Q&A: Occupy Sandy’s Lev Tobias

Photo by Meghan White

Q&A: Occupy Sandy’s Lev Tobias

This past week marked the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated many of the city’s waterfront neighborhoods, leaving dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless. We spoke with Lev Tobias, a disaster relief worker at Lutheran Social Services of New York and an early volunteer for Occupy Sandy, about the state of the city’s recovery and the evolution of the Occupy Wall Street-inspired relief organization.

Where were you when the storm hit?

I was in Brooklyn when it hit. I think I both called and emailed the Red Cross during the storm. And then again in the morning, just saying that I was available. I did some search and rescue when I was in high school, so I had some background. And you know, I’d only moved to New York, three, four weeks prior to the storm.

So I didn’t have anywhere else to be, I didn’t have a job yet or anything, so I was like, “I can help.” And that morning, I think I just went walking around, taking pictures. I walked down to DUMBO, I was going to walk and take pictures, and I was actually standing on the Brooklyn Bridge. I was walking just to look around there, below 14th. The Red Cross had called, but cell phones weren’t working, so they’d leave me a message and I’d call them back, leave them a message. They asked me to come to their headquarters. They’d offered me a ride, but we just couldn’t connect, so I walked back to Bed-Stuy, got stuff, then hitchhiked to their office. And then they called and said they needed me for twelve hours. When I got there they said they needed me for 72 hours. I’d only brought one pair of socks — and I was out there for five days.

So where does Occupy Sandy come in?

The week of the storm, I volunteered with the Red Cross, and I was out on Long Island with no electricity and showers. So I got back that Saturday after the storm. They kind of just left us out there, so we had to trek back. And I was going to go back out with the Red Cross on Sunday, but I couldn’t get a hold of anyone. They wouldn’t call me back. And so I was in touch with some friends online. And they were like, “Well, there’s this, there’s that.” I was in Bed-Stuy, and it’s hard to get from there to anywhere. The hub they had in Clinton Hill was walkable.

They had this pop-up donation site that was down the street from me, so I went there first and they were like well, we just need cars to come here and pick up all the stuff we have, so walk down to 520 Clinton, tell them we need to bring a car down here. I went there and there were no cars, because nowhere had gas, so I was just like “Wow.” While I was standing at the dispatch table, a woman was unloading her car and she was like, “I need someone to help me deliver this.” And I was like, “Oh, I’ll go,” so I just jumped in her car. So then we went to Red Hook, came back, got more stuff, went to Staten Island. And then I just came back, started organizing donations in the church and came back the next day and never stopped coming back. I think I worked probably three, four weeks before I took a day off, which was normal, I think, for a lot of people at that time.

You had trouble getting in contact with the Red Cross, but the people from Occupy were out there with cars…

The Red Cross, when I went there that Tuesday, I think I arrived there 12:30 or 1 p.m. — they did nothing with us for about an hour and a half. We just sat in a room. Then I helped them set up for training, people coming in. We didn’t actually leave to go to the field until I think 9 or 10 that night. And then when we got to Long Island, everywhere we went, no one was expecting us, and they didn’t know what to do with us, so they’d pass us on to someone else who wouldn’t know we were coming, and we got to the shelter and got split — I think two or three went to each shelter. We arrived. They weren’t expecting us. They had no beds for us.

And Occupy Sandy certainly didn’t have a great idea of what was going to happen an hour from now, but they would find you something to do. They very much knew what needed to be done right then. And you could engage how you wanted to, what your expertise was. It was very much, “What do you know how to do?”

I’m not even on Twitter, but I think people were. I’ve talked to others who hear, you know, “food is needed at this location,” so they get to bring food there. It made it really easy for people to engage. For some reason they needed a ton of cat litter in Coney Island. Why do they need a ton of cat litter? No one asked why, we just got more cat litter. And it turned out that all their sewers were out, so people were using buckets and carrying sewage up and down the stairs of the projects.

So you were focused on using your own experience?

Well, I worked in operations management in logistics in tourism, so I was kind of managing the logistics. It was me and a couple people, but we were managing the inflow and outflow of donations from the church of St. Luke’s and St. Matthew in Clinton Hill. And there was another couple of people who set up the Amazon.com wedding registry.

They just set up a wedding registry on Amazon.com like any couple could do. They said, “Occupy Sandy is marrying Occupy Sandy.” You can add any items you want to registries. So they put up generators and tools and flashlights and batteries, and you could add or remove as you needed new things. Diapers, everything — because Amazon can send you anything. And this stuff was getting delivered to that church.

So the week after I got there, by the end of that week, we were getting three UPS trucks every morning, the big ones. And they would come and we would have all these packages come in — you know how Amazon packs, there’s one little thing in these huge boxes. So we’d have to bring it all in in human chains, move it all in the building. We’d have ten, fifteen people tearing boxes open, sorting things, putting it out in the pews.

Amazon hasn’t shared any data with us, but we’ve estimated $2 or $3 million worth of stuff came in from that registry. And it kind of short cut the system too. There was no gas, so you couldn’t move things around well. But UPS and FedEx have gas, so they’d deliver to us. We actually then set up registries for some of our other hubs, like Staten Island. So UPS would deliver straight to Staten Island, so we didn’t have to pay the toll, we didn’t have to drive out there. It was huge, huge amounts of material coming. Plus, ad hoc, in-kind donations from people.

What did the leadership look like in the early days?

There were a couple of site coordinators — I eventually became one after a few weeks, that rotated through. There was a whole comms team upstairs, which had a lot of regular people. Some people described it as a leaderless movement, but there was another guy who described it as leaderful.

Because it was very much about grabbing somebody and saying, “You willing to take a leadership role?” A lot of people are used to just being like, “Oh, well, you were here so you know what’s going on.” But a half day made you kind of a veteran. So very quickly you’d just grab somebody and be like, “Okay, can you make this happen? This needs to happen.”

That person would take over that process. And sometimes they would see that the people sorting goods, it just wasn’t organized. And someone would just come and be like, “Hey, let’s do it this way.”

At what point did you start working in Coney Island?

So I didn’t go out there till December and then really full-time in January. I made a couple of visits to Coney before we really got set up there. We were doing a lot of kind of coordinating food deliveries, which by that time was mostly set up. Prior to my involvement on Coney Island, there was team of people that’d been out there full-time while I was in north Brooklyn. They’d set up small hubs at some of the public housing sites. They were using community centers as hubs. We had to move a lot of stuff inside — most of it just got delivered on the curb, and they would set up a distribution, and we were working with the building council presidents. So they were kind of running it on site. And we’d send some volunteers out to help carry things or whatever, and then those same councils. Each set of projects has its own council. They would also let us know about elderly people and folks who couldn’t get out of their room, so we would carry food up the stairs to them. Especially in the first few weeks when I wasn’t out there, there was full-time work. Volunteers were going every day just carrying food and water up the stairs and sewage down the stairs, you know, 20, 30 floors in these buildings. And they had no elevators, no power, no heat, for at least a month.

And this is all out in Coney Island?

Yeah. And I think you would see similar things like that in the Rockaways. I was doing mucking and gutting in places like Sheepshead Bay and a number of those attached row homes you have all in Coney as well, in the middle. There was a lot of helping people move their flooded-out furniture and rugs and things out of their apartments and tearing out drywall, things like that. That was all ongoing through November, December as well. We had a trailer provided by the mayor’s office.

You mentioned the Red Cross earlier. How did Occupy interact with them?

The Red Cross was really valuable in helping them get things like prescription medication, and they had councilors available. So we would often come into these little working groups, so you’d grab your couple Red Cross nurses, maybe a couple people from Occupy Sandy (who often were just volunteers, who became Occupy Sandy and put a duct-tape nametag on, but it was really just who gave you a ride out there), and we kind of did a sensitivity training orientation before we’d send people out. But some people certainly would just arrive out there, without coming through a hub first. And then you’d just pair up, so where the Occupy Sandy people could have food and water — and usually we’d try to provide people with some other languages. My friend was fluent in Russian, and I know every time he went out, he was like, “Oh, the Red Cross needs a Russian interpreter,” so he would just go around with the Red Cross people to interpret.

Were those connections pretty informal?

I think so. And that was a big problem with the Red Cross, because their people were only in town for like two weeks at a time, so you’d get something working for a couple weeks, and the people you’re working with leave, and new people would come and they’d be sort of wandering around unsure what to do, and you’ve got a lot of Red Cross food trucks that park on the street somewhere with a megaphone, you know, “We have food.” But the people on the streets are the ones who are able to go get food — the people who don’t have food are stuck in their rooms because they can’t climb the stairs. So that was problematic.

What’s the time frame here?

This was well into December, there were still people with no heat in their apartments with arthritis. It was going around, making sure and checking on those people. And the people who were really out there every day built relationships. We certainly knew who was who and who really needed to be checked in on. Some people just needed someone to talk to. They’d say, “Well, if we go to this lady’s house, we’re going to be there for an hour and she’s going to make us tea, and we’re not going to get out of there.”

Did you notice that right after Sandy you had a huge group of people coming out and then it dropped off?

Yeah, through November. First we lost tons of people coming every day — it was becoming more of a weekend thing. And at that point, you didn’t need the huge volumes, you weren’t trying to deliver food and water to all these places all the time. So while there was a big drop off, the needs changed, so mostly that worked. But by the holidays in December, what we ran into was that our people, the coordinators, the people who were coming every day, were having to move on to going back to work. Our first big drop was when people started to work in Lower Manhattan again, because that had provided a lot of really well-educated, experienced people who lived in Brooklyn and couldn’t go to work. We were able to build all these web tools, expand these networks — guys who were engineers and software people and couldn’t go to work. That was the first big chunk you lost. Those people started coming weekends only, some of them.

I haven’t mentioned at all, we had a huge kitchen operation as well that was producing 6,000 meals a day, at least through December. There was another church that had — you know, we didn’t have a real commercial kitchen, and if we’re going to be doing this seriously, you need to have a full commercial kitchen. But there were chefs running that, it was a very kind of professional thing, and we were still producing, I think, 4,000-5,000 meals a day in January. And it kind of dropped off into February, as they knew they couldn’t keep that going forever.

What are the needs right now in places like Coney Island?

Reconstruction. Mold remediation. Housing. Just because a lot of illegal basement housing out there was flooded out. No one should have lived in them anyway, but all these people now have nowhere to go. It was a lot of undocumented people who are hard to reach or cut off from most sources of aid.

Have you been able to stay involved with Occupy Sandy? I’m sure it’s very different now.

The types of things that are happening are kind of more macro in scope. We’ve just in the last couple of months allocated the remaining funding. So that was an ongoing process through the summer, making allocation decisions about this money. And they’ve just started a new fundraising drive, which I haven’t been as directly involved in. So those meetings are happening, one to three times a month.

There’s work going on with documentation now, discussions about publishing something. And there’s been work already on how-to’s of how we did it. When those floods hit in Colorado, there was instant interaction and a group set up their base doing work based on that. Some simple things like the wedding registry and a lot of our online tools — everything we have is open source. And we’re running a vehicle cooperative.

We had some number of vehicles donated and purchased some that we were using for the relief effort. There was a vehicle cooperative that already existed that wasn’t functioning, so we were able to use their structure, put them on their insurance, and so I’ve been helping run that.

There’s a lot of kind of community organizing still going on in the Rockaways and some worker co-ops are running, so they use the vehicles more. We’ve helped some families relocate, both in state and out of state. I know one family we drove down to North Carolina, things like that. We had a big cargo van still being used to deliver food and supplies and stuff on Staten Island.

Would you say that, based on your experience, Occupy Sandy was more of an activist organization or a charitable organization, or somewhere between the two?

They were very against the word “charity.” It was “mutual aid,” not “charity.” It was one of the tag lines. But I think to call it only an activist organization would be very misleading, because I think most of the people involved, in terms of volume, would not consider themselves activists. There’s been an ongoing discussion within Occupy Sandy. During the period when we were very intensively using the hubs in Brooklyn, there were nightly meetings for the first four weeks probably, or at least weeknights.

I think even as we got into December, three or four nights a week we were having these coordination meetings. A lot of stuff would come up, like, “Is this political activism?” And one thing you would get from these people, the more political activist side, they’re like, “Well, all action is political.” And so at that point, just the idea of serving people in these affected areas who aren’t being served by the government is highlighting abdication of responsibility by the government. So it’s very difficult to say what is activism and what isn’t.

In a recent article in Al Jazeera, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger saying Occupy Sandy reinforced the right-wing idea that you don’t need government to solve problems...

Yeah, but I would argue that you shouldn’t need Occupy Sandy to feed people. People were showing up because they saw that nothing was being done. If people had waited for government, I think tens if not hundreds of people would have starved to death — on Coney Island alone. Because there were people who were being found who hadn’t eaten for eight days by the time Occupy Sandy people got there. They didn’t send National Guard door-to-door for quite some time, and they were handing out MREs. This was actually a huge problem at the Red Cross as well, their ready-eat HeaterMeals are 200 percent of your daily value of sodium, and they’re handing these out to elderly people with diabetes. It’s solving a short-term problem, but if people are eating just that for weeks, they’re going to kill them. I don’t think that’s much of an exaggeration.

There’s not enough jobs, people can’t afford to eat, if they have money, there’s not really great places to buy food out there, especially healthy food. It’s all bodegas and there’s one big grocery store that’s very far for most people. I think pretty much everyone I’ve met out on Coney Island is on food stamps. And they’re kind of in that trap too‚ they’re in public housing, so they can’t earn more money, and the gap between public housing and the next cheapest apartment is ridiculous, and so if they get more money, they can’t find somewhere to live.

What about claims that Occup Sandy was hurting the activist spirit of the movement, that it was draining resources from Occupy Wall Street?

I studied international politics, so looking at it from that perspective. I better not compare it to a terrorist organization in an interview, but you have a lot of organizations around the world that have political wings as well as functional wings. In extremist organizations they have their violent wings, but they might also provide a large range of social services. And so you have that example. You have Occupy Wall Street as the wider social movement, that’s even representative of a much bigger social movement. And Occupy Sandy was a short-term, functional group serving immediate social service needs.

I think in the long run, that just builds on whatever political things are happening as Occupy Wall Street. If anyone’s going to argue that Occupy Sandy is taking resources away from Occupy Wall Street, I think really it allowed a lot of people who’d been part of Occupy Wall Street or maybe had had sympathies with it to engage in a way that worked for them and to stay engaged in a way that worked for them. Certainly, there were people who were involved in Occupy Wall Street who moved away, but it also allowed for a huge number of people who’d never been involved at all to help people.

So many of these people had never been to one of these neighborhoods. There were all these New Yorkers who came out, who were transplants and saw what life was really like in the Rockaways and Coney Island and Staten Island — met the residents there and saw what problems they had before the storm and how much was there after the storm.

All these people just haven’t rebuilt their houses. And anyone who has rebuilt has probably had to either take out another mortgage, spent their child’s college savings account — they’ve made probably poor economic decisions in order to rebuild their house. And no one has any idea of that. And now, with the anniversary, there’s all these articles, but in two weeks there won’t be. And people still will think it’s over. I honestly haven’t read a lot of these articles, but most of them really are like, “Well, it’s been a year,” but they’re not like, “These problems are ongoing and aren’t being fixed.” And the affordable housing was something that pre- and post-Sandy was an issue, hunger is another one of those, and they really need to be addressed. The case managers are seeing all of these things you can’t fix.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Following the publication of this interview, Tobias wrote us to clarify that the opinions he expressed are his alone, and that he was not speaking on behalf of his employer, Lutheran Social Services of New York.

Meghan White is a freelance photographer and a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

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Brooklyn Brawler

A homegrown boxer sets his sights on the big time. By Brendan O’Connor.