Sandy and the grassroots: East Coast rediscovers the power of mutual aid

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the New York Times opined, “A Big Storm Requires Big Government

Cynical NYT editorials notwithstanding, the reality of the storm was quite different. (We are not a political community and have no interest in arguing the partisan politics of the editorial.)

FEMA centers throughout affected areas were mysteriously ‘closed due to weather.‘ Where formal disaster centers remained open, their behavior baffled many:

“The objective is to get the disaster survivors into a centralized facility where they can register for all of the different federal programs,” [FEMA press relations agent] Frank Lepore says, including both FEMA aid and help from the U.S. Small Business Administration. To register, he continues, they are directed to call an 800 number, after which FEMA will dispatch damage assessors to determine what claims they’ll pay. “That is the message of the moment: To get people into the system.”

Without bureaucracy, 800-numbers, or ‘systems’, recovery was quickly taken over by citizens themselves. ‘Occupy Sandy’ — a spur-of-the-moment project of Occupy Wall Street veterans — converged on Brooklyn. They communicated using social media, and even set up a wedding registry on to crowdsource donations.

Grassroots Have Taken Over Sandy Relief” declared one headline. Doctors put out cardboard signs offering free treatment to the injured. Kids set up bake sales to fund relief. People with generators dangled plugs out of their windows to let others charge cellphones in areas without power.

Volunteer fire companies — affectionately dubbed ‘Vollies’ — hauled emergency aid in human assembly lines. Hotels, restaurants, even private homes, opened up their doors to the homeless.

These random acts of kindness and cooperation are so surprising because they break with our usual way of living. For a moment, we are no longer atomized individuals unified only by market and politics — but members of a community for mutual support.

Although we typically think of social entrepreneurship as building a business, making money, and doing good for the world — community-building is radical social entrepreneurship at its finest.

Self-help and mutual-aid aren’t just good policies for disaster relief — they’re the backbone of independent and self-governing people. We ought to consider whether the spirit ignited by Sandy should be allowed to dim and fizzle with the end of the rain.