Ready to Respond: Food Not Bombs network offers grassroots model for disaster relief after super storm Sandy

Food Not Bombs has supported a number of disaster relief efforts in the movement’s 30 year history. Since we have autonomous groups sharing food and supplies in roughly a thousand cities, our volunteers are already pre-positioned and ready to respond. When the earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay area in 1989, Food Not Bombs was ready sharing food at Civic Center Plaza, Peoples Park and near the epicenter in Santa Cruz hours after the earth shook. When Katrina flooded New Orleans, Food Not Bombs was already prepared to help. Volunteers from across America headed towards the Gulf Coast before the storm came ashore. Super Storm Sandy was no different.

The Food Not Bombs hotline started getting calls as the high winds were bending the palm trees across Florida, often sharing that they had responded to Katrina and wanted to help again. That same day, volunteers with Long Island Food Not Bombs also started to prepare for Sandy, emailing out an announcement for their first planning meeting. The newly formed Staten Island Food Not Bombs also called seeking support.

We rushed up the coast past wrecked cars filled with sand and boats tossed on to homes, eventually arriving at the Park Slope Community Church. Joseph and his family pulled in from North Carolina with two truck-loads of food and supplies plus two U-hauls full of propane and other equipment. A local Native American activist Bobby and his family also arrived at the same time so we unloaded the food, large cooking pots, cutting boards, knives and other materials and started franticly preparing the first meals.

Calls continued to flood in with offers of help, requests for help and suggestions of places to bring food. After sending out a car-load of food and supplies to the coast of Red Hook and another load to Rockaway, several of us rushed over to Staten Island in two vehicles filled with cooking equipment, stoves and food. We met Olie and the other Food Not Bombs volunteers and unloaded the equipment while discussing where we should set up. Huge tractors pushed the remains of houses and cars filled with sand out of the streets, dumping their loads in to lines of dump trucks. As soon as we stopped, a family appeared from the wreckage and asked if we had anything to eat. Their faces expressed the type of shock you would expect to see in the eyes of people that had just survived a bombing.

Before long we had set up a field kitchen and started to share the already-prepared meals. Some of us returned to the church to help with the clean up and the next day’s meals. A continual parade of volunteers and donations arrived at the church. By now, Occupy Sandy was up and running a few blocks away from our kitchen down on 4th Avenue. That evening, several of us drove over to the produce market and bought as much as our vehicles could carry. We followed news reports to determine if areas of the city were being neglected.

By day two we had a system, delivering meals and supplies to three or four locations after cooking all morning. The servers would stay out until dark. As we saw after Katrina and the San Francisco Earthquake, the American Red Cross was nowhere to be seen but they did give out our toll-free number as they had after Katrina. We received over 200 calls during the first week, most offering to help. We set up a list with volunteers’ phone numbers, email addresses, skills and details of how they could help.

At the same time, Long Island Food Not Bombs was recovering tons of food working around the clock to distribute the donations. Power was off for thousands of groceries and food warehouses. Phone service and electricity were so random on the island that we had people call a volunteer in Oregon who had helped the Long Island Chapter before moving west. Even with all the challenges, Long Island Food Not Bombs pulled off their annual World’s Largest Vegan Thanksgiving at the Hempstead Train Station, providing groceries, clothing and warm meals to over 1,000 people. They also provided hundreds of meals each day at their other regular locations, helping make the holiday much better for several thousand people that had survived Hurricane Sandy.

Super Storm Sandy was the hurricane many believed would spark the climate crisis debate into high gear. Just weeks before the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty was set to expire, negotiators were heading to the UN climate conference (COP18) in Doha, Qatar. Sandy inspired a feeling of urgency about addressing the climate crisis at the grassroots level but most leaders remained silent.

Many climate scientists have written that until a huge storm floods Wall Street, leaders will continue to ignore the fact that no one is immune from the rapidly changing climate. It would seem that Super Storm Sandy would give pause and direct attention towards the impact of industrial meat production, fossil fuel extraction and other policies that increase the impact of the climate crisis but this has not been the case so far. Government and corporate policies that drive the climate into crisis are related to the policies responsible for hunger and homelessness. These connections are taboo in U.S. corporate media.

Sandy hit just as America was about to start its annual Thanksgiving attention to hunger and homelessness. Sandy provided a visible reason for so many families to become homeless. Public compassion for those made homeless by the hurricane would soon turn to distain of those lazy homeless people blighting our city streets. After each emergency like the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Katrina or the 2008 housing foreclosure crisis, sympathy for the survivors will soon turn to anger at those freeloading homeless. When people started to call from the west coast asking if they should race across the country to help, we reminded them that there were people in need in every community and directed them to their local Food Not Bombs group. We also explained that local relief programs would be struggling for help and financial support since most people would be directing their assistance towards the New York area.

Many volunteers who participated in the Katrina relief effort met at the Fourth Annual North American Anarchist Studies Network Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana in early January 2013. Several workshops discussed the failures and successes of both the Katrina and the Sandy relief efforts. There was recognition that we are often the first to respond. Some participants were critical of how people coming from the outside failed to respect that many survivors had valuable skills to offer. After two days of discussion, the participants proposed that we needed to be better prepared since Sandy is unlikely to be the last time we will need to respond to a disaster. It was suggested that each community could prepare by announcing a local planning meeting, organizing affinity groups, organized to provide first aid, aid in the recovery of people and pets from homes and other buildings, emotional support, and crews prepared to help with the clean up, rebuilding and other aspects of community recovery. Local Food Not Bombs volunteers could participate in the formation of this initiative. There was also a discussion about organizing a North American conference on disaster relief, the publishing of a community disaster relief manual based on past experience and a communication network ready to respond as the crisis emerges.