that it would just all return to park land. I mean it’s affecting New York City.

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: It’s really expensive.

Interviewer: Right. So in other words, buy the people out. Propose a certain plan. Maybe some of the plan goes through from how you propose it. But then some of the other land can be appropriated for some other uses.

Woman: Yeah.

Interviewer: Yeah?

Woman: I mean I don’t think that anybody would ever–like let’s say–I guess Midland Beach in Staten Island. The whole neighborhood was hit so hard that as the neighborhood–my understanding is that they had mostly chosen to accept the buyout and kind of waiting if they were eligible and what it would mean. And I think that there’s been some backtracking on whether or not people would be getting pre or post-storm or something in between values for their house. You know, and so maybe Midland Beach might be returned to marsh land or, like you know, depending on where it is geographically on the island and what makes sense, but I certainly don’t think that–I don’t know. I just don’t think across the board anybody is doing that with that much land in New York City. That’s ridiculous. It would be completely contrary to any historical precedent that we have, you know?

Interviewer: How did your group’s mission relate to its relief work?

Woman: I mean we came together as a bunch of people who all sort of knew each other from working with a different relief organization, which I’m happy to name. And it’s All Hands Volunteers, which is working in Long Beach and Staten Island. And we contacted them before the storm and, you know, let them know that we were here and if they had something going on and they wanted help. But you know, whatever, you know. They are–the organization has funding. And they, we figured, would be able to sort of like get into action really quickly. They actually had a really hard time getting into action really quickly because one of their whole shticks is that, you know–like if you tried to volunteer for–like I signed up right before the storm to be, like, a Red Cross volunteer. They got back to me in, like, January. I started a fucking organization and worked in, like, over a hundred and fifty homes by the time they called me back, you know, with no money. You know? And I think that what All Hands used to sort of have or has in maybe other situations is like a–it’s a place where you can volunteer for free and you don’t have to necessarily have a certificate or an orientation or significant training. But Occupy Sandy provided that opportunity for people. And All Hands wasn’t really needed. So they actually had a really hard time finding a space here. And they really wanted a space in Rockaways, and they wanted us to help them find a space. But I think that all of us had seen sort of ethical issues with how they operated and didn’t really want to work with them. And so I think part of our mission was to be different than that and not replicate those same kind of problems and maybe, like, reach for a better sort of standard within the whole disaster relief world. And at least for myself, like, is there a way that you can actually be an advocate and not pretend that disaster relief is apolitical and, like, at the same time you are helping people recover from the storm also be an advocate and also, you know, try to make things happen in a different way and a way that’s more beneficial for the entire community. I think another thing is that we never wanted to show up and say, like–do what the Red Cross did and hand out embarrassing blankets that everybody didn’t want because they had giant–you know, everything from the Red Cross, whether it was like–everything has their name on it, you know? And for a lot of people, that just screams charity, you know? And like we never wanted to help people in a way that made them feel like that. And I think we have achieved that.

Interviewer: Okay.

Woman: And I think that we’ve been really responsive to what people have told us they need at various points in the process.

Interviewer: Okay. How about in relation to the geography of the Rockaways, the socioeconomic, you know, differences between the neighborhoods? How does that relate to the group and what the group is doing?

Woman: Well we started coming down at one thirteen, and it meant that we were really working in–we wound up kind of going into Bell Harbor a little bit and then kind of seeing that there was so much help there, like so much. There was just a lot of people doing a lot of stuff. And there was a lot of churches and there was a lot more money. And so we quickly said, like, well we don’t really need to work above one sixteen anymore except in like–you know, we’ve had a couple of situations with retirees or disabled. You know what I mean? People with lower incomes. But so we moved. We moved where we were, I mean–and we got–centralized our efforts into a place where we felt like people had less resources to begin with. And we specifically really tried to fill gaps. Like we–a lot of people that we’ve worked with we felt, like, would not qualify for aid for a variety of reasons and tried to sort of like step in and provide something that they weren’t going to get anywhere else. And if you like–when I was doing the spreadsheets today, we have a question on our assessment forms that’s just trying to gage, like you know, if people have other help and how dire what we were doing was needed, you know, because we have such limited resources. We’re trying to, like, do some kind of–you know like making a queue and making it, whatever, a priority list. And so many people–their answer to like, has FEMA been–we weren’t asking people for specifics but some people would give them to us. But we also weren’t forcing people to, you know. But has FEMA been helpful for you? Has insurance been helpful for you? And like a lot of the answers were, like, FEMA is a joke. I mean the first house that we did, the entire two first floors were destroyed, the basement and the first–the ground floor. They got two hundred and sixteen dollars initially from FEMA.

Interviewer: Explain to me a little bit–I guess I’m sure it’s a very elaborated process and there are a lot of details that go into it. But tell me a little bit about how FEMA distributes the money, how they determine who gets the money.

Woman: Yeah, I don’t know how FEMA determines its formulas and determines who gets what. I know that there’s been a bit of a–there’s a bit of a stink because, like, Howard Beach was not hit as hard as the Rockaways by the storm but in general, their FEMA payouts have been higher. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if it’s easy to find that out through newspaper articles or, like, the handful of FEMA I might ever interact with. But I do know that there seems to be sort of a system where FEMA comes for the first time and really–I mean for a lot of people, it seemed like they really low-balled what they were going to get. Like they told our people over there that they’re going to get $216.86 when they had literally their entire basement–both their cars and their first floor were destroyed. And so how does someone wind up with that total. And it was basically because they had insurance. But there was no guarantee at that point that they were going to get any money from insurance. You know what I mean? And then, like, with the national flood insurance, I don’t know. And what’s happening with the national flood insurance program. I think everybody felt pretty sure that Congress was going to back the Sandy aid package. But I don’t know. Do we really know– And it seems like FEMA has a system where you apply and then you can appeal and then you apply again. And some people apply to FEMA, like, four times.

Interviewer: Yeah. What are the cases that you’ve seen in the neighborhoods that you worked in and their dealings with FEMA?

Woman: Well apparently the maximum you can get is thirty-seven thousand dollars. And apparently they’re going to come out again with, like, some kind of assistance for some people who want to elevate their homes. But there is–there’s just like a really wide disparity between what people get and I’m not really sure why. I know that–I do actually know a lot of renters who got quite a bit of rental assistance. I know that there’s lots of people in hotels where FEMA was paying like two hundred and fifty bucks a night to keep them in a hotel room, which is crazy because that’s like seventy-five hundred dollars a month or something instead of paying, like, fifteen hundred bucks a month for an apartment. And then what happens is if, for whatever reason, if your home is destroyed and you kind of qualify for that reason to stay in a hotel but you prefer not to, like most people would prefer not to, and maybe if you have a sister-in-law or whatever, that you can actually stay with instead? You can’t get that money that you would normally get if they had paid for a hotel for you to spend on something else like repairing your home.

Interviewer: Okay.

Woman: So there’s these weird sort of cycles. People will end up kind of saying no to, like, the hotel thing and then just losing out on that seven thousand dollars a month that some people were essentially being given because of the hotel program, you know? I don’t really understand how those–like there seems to be so little rhyme and reason behind those decisions. Like I don’t understand why it’s not a flat rate for what you qualify for through FEMA and you can choose to put that into a hotel or you can choose to, like, rebuild faster so you don’t need a hotel. I’m not really sure why those choices don’t exist. I know that the SBA loans just seem like a really bad deal to me. Again, there’s tons of retirees and stuff here who never even had expected to have to work again. Just the idea that you get sixty or eighty thousand dollars of assistance in the form of a loan when you’re retired, like, seems a little like a blessing and a curse. You know what I mean? I don’t know. I would like to actually know more about how that works but it’s very difficult to understand. I mean there’s–and that’s something else. I feel really sorry for a lot of people. I mean I have seven years of college under my belt, right? And I have a hard time reading a lot of the documents or, you know, FEMA website, or really understanding what’s going on. So how do you do that when, like, you’re living in a hotel, all of your paperwork has been destroyed, you don’t have a birth certificate anymore. You know, like you may or may not have, like, a high school education. So how do you navigate that system if I find it really difficult and I don’t really have time to do it, you know?

Interviewer: Was your organization adequately able to handle the sort–were they able to handle the event– Were they able to handle the sort like–prepared before the storm?

Woman: No, we didn’t exist before the storm. We had some skills and experience and, like, willing to do what we were doing. We were largely funded by Occupy Sandy with a little bit of money coming in here and there and other places, but like a very huge proportion of the resources we’ve gotten have been in-kind donations that came via Occupy Sandy and a couple of other sources and a few fundraising, you know, things that we’ve done. And even after the storm, because we were the only people doing mold for so long, demand for what we were doing outstripped our capacity immediately. And it was really, you know, intimidating. And in some ways we were kind of like should we keep doing this, because like if we were to just keep assessing homes every time someone called us and asked us to come over, we would have had a backlog six months long. You know, it takes actually a long time to do mold remediation because of how wet houses were. I don’t know if you’ve seen our huge dehumidifiers. They’re giant, like, twenty-five hundred dollar industrial dehumidifiers. But like, it can take one or two of those, like, eight or ten days in some of the worst houses, like, to dry it out in a form that remediation’s effective. So you’re talking about mold remediation can take–it can take three days but it can also take two weeks, you know? And so even with tons of resources and tons of people, you can’t do it that quickly. And so, you know, it’s been a constant battle of balancing sort of like the trifecta of capacity, demand, and your ideals about how you need to do things, you know? So we had, like, millions of volunteers flooding into the Rockaways. Like we had to sort of slow down our work because we needed to make sure there was a certain amount of quality control. We have a hundred and fifty people there. But that means even if you can put ten people in each site, you need, A, all of the equipment for all of those places, and you need an experienced person who can determine whether the job has been done well, which they can only really do if they’ve seen the people doing that work and if they have the proper tools to measure certain things about it. And so there were times when it sort of like slowed down what we were doing because in terms of we didn’t have access to that many people willing to work for free who were skilled at knowing whether mold remediation was being done well, you know?

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: But I think we did a good job of, like, doing what we could do well and doing what we could do and honestly feel good about it.

Interviewer: Okay. What affected you most during your time volunteering during the storm?

Woman: I don’t know. What do you mean? Like what–?

Interviewer: I guess were there any–we did speak earlier about, you know, you working with the homeowners and becoming attached to them. But were there any, you know, maybe specific experiences or the experience as a whole that, you know affected you or the process as the project moved along?

Woman: Yeah, I mean it’s a really problematic field to work in, you know, the way grant cycles work and the way funding works and the way you have to apply for something, and thing you have to use it for X, Y, and Z. But then, again, the role of recovery is changing so fast all the time. Like we applied for a grant that we just got a check for, like, last week. But we applied for it November 30th. So like, what our capacity was, what needed to be done–like all those things were really different than they are today. I mean it’s five months. You know what I mean we got that money four or five months later. That funder happens to be really flexible. We can change what we were going to do. But I mean it’s kind of just an example of, like, how those things are hard. I think it’s been really difficult to kind of–I don’t know. I think that I personally was pretty idealistic about the ability–like our ability and what it would be, like, to get funding to employ, like, youth from Far Rockaway and what we’re doing now. Like I would love to have, like, twenty-five-year-old kids from Far Rockaway being like the team leaders for all the volunteers to come in and, like, give them seventy-five bucks a day. I mean it’s not a lot of money but it’s like ten bucks an hour. And they’d be learning, A, the physical skills, whatever they were learning in terms of construction or mold remediation or managing and, you know, doing whatever. And like there’d be–you know, there would just be like a mutually beneficial relationship. And that was really what I personally, and I think several of us, really intended to do. And that’s been, like, almost impossible to do.

Interviewer: Why impossible?

Woman: Because it’s hard to ask for funding for that. Even when we have a couple of times put in sort of requests for funding that would include paying people, we were always asked to scale it down, where it was hard to even pay ourselves really fairly. I mean there were really like–none of that’s even really panned out that much, you know? Like we’ve gotten like, a small grant at times specifically for giving us each a couple of hundred bucks. But you know, it’s not set up to work that way. And that has been–and I think it might be different if we had, you know, another storm this August and we had good reputation and we dealt with a few grants well and–

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: You know, and then I could apply for a half million dollar grant instead of a ten thousand dollar grant, and things like that. Do you know what I mean? But at the same time, it really isn’t set up that well to get that kind of money that fast. And then, like, the grassroots grants were all five, ten, whatever thousand dollars. And that sounds like a lot of money until you’re trying to do a lot of shit with it, you know?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: I don’t think it’s impossible; it’s just really hard because, like, we’re constantly–you know, you have to keep your capacity up enough to warrant, like, having these people. And you’re never sure when donations are going to stop and–

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: –if you don’t have consistent funders. Our first funding was really just me putting up Facebook statuses and a few people sending us, like, checks for a couple hundred bucks. But really, like, it was pretty much as grassroots as you can get, you know? And so–and you know, there are probably other organizations with different experiences.

Interviewer: Okay. What about as far as getting the community involved in what you’re doing? You’re working in a couple of neighborhoods and a couple of communities. Have there been any differences between the communities? What’s your take on that?

Woman: Yeah, I mean when we were working in Rockaway Park, we definitely came across people who were kind of like thanks for trying to help us; we’re going to be fine. You should go someplace where people really need you. You know? And kind of even before people knew what their toll on their own personal finances or X, Y, and Z was going to be. And so, you know, there’s some degree to which that was true and there’s some degree to which it was really a tribute to, like, pride and like–

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: –the new experience of having to be helped, you know? And like, there’s a lady down the street who–did you know Gabby only had dreadlocks–until, like, two months he had dreadlocks down to, like, here that he had for ten years, which he wound up shaving off because he just needed too many people to take him seriously without a hazing period, whatever. And there are people who are like, you know, a month ago, I wouldn’t have even given you directions to the train; now I’m giving you keys to my house, you know? And that was really interesting because people were, you know–like that’s just an interesting human experience. And that’s a response that we didn’t get in Arverne. Do you know what I mean? There you go. Yeah. You know, and especially in the beginning, I think we went, like, a week without a shower. Like do you know what I mean? Like we were–we probably–we were a pretty ragtag group of people. And people didn’t really question our help. Like the more people needed it, the more–I don’t know. Or the more people–I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. Like–

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: But that–or cultural differences, you know? But that was really interesting. I forget where I was going with that question. Like with Gabby’s dreadlocks. Like differences in how we’re treated in different neighborhoods? Or how we interact with the community?

Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. Let’s go that route.

Woman: Yeah. That’s–I mean it’s been hard because I’ve been–like they tried to have different kind of events that–like we had some guy coming in to talk about, like, how the Sandy aid package was going to work and, like, actually people came to that. Like thirty people came to that, maybe more. And we had, you know, food and whatever. But there’s been a few times where we tried to have, like, community events but–there’s meetings, like, every day of the week. There’s Knights of Columbus and there’s community board and then [Inaudible 1:41:11] Engineers in Rockaway.

Interviewer: In Rockaway all over or not in one specific area?

Woman: No, I mean I think that there’s some of those things in this area sometimes. But they’re basically concentrated in, like, Far Rockaway or here. But specifically because we’re in Arverne, we thought we might be able to get some people to come out who were just close to there. Do you know what I mean? Like they don’t have to go to the twenties and they don’t have to go to the hundreds.

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: They can stay in their area. And I don’t know if it’s because so many people aren’t home or sort of that people are just worn out, but it’s been really difficult to get people to come to events. We have a really good relationship with the community but we haven’t really been able to do much in the way of like–we’re just all, like, spent in terms of just keeping our operations going. And it takes a surprising number of people to coordinate volunteers. And it doesn’t really matter if you have eight volunteers or thirty. Like it actually sort of takes–it takes almost the same amount of work. No, probably not quite but almost the same, you know? And so I think that’s why, for me, I’ve really appreciated having the relationship with Occupy Sandy that we have because there’s a bunch of people who are actually doing more direct community organizing and trying to get people involved and like going to community planning events to, like, learn about the urban planning process and learning about how they can try to be involved in that or learning how they can’t be involved and what to do instead. I like being attached to that because I can, like, plug into that when I have the ability to, like you know–if I can contribute to that, I do. And I do think ultimately, like, that’s the longer term stuff that hopefully is going to have some kind of an effect swaying whether, like, it’s where the money goes or what happens to land–you know, in terms of land’s use or whatever.

Interviewer: Okay. Okay. How well if at all does your organization work with other organizations, volunteer groups, government agencies, in response efforts?

Woman: I mean in some ways pretty well. Like people like us. People think we do really good work. No one’s been critical of the work we do except for the unions. And they haven’t really been critical of the work we do so much as they just don’t think it’s appropriate having volunteers doing the kind of work we have volunteers doing at all. And you don’t necessarily have to comment on this, but I do think that we go–we go pretty far in the direction of trying to keep our volunteers safe. I mean, especially in comparison to what we’ve seen from a lot of other volunteer groups. I mean like, I think World Care has just got fired from their job. They got sort of hired on as one of the non-profits that could do the mold remediation but the quality control was so not there that I’m pretty sure they got asked to stop. But like I don’t think that would happen with us. I think we have a whole other way of doing things and whole other feeling of accountability.

Interviewer: Okay.

Woman: We want to do the work we’re doing more than we want to perpetuate ourselves as a group and just like continue the funding stream and stay on top. And you know what I mean? Like, we’re happy. When we’ve gotten over our heads, we’ve slowed down. It’s cool. Like maybe we can’t do a hundred and fifty people a day every day. Fine. You know, we never…we never guaranteed we could, you know? And in that way, I think we’ve worked well. In other ways, I think it’s been difficult, like in terms of other grassroots groups that sprung up like Friends of Rockaway, even at times Occupy Sandy. I think that because some of us had experience with doing disaster relief or working in logistics or working construction, like, we had experience doing that in a pretty structured environment. And so sometimes when, like, working with groups that were, like, a little less structured or, like, also ad hoc but maybe didn’t have as much experience behind them, like it was a little frustrating to working with people who were, like, super disorganized. And some of that meant, like, the more community-based groups because they sprung up because they were from the community. And I kind of regret, like, not being a little bit more patient, except for I also, you know, can be pretty forgiving in that way because among everything, it’s completely chaotic and also people are being chaotic. Like it’s a little bit hard to deal with but I think it would have been nice if we slowed down a minute and tried to accommodate, like, more community-based groups a little bit.

Interviewer: So there were a number or a few community-based groups?

Woman: A few.

Interviewer: A few?

Woman: Uh huh.

Interviewer: Okay. Like what sized groups were they?

Woman: I mean like Small Water. They’re like the little–do you know what I’m talking about?

Interviewer: No, I’m not familiar with them.

Woman: It’s like a lot of younger people in the Rockaways, you know. And they’re grassrootsy and they’re–I don’t know. Like we really want to try and focus and do this thing that we were doing well. And it was a little bit to, like, also help out with, like, getting donations places and helping people move a bunch of stuff. You know what I mean? It’s like so much to, like, do the job that we were doing, I feel like we wound up kind of saying, like, no to people a lot or people who have the kind of access to, like, make X, Y, and Z a priority. And we were–like we felt like we needed to stick to some sort of system, you know?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: And I think that that–sometimes I wanted to be more flexible but we were also so strapped in terms of our capacity, like–

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: And then we needed structure and organization to keep doing what we were doing well also. And I think it helped us get known for–I mean people are always calling us even though they can pay for mold remediation to check to see if they did it well because they had heard that we did everything the right way, you know? The Attorney General’s deputy–some environmental deputy something of the Attorney General office called us to talk about our program. It’s on my cell phone of all places. I was like, oh shit. Are you guys calling–like what’s going on? You know, like I don’t know. So in some ways we are able to do a lot of things well because of that. But then, I don’t know. Just there’s something to be said about just helping people out, being part of the more grassroots process.

Interviewer: Okay. Do you think these efforts are going to continue in the future?

Woman: Yeah, I mean the sort of standard disaster relief organizations that are funded well are going to be here for a couple of–for awhile, I would say, a couple of years: Habitat– I don’t know what will happen to us because we’ve been largely volunteer with almost no income. And we’ve pieced together some other things and gotten hired to, like, teach mold classes by the city and stuff like that. But you know, eventually we’re going to need to have secure incomes. I’d like to see–if everything ended tomorrow, I would stay involved with Occupy Sandy and do probably a different type of volunteer work. And I would be helping to make a mold remediation organization, like keep going. I’d probably stay part of, like, the long-term recovery group, the FEMA-based one. But at the same time, I don’t want to be an organization that just–I don’t want to be more concerned with, like, perpetuating the organization that I am with, like our connection to it, what’s really going on. You know? If that makes sense.

Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah. So to ask this question, I mean we spoke–I think we went over this a little bit and maybe a couple of times but at different points. What are the main challenges for Gabby to, I guess, deal with now? We’ll leave it at that. What are the main challenges you’re having to deal with now?

Woman: Funding. For me personally, like having–it being really hard to try to get funding that’s flexible enough that we can use it to pay people. When you’re a non-profit, if you spend more than, like, thirteen to fifteen percent of your funds on over, like, paying people, it doesn’t look very good in terms of being a non-profit. And you’re, like, charity-raiding or you know, your star rating or charity navigator rating. You know what I mean?

Interviewer: Uh huh.

Woman: But there’s like five or six of us at all times who are working. So even if you imagine us making, like, twenty thousand dollars a year each, which would be like minimal in terms of surviving–and we all work crazy amounts of hours–that would be a hundred and twenty thousand dollars. And so, like, we’d have to have like 1.5 million dollars to be able to pay all six of us twenty thousand dollars a year and maintain a good rating as a non-profit. That’s hard. And that’s not counting trying to stipend or pay local people to do work. Do you know what I mean?

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: And at the same time, we’re well aware that it’s not really that sustainable. It’s just perpetually how–like we don’t have any intentions of having a volunteer group for years in the Rockaways or, like–do you know what I mean?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Woman: It’s a means to an end. But you don’t want to be shipping people–you know, like at a certain point, I don’t know. Like what do you do if you’re not really part of a long-term sustainable, holistic, you know, veteran of the community from here?

Interviewer: Okay. Okay. There’s been a lot of talk about the storm prompting more serious action on climate change. In New York, they had what they called the PlaNYC 2007. Are you familiar with that? They talked a lot about climate change, but it focused mainly on curbing emissions. Do you think the priority after Sandy will shift from mitigation to adaptation?

Woman: I hope so but I don’t really know. I mean people are so far from really even considering making changes that allow for, I mean, real adapt–do you know what I mean? I feel like I’m not explaining it very well. But like, people aren’t that–people are willing to, like, recycle more, but they’re not really willing to, like, use less, right? Like it’s a really simple example. Or people aren’t really willing to, like, drive less or not have a car or, like, do any of the things that on an individual level actually would contribute, you know, on that collective scale to it, actual change. And so while I think in some ways it might make people sort of like support policy, that’s different–I don’t– I mean I hope so. I do think it’s made people think a lot more. I mean even–even people here who I doubt really thought about this much before are starting to think about it. But it’s a little bit hard to talk about because it’s not like you can say to people, like, now that you have to rebuild your house from scratch, why don’t you get solar panels, because it’s not–everybody in the Rockaways can get solar panels; it’s not going to prevent the next storm. Like Sandy was–if Sandy, like, was a product of climate change, it’s been coming for, you know, fifty years. Like do you know what I mean? Like there’s a lot of human activity that’s led to where we are today. And you can’t tell people, like, all switch to solar and there’s not going to be hurricanes anymore, you know? And so it’s hard to say, I think like, how it will affect people’s behavior, although I do think people are just going to be more attuned to the fact that this is going on and rampant disregard for the fact that, like, all of our actions are contributing to that, you know? Just being cognizant of it, I think, could change people’s attitude towards policy.

Interviewer: Okay. So you think mitigation is even still on the table?

Woman: Like in what form?

Interviewer: Well, I guess you know, in the form that, you know, you’re talking about where–

Woman: Elevating a house.

Interviewer: Yeah. You know, we could speak about, you know, the alteration structures. I mean that’s obviously a very loaded topic. It’s a very big theme and it’s a life-changing theme for many people. You know, is it…is it still something that’s still available to call upon, you know? What do you think?

Woman: I think that will be the first thing that people do for sure. I mean I don’t think people are really going to start living all that differently if that’s what you mean by adaptation. Or I don’t know if you mean more of kind of like adaptation in terms of–like how do you translate that into a specific thing? Like moving life on the coast?

Interviewer: Right. Well I was actually referring to mitigation rather than adaptation.

Woman: Oh. Okay. Yeah, I mean I think people are going to–it’s going to be split because there are still people who are really in denial that this might happen again in their lifetime. They really kind of feel like it’s a once in a lifetime thing. But I do think that there’s people who are going to say, you know, try to mitigate the risks that they face individually, particularly in the form of, like, alternative structures and stuff like that. It’s hard to say. You know? Individual and collective sacrifice are a little different, you know, because it’s almost like mitigation comes from producing something or like paying for something or something like that. You know what I mean? They’re, like, supporting something that way. Adaptation involves, like, a completely different holistic move. Does that make sense? Or is that in line with what you meant by, like, adaptation versus mitigation?

Interviewer: Well, you know, I guess it depends again on who you’re talking to. Some people interpret adaptation as, well, the individual must adapt or the collective must adapt.

Woman: Yeah.

Interviewer: That’s up to the interpretation of who’s speaking about it, so.

Woman: Yeah. It will be interesting to see if people in New York or people on the coast in general or how far anyone’s willing to go in terms of adapting to anything new. You know what I mean? Even like Mantoloking in Jersey–it’s a place where they’re, like, using eminent domain to build big dunes. Were we talking about this earlier?

Interviewer: I don’t think so.

Woman: Oh, okay. Maybe it was the woman, Julie.

Interviewer: Right, right.

Woman: But, you know, they’re trying to build dunes, protective dunes along the coast. And they’re having–they may have to use eminent domain because there’s four or five people who just don’t think the state should have the right to build anything on their property even though it’s meant to protect the entire town–

Interviewer: Right.

Woman: –which is an interesting thing. And so, like, that’s interesting. And I feel like it’s probably all added up this whole interview. I’m probably saying things that are contradictory. But it’s interesting to me that there’s people on Mantoloking who are refusing to let the government build fucking dunes to protect their entire little town. It’s a very wealthy town, but still–just on the basis that the government should not be involved in those sort of things. But they sure as hell want the government to be involved in bailing them out for, like, having their giant, crazy home on a barrier island. So I don’t know.

Interviewer: So what about mitigation in terms of mitigation involves structural redevelopment that displaces–?

Woman: People?

Interviewer: People, homes?

Woman: Yeah, I think–you know, I think we are looking at that happening. It’s just hard to think of a way that that’s going to happen where any of it is equitable. Do you know what I mean? Like nobody’s ever going to create, like, resilient, affordable housing on the waterfront. Although you do have people whose families have been living here in the Rockaways for a hundred years or like, you know, whatever. So like I just don’t know if it’s–do you just accept that? It’s kind of hard, you know?

Interviewer: Right. So again, going back to inequality–this is a theme that social scientists talk a lot about in terms of race, class, gender. Are you and other volunteers–are you talking about these issues explicitly with respect to your work?

Woman: Actually not usually. And I wish that we were. But it’s a little bit difficult on–like I guess I kind of thought there’d be more room for that than there is. And there are some people who are attuned to those kinds of things already. And I might have conversations with them. But a lot of people really aren’t. And it’s hard–it’s really hard to talk to people about why, like, not all help is created equal. It’s a little hard to talk to people about, like, the privilege that’s inherent in being able to be a volunteer and coming down, you know? It’s a little hard, like, first of all because the work day is short and whatever. And you really want to get stuff done. But also, like, Occupy Sandy tried to have these orientations about–you know, when different people did them, they were different. But sometimes, like, it was like okay, well there’s–sometimes it was just like, you know, there’s not room here for any kind of sexism or racism or this–you know what I mean? And like, even that was over some people’s heads. Do you know what I mean? They just came to help. They just want to fucking, like, dig out somebody’s car if that’s what’s happening that day or like whatever. And it takes time to do that. And you know, I wish I would have been able to put more of those kind of structures in place when we were doing–setting up our system. But it’s really difficult because there’s an urgency to what you’re doing that, you know. Even just doing things better than other people, like paying more attention to volunteer safety, paying more attention to homeowner safety or resident safety–those things are hard to achieve and, like, do better. It’s like–you know, it’s hard because not everybody wants an educational component, you know, or a social justice component. And so there’s people that I talked about those things with particularly who I’ve worked with in Occupy Sandy and who I–like we spend time together because we’re involved in certain things moving forward and, like, community organizing kinds of stuff or just neighborhood stuff. And that’s great. But it’s–there’s such an urgency to disaster relief, it doesn’t lend itself well to including and incorporating those kind of things unless you already have a system down, you know. And so maybe if we were to do it again, we’d be able to create something that allows for that, but I also don’t know.

Interviewer: Do you think it’s maybe something that just occurred because of circumstance or your response to the need of who needed, you know, that relief and it wasn’t offered, it just…it just worked out that way. It just cycled itself or followed itself to those areas because it wasn’t there to start off with?

Woman: Yeah, for sure. And like, for political reasons or for pragmatic reasons, whatever you think about it, it didn’t make sense for us to be in certain places, you know? But I do sometimes wish that there was–I think it’s easy for people to come in and out of working. There’s a book that I’m reading right now. It’s called “Floodlines.” Have you read it?

Interviewer: I’m not familiar with the book, no.

Woman: But it’s by Jordan Flaherty. He’s from–he lived in New Orleans for a long time and did a lot of work after Katrina was still there and wrote this book. And it’s about, like–it’s about a lot of things. But one of the things he talks about is, like, after Katrina happened, like this huge sense of entitlement among, like, white sort of do-gooder, blah, blah, blah, you know, kind of people. And the idea that they might not be useful at that moment or like maybe–or didn’t–was crazy to them, and like the sense of entitlement, which we also experienced because we sometimes would tell people, like, you really shouldn’t be doing this because you’re dressed this way, something like that. And people kind of saying, like well fuck you. I can help if I want to. And it’s like, right.

Interviewer: Amongst the volunteers?

Woman: Yeah.

Interviewer: Okay.

Woman: So I think that in terms of that having, like, an understanding of, like, what the actual reality of the social landscape is down here, volunteers have, like, really wildly different levels of understanding of those things. Do you know the CEOs that work at our place from Center of Employment Opportunities?

Interviewer: I believe I may have met one at one time, however, I’m not certain.

Woman: Yeah, so they’re guys who have had some kind of run in with the law and some kind–maybe have been to jail. But you know, non-violent, usually a misdemeanor, whatever. And it’s kind of like an anti-prison or citivism program where they get pay not a very good wage but work in these different jobs for maybe, like, a month or two months or something at a time to kind of get a job exploration and get experience so that if they then look for a job, can say that they have some experience doing this. And it’s also a program–I think it’s intended sort of keep people busy so they stay out of trouble. So we had some volunteers a couple of days ago who saw those guys and just basically saw a bunch of black guys out on the sidewalk and were like, I don’t know if I feel safe around here. And it was actually a bunch of guys working for us. But they were just like, oh my god. We were out on the sidewalk and there were a bunch of black guys out there. Do you know what I mean? Like that’s kind of a weird situation to be in and like having to deal with that. Like what’s the best way to deal with that? You don’t really have time to deal–like do you know what I mean? Like do you deal with it the best way–or do you just keep the day rolling because you’re trying to get work done and you told Mrs. Smith you’re going to be done with her mold by five? Like and so you start constantly making these choices and, I don’t know. I think people who tend toward–for me, I think sometimes people who tend toward, like academia or community organizing or activism work, it’s a little bit hard to make those compromises and feel good about them later. You know what I mean? Like either one is kind of the wrong decision.

Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. Huh. How about the group–being the group from the outside that’s not from the Rockaways–comes into a neighborhood that had some type of social cohesion at one time? How has it been accepted? How was it accepted at first? And how is it accepted now?

Woman: I mean at first–well there’s kind of been, like, ups and downs. At first, people were kind of like, where are these people from? But then in some ways, once they realized what was going on here, they didn’t care because, like you know, we told people exactly what they needed to do. When their insurance people came, they were like, they’re right. You did the right thing, whatever. And then, you know, there’s some–and people are different. And the thing about–I don’t know how much social cohesion there was here. Like yes, they’re really strong, like, church communities and yes, all these women belong to, like, the Knights of Columbus Columbiettes group. And yes, there’s all these different community-based organizations in the Rockaways. But there’s still–I mean it depends on what you’re talking about in terms of social cohesion. Like are you talking about the Irish community who [Inaudible 2:07:23] in the same fucking whatever, you know, or are you talking about the Rockaways, which is wildly striated, you know? But being outside was weird. It’s weird to be in New York, but also the Rockaways is a really weird provincial place. And if you’re not from here, you’re really not from here. You know, it’s kind of like why are you here? Or there’s a little more us versus them, insider outsider thing than I even expected, which is interesting. But we’ve kind of been around long enough now that I think people are starting to think of us in a different way. And combined with the fact that we’re not around for a long time in the Red Cross or even, like, New York Care–like I don’t know. Like I think we’re a little bit less business-y, organization-y, and a little bit more like–

Interviewer: Than New York Cares or–

Woman: Yeah, like they have a whole thing, right? And I feel like we’re just kind of people.

Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah.

Woman: And I think the people who keep coming down are also just kind of people who have some kind of interest in doing this work for whatever reason, you know? And it’s less this kind of bus tour thing or like–

Interviewer: Yeah. So you have gotten reoccurrence of volunteers that have come in, like a–

Woman: Uh huh. Like Revene and Sarah have been coming, like, every week. And they can–or Kevin you might know. But those guys are great because they can just take Gabby’s place, you know, those guys’ place and actually just run the whole thing. And that’s important because a lot of times we need to be in ten places at once and there’s not that many of us.

Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. How about volunteers that cycle in or, you know, volunteers that come one time?

Woman: Yeah, some people aren’t really that into working. Some people are. Some people tell us it changed their whole life and like, you know. And some people, whatever, that don’t think about it that much or think it’s gross or think it’s dangerous. So it really varies. I don’t know. It’s weird.

Interviewer: Okay. Alright, well, I think that pretty much sums everything up. Is there anything you wanted to add or–?

Woman: I don’t think so.

Interviewer: No?

Woman: No.

Interviewer: Okay. Well thank you very much.

[End of recording]

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Interview with Respond and Rebuild volunteer

Interviewee: male, 30, staff volunteer at Respond and Rebuild
Interviewer: Tom Corcoran

Interviewer:  So to start, begin by telling me briefly about your experience of Sandy.

Man: So, I actually wasn’t here for the storm. I was in California. And I was working on this little organic farm out there. And the only radio station I had was an NPR affiliate. And they were just–they were reporting pretty…pretty heavily about what was going on in New York regarding Sandy. You know, the news is always worst case scenario, how they tried to play it up. So it sounded pretty bad. You know, I’m from the D.C. area. And I have plenty of friends and some family up here. So you know, naturally I was pretty concerned. And I guess a couple of weeks later–so meanwhile these guys were here. You know, Terri and Gabby. Ian was here too. Shana flew in not long after. And so these guys were all here during the first response. You got to talk to Terri and Gabby, Ian, Shana about first response.

Interviewer: Okay, sure.

Man: So I can’t really speak as to anything–

Interviewer: So you came later?

Man: I came about a month later, yeah.

Interviewer: Alright. So up to this point–because you said you came a little bit after–what are some of the problems that are arising right now?

Man: Right now?

Interviewer: Or…or I guess even in the aftermath of when you came, you know, how long did you come? Or how long after the storm was it that you arrived?

Man: About a month after the storm, so a little over a month. I got here right at the beginning of December. And as–can get more specific regarding problems?

Interviewer: I guess, you know, as far as many problems with the recovery efforts that you saw, specifically the area that you were working in.

Man: Well problems like organizationally or–?

Interviewer: Yeah, let’s start with organizational problems that maybe you experienced.

Man: Well, let me see. Organizational problems–well yeah, one thing that– One fundamental problem that we kept running into in responding was, you know, often we– So we would have huge numbers of volunteers, like a hundred…hundred volunteers easy in the early days but not as many qualified personnel to, you know, train them and put them to work and have them go on efficiently and safety. So that’s kind of one of the reasons why I was brought on board as well as, you know, a few other friends who have since taken off. But, yeah so I would say that was a fundamental problem. Let’s see. Other problems organizationally, internally, no, just finding a place to…finding a place to live so we could all do it kind of full-time was really tricky. We were all crammed into Terri and Gabby’s apartment for a period of time. Like there were more than ten people in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. You know, we were commuting back and forth, which was a nightmare.

Interviewer: How did you commute, because there was no transportation to this area?

Man: We would drive.

Interviewer: So you were drive?

Man: Yeah, yeah.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: Yeah, we had a fifteen-passenger van generally. So we would often bring up volunteers in Brooklyn and would drive down to the Rockaways.

Interviewer: What areas did you start to work in in the Rockaways.

Man: Arverne.

Interviewer: Arverne?

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: Was that the first area that you came to?

Man: Well, I…I think we did a lot of work, like, in Rockaway Park, which is where we are right now. And we definitely did some work out in Bell Harbor, Arverne. And then, you know, we kind of honed in on Arverne because we got up with Reverend Dennis Loncke at the Arverne Pilgrim Church, where we operate from. And you know, we did a lot of work there. And he let us start staging operations out of there. So kind of by default, we started working at Arverne and continued to work there, you know, just because it was kind of–it seemed to be a really underserved part of the Rockaways in terms of relief work. You know, there didn’t see a really large emphasis placed on, you know, Bell Harbor, Rockaway Park, which is, you know, the wealthier, whiter part of the area.  And you know, we didn’t see nearly as many relief organizations down in Arverne. And then, you know, you have Bell Harbor and you got Rockaway Park, which is where we are now. Then you we get down to Arverne. And then past Arverne we have probably about eight blocks of public housing and then, you know, there’s more residential neighborhoods. And then you have Far Rockaway. So we do work pretty much between–we don’t do– I guess these days it’s changed. We work all the way from Far Rockaway all the way to Bell Harbor. But we do try to–having been trying to concentrate it in Arverne, yeah.

Interviewer: Okay. How did you form the contact with the church?

Man: Oh, the church? Again, this would be a good one for Terri, for Gabby. But I believe the way it went was we were, you know, literally out on the street talking to homeowners. And I think it was Terri, Gabby, one of those guys–

Gabby: Hey.

Man: This guy will know.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: Gabby! Hey Gabby!

Gabby: Yeah?

Man: How did…how did we get up with Reverend Loncke?

Gabby: What do you mean?

Man: Exactly. How did the relationship between us and–?

Gabby: Matt Engel fuckin’ was walking the Rockaways looking for a place for us. Engel walked over there from up here. He was literally just walking the Rockaways looking for a space for us to working out of.

Interviewer: And he just stumbled upon this specific area.

Gabby: Well no, we were working…we were working here. So one of the guys that was working with us at the time just went walking around to look into, like, what was around.

Interviewer: Okay.

Gabby: There was limited gas and vehicles at that time. So walking was really the way to go.

Interviewer: Okay.

Gabby: So he walked all the way down there. And yeah.

Interviewer: Really? So he tried in other areas or try other neighborhoods?

Gabby: Yeah, we were looking–we were–originally, we were looking, like right here. But nothing around here was really working out for us.

Interviewer: Okay.

Gabby: So just in our searches, like, came upon–

Interviewer: Alright. Great. We’ll have to set up an interviewer, and then you can…you then you can tell me more about that.

Gabby: Sure. Yeah, yeah.

Interviewer: Okay. Thanks Gabby.  So let’s see. How do you think your experience was similar to or different from others in the recovery work that you performed?

Man: Well, let’s see. Others–you know, others in a similar position, you mean, or just in general recovery worker?

Interviewer: Yeah, we can take it, I guess, as a recovery working, you know, volunteer worker.

Man: I mean I was definitely logging like, a good seven days a week towards the beginning. So I don’t think that’s really typical for every volunteer. I kind of also had the opportunity to kind of form policy within Respond and Rebuild. For example, safety’s really important to me. So the cool thing about our organization is we all have the opportunity to kind of shape it to the, you know, in the manner that we kind of see necessary. So you know, when I’ve done relief work in the past, sometimes safety really hasn’t been addressed very much. And it’s, in my opinion, extremely vital that everybody wears protective, you know, gloves, masks, goggles, whatever, and knows how to do the work properly. You know, you just throw a bunch of people in a house and, you know, nobody knows what they’re doing, like things are–things can get bad. So I guess my experience has been different in that I, you know, kind of had the opportunity to get in on the ground floor with a brand new organization with my friends and, yeah, I’ve had quite a lot of say in how we can do things, which is pretty cool. I don’t think a lot of people get the opportunity to come into such a…such a flexible and effective situation. Otherwise, how has been experience been different here? I’m not from New York, you know. I’ve definitely spent plenty of time in New York. I’ve never been to–I don’t think I’ve ever even been to Queens before coming here, you know, other than flying into JFK a bunch of times, which is–is that Queens or Brooklyn?

Interviewer: Queens and Brooklyn?

Man: No, is JFK in Queens or Brooklyn?

Interviewer: I think that’s Queens actually.

Man: Okay.

Interviewer: It shares a border with some parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. It’s Queens.

Man: So yeah, different from other people. But yeah, working a hell of a lot more. And I don’t know. My rule has kind of evolved through time with Respond and Rebuild. First I was kind of field coordinator, right, where I supervised and trained different teams of volunteers. And then as things kind of got along, I took over–I don’t know. I still do that sort of thing but then started doing more damage assessments. So yeah, so really a dynamic…dynamic role that I’ve come into.

Interviewer: Okay. Okay. How has the storm or the aftermath of the storm caused you to see, think or, or experience New York City in a new way?

Man: It’s…it’s difficult for me to say because I never even spent any significant time here outside of being a tourist. I guess I realize how…how huge–well for one, how huge of a city it is. And that might seem kind of obvious to somebody who’s from here. But you know, coming from previously just a tourist experience, there really–you realize the size of the city or, you know, the–you see New York in a different way. Yeah, I mean before it was like, you know, popular areas of Brooklyn and Manhattan is what I experienced. And then, you know, being here in the Rockaways really showed me a different…different side of the city. Yeah, I mean down here in the Rockaways, it’s about as much different from anywhere else that I’ve been in the city, which has really shown me the diversity and the size of the city, I guess, and, you know, also the spirit of the people. It’s, you know, not to sound cliché–and I kind of hate it when people talk about how resilient a place is but it’s a pretty resilient place. You know, the fact that we still have pretty strong volunteer interests nearly six months after the storm. Just spontaneous volunteers says something about the nature of the folks here. People want to…people want to help out.

Interviewer: How about in the areas that you’ve working in, you see any differences in–across the neighborhoods that you worked in as far as, you know, the resilient–you mentioned the resilience of the people? Have you seen anything that’s kind of distinct between parts of the Rockaways that you worked in?

Man: In terms of how things are kind of coming along or just the nature of the folks?

Interviewer: Yeah, you could say how things are coming along.

Man: Yeah, slowly things are getting better. It’s definitely much different from when I arrived back in December. You know, in terms of the people, it’s been really interesting seeing how different people…how different people kind of react to…to the storm, you know, to having their entire home or most of their home destroyed. Some people are just crushed. Other people are like, alright, well what do I have to do to make it better? And you know, a lot of people–they just got to carry on. You know, it’s interesting, you know, now in April versus December when I first arrived. You know, people kind of–people are slowly getting back to normal, often still live upstairs in a moldy home. But–what was the question exactly?

Interviewer: Yeah, just any of the differences, I guess, you’ve seen in some of the areas that you worked and how the people affected, you know, experiencing the storm.

Man: A lot of people just didn’t know what to do and still don’t know what to do. You know, like hell, I don’t know what to do. But I can at least try to, you know–Respond and Rebuild–we can give them some help somewhere. And that’s–that actually goes a pretty far way. You know, we worked for this lady a couple of weeks ago who–you know, she lost her husband recently before the storm. And their house was destroyed. And she had no idea what to do. You know, we had talked to her on the phone. And she’d be–you know, she’d start crying if we–you know, if we just were on the phone with her for more than a couple of minutes. She just didn’t know how to deal with it. And then we sent a team over and we cleaned out her house and, you know, scrubbed out all the mold. And it was like night and day, really–yeah, it helped her kind of–she’s still in a messy situation. Your house is destroyed but at least it’s clean and, you know, the mold’s gone and–

Interviewer: Right.

Man: I don’t know. I think it’s–that’s just one of the fulfilling parts of this job, is you help give people piece of mind.

Interviewer: Some people are talking about–or making the connection rather to the aftermath of the storm and inequality. What do you think about that?

Man: The aftermath of the storm and inequality–you mean socioeconomic inequality or–?

Interviewer: Yeah, along those lines. You know, how people–are there differences in how people recover based on inequality.

Man: Yeah, I mean if you want to talk in sheer terms of U.S. dollars, it’s cost quite a lot of money. So say you can’t have any volunteer labor and you can’t do any of the work yourself. Then you’re going to be paying out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars to have all this stuff hauled out of your house, to get the mold cleaned, rip your house apart, rebuild it. That’s a lot of money. So if the insurance company doesn’t pay it out and if you don’t have, you know, serious income or significant personal savings or some knowledge of building, then you’re screwed as far as I see it. And you know, these insurance companies really aren’t helping a whole hell of a lot often. You know, they say okay, we only cover exterior damage; we’re not going to–we don’t cover flood. It’s an act of god or they just kind of dress it up as a different worry. So yeah, in terms of inequality, it does often I think come down to do you have enough money to pay for this? Yes, okay fine. If no, then sorry, you have no recourse. You know, you’re going to be living still upstairs above some gross debris and some molding framing, you know. It does often kind of come down to the sheer amount of how much money you got, what are you willing to pay and what are you able to pay.

Interviewer: Do you think this is due to race and class?

Man: I don’t know. I suppose so. You know, it’s all kind of tied in there. In terms of–I don’t really…I don’t really know the exact socioeconomic demographic of the Rockaways. And I do–doing damage assessments, we focus mostly down in Arverne, which is, you know, pretty solid middle-class, more black than say up here in Rockaway Park and Bell Harbor. And certainly everybody was affected. You know, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich, you’re poor, or black and white. I guess it stems from–you know, we’re just–I mean that’s a bigger question, isn’t it? Like where does the socioeconomic divide come from, race and class? I mean yeah, it definitely–in general I guess, you see more rich white people– So I don’t know. I couldn’t really say.

Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.

Man: I mean that’s a tricky one. I feel like that’s a whole different…a whole different area.

Interviewer: Right. You could say it is. It’s a very loaded topic. You know, it is certainly.

Man: And I mean in terms of, you know, is it easier for you to recover from the storm if you’re white or if you’re black? I don’t know.

Interviewer: Right.

Man: I don’t know.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: It does seem like there–you know, that this part of the Rockaways is in a further stage of recovery than that part of the Rockaways, you know.

Interviewer: In reference to that part.

Man: This part being, like, the wealthier white part versus the poorer black part.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: But you know, I don’t go in every single house. I just kind of–

Interviewer: Okay. What do you think that’s related to? Or what would you say? What would you kind of pin it to?

Man: I don’t know. It seems like…it seems like the relief effort really has been– It does kind of seem like there’s the more money put up into Bell Harbor or Rockaway Park, the whiter part. I’ve seen–I want to be careful here too because I can’t speak to– I just kind of go off with what I was seeing but yeah, there’s quite a lot of work being done up here, a lot of different volunteer groups up here. And I would see less done in Far Rockaway, Arverne.

Interviewer: Okay. Okay. How about gender? How has gender, from your experiences of doing the volunteer work in this area, how have you seen gender is being a deterrent to the way people experience the storm in the aftermath?

Man: In terms of someone affected by the storm or a relief worker?

Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah, or say someone affected by the storm.

Man: I couldn’t say if there’ s any difference. I mean yeah, male or female, if you lose your whole house, you lose your whole house. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge factor. I would say I kind of deal equally with men and women.

Interviewer: Okay. Alright. So we’ll shift gears just a little bit. In your opinion, why did the storm happen?

Man: Well, as you know, a freak occurrence, it was what, the combination of the nor’easter and a really huge hurricane, wasn’t it?

Interviewer: yeah.

Man: So in terms of weather patterns, I mean I’m no meteorologist but it does seem like these big hurricanes have been happening with more and more frequency in the last few years. So I guess, you know, you can point to Global Warming. Yeah, you know, these big storms weren’t hitting the northeast before. And maybe it’s the change–it’s definitely a shift in weather patterns. You want to call it Global Warming–if you want to call it the sort of natural cycles of the Earth–yeah, it’s a shift in weather patterns certainly. And then the crazy, crazy nor’easter and even the crazy hurricane–that’s what caused the storm.

Interviewer: Okay. Why do you think it was so bad?

Man: New York was just unprepared, you know. I feel like maybe last year people overreacted to Irene and under-reacted to Sandy. Why was it so bad? Yeah, it was also a unique situation where this huge storm hit–what is it? Is New York the largest metropolitan area in the United States probably?

Interviewer: I think it’d probably be safe to say so, yeah.

Man: Yeah, sure. Between the five bureaus and Long Island, Jersey, it was just an unprecedented population density affected.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: And kind of coupled with–you know, for example, in Virginia, where I come from, we get these storms. You know, we’re at the tail end of the hurricane path. So we kind of know what to expect up there. And it’s not…it’s not out of the ordinary for a huge, crazy storm to come through. People still do freak out, but at the end of the day, people kind of know what to expect, whereas here, this sort of thing never happens, or it has never really happened in the past. It’s lack of experience.

Interviewer: Do you think we’re likely to see more storms like this occur in the future?

Man: Yeah, I would say so. I would say so. You know, if you had Irene last year and Sandy this year–yeah, I do think so. I don’t think it’s…I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility, unfortunately.

Interviewer: Why do you say that? Why do you think?

Man: It’s–the world has changed and I don’t think–and you know, it was Irene with Sandy. And I wasn’t even on the East Coast for the last couple of years. But what were the [Inaudible 26:07] storms? I don’t know if they were affecting the New York area but, I mean, they definitely were battering Virginia.

Interviewer: Uh huh.

Man: And I’d never seen that before. You know, it’s just crazy changing weather patterns. It does…it does seem like that sort of thing is going to be happening with more frequency. Why–you know, like I said, I don’t really– I don’t know the nuts and bolts of the water systems, but call it a gut feeling, just the way the–you know, the weather has just been getting more and more extreme, you know, colder winters or hotter summers.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: Yeah, you get a freak snow storm in–yeah, just unpredictable weather systems. It’s kind of how it’s been turning out.

Interviewer: Okay. So some people have been attributing the storm–think the storm was caused by climate change. What do you think about that?

Man: Climate change, yeah sure. I’d say so.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: I mean climate change–I mean when you break it down, climate change is–climate, what is that? It’s the average temperatures and sea levels. And I mean quantifiably speaking, the climate has been changing. And in my opinion, if you know, the climate had been–that’s, you know, more drastic fluctuations in temperatures and different, you know, more extreme weather patterns. That’s climate change, in my opinion. I mean if you have higher sea level, that’s climate change. And you know, like I said, I’m no–I ain’t no big city meteorologist but, you know, that’s the largest variable factor, right, in my opinion.

Interviewer: So what do you think going forward, we can do to make sure this thing doesn’t continue to happen?

Man: Don’t live on a tiny, little barrier island in a densely populated area, you know. Move to the mountains. Yeah, I don’t know. I wouldn’t buy a house here.

Interviewer: No?

Man: No.

Interviewer: Something to do with the physical vulnerability, just the geography?

Man: Yeah, I’d say so.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: I don’t really think that there’s anything that human beings can really do to prevent these huge storms from happening. You know, if you want to attribute it to climate change, then we’ve already opened a Pandora’s Box. We’re not going to get the world to cool back down. Pragmatically speaking, we’re not going to stop burning fossil fuels and destroying the ozone layer. Humans are going–we’re going to use it until it’s all gone. And then who knows what’s going to happen?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: So yeah, we’re not going to really–I don’t think we can stop these storms from happening. We’re going to be more prepared. You know, we can–in terms of–so if you want to– How do we avoid such a crazy…a crazy situation like we’ve seen here in the Sandy-affected areas in New York City, I think in terms of just preparedness, yeah, we–just get that information into people’s hands. What do you do? Okay, say the storm comes in and floods your house. What you’ve got to do is you got to rip out all–everything that got flooded, just tear out your walls. Get all your moldy possessions out. Get all the wet stuff out. Dry out the home immediately. And if you see mold, then scrub it out. Vacuum it up. Wipe it down. Make sure it’s dry. And that’s–if people had–if that information was out there, you know, day one after the storm, I think everything would be much different right now. Yeah, easier said than done. Easier said than done. Like nobody really–it’s tough to do that work yourself.

Interviewer: Sure.

Man: But I think, you know, the knowledge of what you do after a storm–and even, like, with this mold thing, nobody knew what to do with this mold. Everybody–there’s just a whole variety of information out there. There’s like, oh, you can spray some bleach on it and that’s good. Well that’s not really the case. But I think just information and a really, really good first response is the key because what you do within the first, say, week after something like this does kind of magnify it in the coming months. Like for example, if, you know, there’s this house that we gutted a few weeks ago that had been untouched since the storm. It was nasty in there. Everything was completely ruined, whereas if you get to that place right after the storm then, you know, it’s not that bad. The longer…the longer these places sit, the worse it gets.

Interviewer: So how do you think that information is best distributed? Or what’s your ideal approach to how you would distribute that information amongst residents?

Man: Well it depends on your audience. You know, with social media these days, you really are able to reach thousands, millions of people immediately. That being said, I don’t–I think that it’s a little…it’s a little different when you’re working with an older population. You know, so I don’t know. Social media and just boots on the ground, flyering and knocking on the door, you know. We do hold these homeowner mold remediation training sessions throughout the city. And those are sponsored through the Mayor’s Fund. So the city’s actually training. We’re having four of the six of us responding have been contracted to hold, you know, a lecture and then a question and answer session. So I think that’s quite valuable as well. Yeah, through any means possible, depending on your audience. It all depends on the audience, you know.

Interviewer: Okay. How do you think something like that, information like that–it’s distribution, I’m referring to–could vary, you know, from place to place or neighborhood to neighborhood? Do you think that there could be some variance in how information like that is relayed?

Man: Yeah, sure. I mean I would have guessed that the majority of the homeowners that we’re dealing with in Arverne don’t use Twitter, for example. Like I don’t use Twitter. Whereas, I don’t know. What’s an area–in a younger area with a younger demographic, like you can just get on–you know, back to social media. It’s the best way to do it.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: So yeah, some people are old school and want to see a piece of paper with some information, some official-looking stuff and other people who just take information however it gets to them. And honestly, I do think that kind of talking with somebody is–does seem to be–in my opinion, it’s really the most effective way to kind of describe something. If you got any questions, just ask the questions and hopefully they get answered.

Interviewer: Yeah. So when you started your initial process of doing the mold removal in Arverne, how did you go about distributing that information?

Man: Well, a lot of it–some information from that, yeah you know, really would– What I started doing–doing assessments was, I would– We have this mold removal guide that’s geared towards homeowners. We wrote it up specifically with homeowners in mind. You know, like if somebody was able to do the work themselves, this is how you do it and this is what you need. So I would have a copy of that in my clipboard, and by the end of the damage assessments, said alright, this is how we do mold. If you’re able to do it yourself, this is how you do it. And I would walk through, step by step, probably spend a good ten minutes per home–

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: –going over that. And you know, it’s not the fastest way to do it but I feel like it’s pretty–it’s thorough.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: And I think in most cases, people probably didn’t even wind up doing it themselves, but you know, it kind of goes back to what I was saying about people just wanting to hear some information, just get some good information that makes sense. And I will say, at the end of the–when I finished talking about how we do mold, people were like, okay, it’s not that bad. It’s just people–just nobody had any idea about this, you know, mold epidemic. You could call it something like that.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: It’s this crazy overwhelming thing where all of a sudden your whole basement is covered in this, you know, green gray black carpet. And like all of a sudden you have asthma, it seems like. How do you get rid of it? It’s like well, it’s actually–it takes a lot of work but it’s–it’s nothing that you haven’t  heard before. You know, it doesn’t require crazy chemicals or anything like that. So yeah, talking that through really, I think, helps explain the process and help them make sense, and put people at ease. You know, now actually doing it is another–a whole other thing.

Interviewer: How would you gage your knowledge regarding mold removal from a hurricane or storm rather like Sandy?

Man: So we all of our information largely from–so it was based on–initially it was based on this–the [Inaudible 36:46] Study, which was a seven-year study post-Katrina from Biloxi, Mississippi for, I believe they compared several different, or three or four different molding techniques to– I think it was a housing project in Biloxi. So it was a situation where they could, you know, compare side by side different techniques in more or less the same, you know, the same environment. The one we chose was the most effective and, you know, fairly low cost but lots of work. And then we–and again, this is a good question for Terri, Gabby, Ian, the guys that were here in November because, you know, they started moving on it immediately.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: And you know, from them, we kind of collaborated with a public health professor and, you know, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, just asked, you know, medicine people and just asked them loads of questions, really annoying, detailed questions about, well, do we need…do we need a biocide? Do we need just a regular, you know, a low-end disinfectant like vinegar or bleach or do we need this–do we need chemicals? What do we need? What’s the best way to do it? And just by asking a bunch of people really. Research. Ask people. I didn’t know anything about killing mold.

Interviewer: Before?

Man: Oh, no.

Interviewer: Before the storm?

Man: No, not at all.

Interviewer: No?

Man: Nope.

Interviewer: So you hadn’t worked…you hadn’t worked on any other mold removal projects previously?

Man: No. It’s just–it’s really heavy duty cleaning and hard work. You know, that’s where–you know, I have skills in kind of delegating…delegating work and supervising people and I’m pretty detail-oriented as well. So I mean those are all things that will come into play. And then it’s just a matter of learning a whole new skill set. It’s not that complicated doing these mold jobs. You just have to be really meticulous.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: Yeah. I mean none of us really knew anything about removing mold. And it was just a really steep learning curve, but you know, once we got all that information, it was pretty straight forward actually.

Interviewer: Well, I’m going to, again, shift gears a little bit. Speak a little bit more about asking some more questions about your experience as a volunteer, volunteer responder. So we’d already gone over how you got involved. What did you expect before you started to volunteer?

Man: Pretty much what I got, you know, hard, manual labor. I knew–I was asked to come out to help supervise and lead teams. And that’s what I expected and that’s what I got. I–yeah, I knew that there were huge numbers of people coming out to work. But yeah, I’d done flood relief before, so I kind of knew–

Interviewer: You did do flood relief before?

Man: Yeah, yeah. More on the demolition and gutting side of things, not so much the mold.

Interviewer: Okay. Alright.

Man: Yeah, the mold. I didn’t anticipate doing the mold removal.

Interviewer: No, you didn’t anticipate doing it.

Man: No.

Interviewer: So that was–how was–so that was a little bit different from what you expected to get involved in before you came?

Man: Uh huh. Yeah, but I didn’t really–I kind of came into this with a fairly…fairly open mind. You know, disaster response is a really–it’s always a dynamic situation. Nothing’s ever set in stone. No situation is perfect. No situation is–you know, every single place that you go is different from the previous one.

Interviewer: Yeah. So where did you volunteer previously? Or where have you done disaster relief previously?

Man: In Leogane in Haiti after the earthquake a few years ago and in Minot, North Dakota after heavy flooding about a year and a half ago.

Interviewer: Okay. How were those two experiences different than what you experienced here? Or similar?

Man: Well Haiti was much different. Didn’t speak the language at first. I learned it. And you know, it was an earthquake, so the nature of the work was rubble removal and demolition at first. And then the organization with which I was working transitioned more into development of a school building, which is pretty good. So you know, the climate was different. In terms of the climate, you know, it’s a tropical country. So it’s just hot all the time. Whereas here, it was dead winter and super cold and miserable. You know, the volunteer experience–in then in North Dakota, it was autumn, so it was sort of in between there. North Dakota is really sparsely populated. Leogane, Haiti fairly densely populated. And then New York also, you know, densely populated, but it was not quite as much as you have in other places. But still, a lot of people here. And in terms of the volunteer response, you know, North Dakota was kind of a blend of volunteers who showed up for the day and people who were there every day, whereas–well, in Leogane, most of the volunteers I was working were–pretty much everybody was staying there for a set period of time, you know, from a week to several months. And here, we have people–we do have a handful of folks who come back fairly regularly. But I would say eighty percent of the time it’s–you know, any given day I would say we were training of new people half the time. So there’s a lot of one and dones and young groups will come for a couple of days and then not come back.

Interviewer: Okay. Sorry. So any other areas? You said that there were fixed groups that stayed for periods of time?

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: How did your group’s mission relate to the relief work that you were performing?

Man: I mean we’re pretty much fulfilling our mission. We–you know, what we want to do is work with the same homeowners through the whole stage of the process as far as we can go. And right now, it takes us as far as, you know, pumping a basement, mucking it out, which is removal of furniture and soggy personal items, gutting demolition, which is removal of building components, and then mold removal, which is scrubbing out mold. And you know, we are rebuilding in some cases. But we really don’t have the funds or the capacity to do that right now. And we have–you know, going over our numbers, we have worked with the same homeowners through, I mean, through a lot of these jobs. So that’s one of our…that’s one our biggest goals, is just to keep working with the same people. We formed pretty good relationships with these homeowners. One thing I’ve noticed. People get kind of sick of all these different people coming through and, you know, taking data. Like okay, we’ll–and then they never hear anything back from them. So I don’t know. We all just wanted to avoid that because it’s annoying. It’s like having religious zealots come and knock on your door and bother you and–

Interviewer: So when you say take data, you mean they come in to assess damages or–

Man: Yeah, I don’t even know what they do. People just go door to door with clipboards canvassing for god knows what. You know, sometimes–I think sometimes they’ll come back and be helpful and sometimes they’ll just never do anything. So we kind of just wanted to avoid that.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: And it’s easier too. You know what’s going on in somebody’s house. Okay, you know so and so. This is what their house looks like. This is what you do. This is what you don’t do, etc. It’s just way easier than going out and finding new jobs all the time.

Interviewer: Okay. Approximately how many–do you have an idea of how many homes or how many homeowners you’re working with?

Man: Yeah. You know, we’ve–I’ve been tracking our numbers over the last few months very carefully. And still we’re going back over our numbers from the first few months, like the immediate first response where it was like way too busy to keep good track of anything. Yeah, we have done–so we’ve done mold removal in over, I’d say, around sixty homes. We have gutted out over a hundred. We mucked out probably about the same amount. We pumped out–I don’t know–dozens of basements. So I mean I’m going to say we’ve worked easily in a hundred and fifty, maybe close to two hundred homes.

Interviewer: Wow. And most of them in Arverne and–?

Man: I’d say…I’d say the majority in Arverne, but really all over the Rockaways.

Interviewer: Okay. Were the houses that you worked in–were they in any particular part of Arverne? Is there any–I mean is there…is there a specific area of Arverne that you were working in?

Man: Not really. Arverne’s pretty small. I know we definitely did–you know, street by street. Some streets are at a slightly lower elevation, which does make actually a huge difference. So we have done lots of work on sixty-seventh, sixty-eighth, sixty-ninth streets, for example. And I think a lot of the times homeowners got a–they’d see us working, ask a neighbor, or ask the volunteer crews, like hey where were you guys? And you know, word about us spreads.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: So no, no specific area in particular. But I would say that we have worked on more streets more than others, some streets more than others.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: But Arverne’s pretty small anyway, so we go all over it.

Interviewer: All over the whole, okay. Was your organization adequately equipped to perform the work that you’re doing?

Man: Yeah. You know, Occupy Sandy was really, really helpful in hooking us up with their donor network. So we do pretty much have every tool imaginable. And we did an online fundraiser specifically for mold removal tools. So you know, we went and bought a bunch of dehumidifiers for drying out homes, which is completely essential. So I mean in terms of tools, we had everything we need. And that was really just funding. General funding is sorely lacking.

Interviewer: General funding?

Man: Yeah, you know, the six of us have been doing this since–well, me since December, Ian, Terri, Gabby, Shana since November. And you know, there have been several others too.

Interviewer: What effected you most during your volunteering after the storm?

Man: In terms of–?

Interviewer: The work you performed.

Man: I mean I–you know, it’s a pretty great feeling to know you’re actually helping somebody who has no other recourse. So yeah, that’s why I do this, because it’s–you know, we got to look out for each other out there. So you know, it’s effected me, just the relief that you can see in somebody’s expression and demeanor once, you know, once they know they’re one step along on the path to recovery. On the other side of the coin, what’s effected me is just, you know, I get completely burnt out from stress sometimes just training new people up day to day and dealing with chaos. You know, these days it’s a little quieter, which is good.

Interviewer: How if at all has your organization worked with other organizations, other volunteer groups or government agencies in response?

Man: Government agencies–we–so yeah, four of us have been doing these city-sanctioned mold remediation trainings. So I guess that’s how we’ve collaborated with the government. In terms of funding or visibility, we haven’t really gotten any help from the city or the government. Other agencies, we did work with Occupy Sandy pretty extensively. You know, they’re helpful with getting the word out about volunteers and tool donations and some funding donations as well. Other organizations, YANA and Restore The Rock, we’ve been kind of working with since the other days–I’m sorry. Since the early days. They kind of do homeowner advocacy or tenant advocacy. Where we do labor, they look out for people getting screwed by various agencies.

Interviewer: This is YANA that does this?

Man: YANA slash Restore The Rock.

Interviewer: Restore The Rock.

Man: Yeah.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: Who else? Yeah, I mean we definitely worked with probably–Habitat for Humanity hooked us up with some sheet rock. You know, All Hands Volunteers have given us, you know, a bunch of their excess tools and some of their materials. So yeah, it’s just a matter of people. We’re all in this for the same reason, more or less. And you know, non-profit groups are just looking to help each other out in any way they see fit. You know, it’s not a competition.

Interviewer: Right. Right. Do you think the efforts are going to continue in the future?

Man: Yeah, I do. Some organizations are in it for longer than others. But there’s no way we can pull out without any–you know, I think we’re…we’re in it until we feel like we’re in a place where we can either turn it over to someone local for rebuilding or–but I mean yeah, the recovery efforts are going to be going on for years and years and years.

Interviewer: Okay. One question I wanted to ask you. We’d spoken a little bit about–you mentioned some things about insurance money, the difficulties of getting insurance money. You know, this is related to FEMA or just homeowners insurance in general?

Man: Well the insurance money–have been having difficulty getting it because general liability insurance for doing volunteer-based mold remediation–

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: And that’s kind of tied into some grant money.

Interviewer: What’s the difficulty in getting the grant money? Is it a specific problem for, just in general, disaster relief or–?

Man: I think it’s kind of a response to the post-9/11 first responder–it’s the lawsuits that have been coming down from being affected by inhalation of particular matter at Ground Zero after 9/11. So now the city’s just being super cautious about, well, getting sued basically–

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: –by the people working through them.

Interviewer: Okay. So you have to, to be able to work in somebody’s home, you have that homeowner–what do they have to have in order for you to enter and do the work?

Man: See, we have our own legal waiver. So when we’re doing in-house jobs, before we respond, we have them sign our own waiver, which you know, lawyers have looked over it. Lawyers have drafted it up, so it’s good. And then the problem with the insurance is to get the specific grant that we’ve been going for, they do want a whole different grade of insurance, so.

Interviewer: Is that something is–I guess how would you obtain that, that type of insurance? What do you need specifically?

Man: I don’t know. That’s not really–I’m not working on that myself.

Interviewer: Oh, okay.

Man: Yeah. Shana–I think Shana would be the one to–

Interviewer: She’s the one that knows.

Man: –talk to about that, yeah.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: I mean I’m not sure to what extent I should talk about this program because we’re not quite in it yet.

Interviewer: No problem. Not a problem at all. Okay. So what are…what are some of the main challenges that you’re having to deal with right now?

Man: You know, right now it’s still the challenges that we were facing at the beginning. It’s really just personnel capacity. Like people who are skilled and safety conscious enough to take unskilled volunteer teams out in the field and get jobs done safely and efficiently. Yeah, that and, you know, funding still. Yeah, good personnel, funding. Tools–we’re good on tools. We’re definitely good on equipment. Yeah. Volunteer numbers have kind of dwindling but, you know, if we had the personnel to take people out into the field and put them to work, we could get some more volunteers.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: Skilled personnel, I’d say.

Interviewer: Skilled personnel.

Man: Yeah. You know, if we had some more money, we could hire people but we don’t, so we can’t.

Interviewer: So maybe to take on some other types of work? Is that–?

Man: Yeah, I mean we’d love to get a building program going. I mean by this point we’ve been doing we’ve been doing mold for the entirety of 2013 so far. And it kind of sucks to do, man. You know? I don’t know if you–did you go out on any mold jobs?

Interviewer: I didn’t since I’ve been–the two times I went, I didn’t. So I don’t even know what the experience is like.

Man: Yeah, I mean it’s not–I don’t think it’s very–it’s not fun. You know, you’re scrubbing mold, like you couldn’t imagine–

Interviewer: Sure.

Man: It’s brutal. Yeah.

Interviewer: For eight hours a day or–?

Man: No, like five hours, four hours.

Interviewer: Still. It’s a lot of time.

Man: Yeah, I mean in terms of volunteering interest, I think it’s a hell of a lot easier to get people interested in tearing apart a house or building it back up rather than doing the mold removal, which is completely important but it’s hard work, not glamorous work.

Interviewer: Okay. There’s been some talk about the storm prompting some more serious action regarding climate change. There’s something that they have in New York City called the PlaNYC 2007. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it. It talked a lot about climate change but mainly in terms of curbing emissions. Do you think the priority after Sandy will shift from mitigation to adaptation?

Man: I have no idea. I don’t know anything about that.

Interviewer: Okay. Would you say mitigation is even on the table anymore or–?

Man: Yeah, I don’t know.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: I don’t know anything about that.

Interviewer: Okay. Alright. No problem.

Man: I never even thought about it. I don’t think about climate change too often, day to day.

Interviewer: Alright. So we spoke a little bit earlier about race, class, and gender categories, how social scientists kind of talk a lot about this in work. Are you or other volunteer responders talking about these issues explicitly with respect to your work in the aftermath of Sandy?

Man: Yeah, I mean we try to work for, you know, the more middle/lower class folks in Arverne and Far Rockaway more than Bell Harbor, you know. That is something we have just been avoiding just because–I mean it goes back to what I was saying. Just see volunteer groups or people helping out in Arverne rather than up in Rockaway Park, Bell Harbor.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: But I mean, you know, we never really set out with like a specific social justice agenda in mind like we’re only going to work for poor black people. You know?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Man: It’s just about helping people. Everyone’s situation is different.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: But yeah, we did kind of focus on Arverne just because it’s–well for one, because it’s our neighborhood where–it’s where our office was. And in terms of sheer logistics, it’s a hell of a lot easier to push a wheelbarrow full of tools to work rather than get in a van and drive a whole bunch of people a few miles up the peninsula, up the island, yeah.

Interviewer: Yeah, okay. What types of changes have you seen in the neighborhood since you’ve been there?

Man: People are just kind of getting back to–getting their place back to normal more. The places have been cleaned out and rebuilt. And the roads are a little better. Traffic’s not as crazy.

Interviewer: Yeah.  From the time you started–you said you started in December? So you’ve been working roughly how long in the area?

Man: December, January, February, March, April–about five months, four and a half to five months.

Interviewer: Have you seen any changes in the involvement in the residents in the community participating in volunteer work?

Man: No, I mean actually community involvement and volunteering has been kind of low from the get-go. I mean I think people are less inclined to work for free when, you know, they have–they have to worry about their own…their own place. Like once–pretty regularly we’ll have a homeowner working alongside but that does sort of seem to be the extent of it. Right there. Yeah, I mean I can’t blame them. If my home got ruined by some crazy flood, I’d be way less concerned in working for free in my neighbor’s house when I have my own place to worry about.

Interviewer: Have you guys tried anything to try to get more people involved and the community involved in participating in the volunteer work?

Man: Yeah, we definitely had some–a handful of different community events about what sort of services are available post-Sandy. And we do volunteer outreach at those but, you know, it just doesn’t–people just don’t seem that interested in it.

Interviewer: Okay. So do you foresee this as another problem in the recovery efforts or–?

Man: I just don’t think that you can really rely on volunteer labor for kind of long-term recovery.

Interviewer: Oh, I see.

Man: Yeah, it’s–I think volunteer work is really great for first response but in terms of getting a place rebuilt or back to normal or better than before, I think that’s got to be kind of–well, I don’t know. I’m not a–I don’t do any volunteer outreach myself. So I might be better–I think Terri would be–Terri would have some good…some good input on that.

Interviewer: Okay. Alright. Is there anything else that you wanted to add or–?

Man: No.

Interviewer: No?

Man: I don’t think so.

Interviewer: Okay.

Man: It’s a pretty thorough interviewer.

Interviewer: Great. Well I appreciate your participation.

Man: No, I’m happy to do it. It actually helped me kind of work through–get a little perspective to what we’ve been doing.

Interviewer: Okay. Excellent.

End of recording.

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