Volunteers head for flood-damaged N.Y. areas

Food and supplies are distributed to residents affected by Superstorm Sandy at the Coney Island Gospel Assembly church in the Brooklyn borough of New York on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012. A steady stream of volunteers, food, and supplies continues to flow into the Coney Island community as electricity is progressively restored to the battered area. Despite the return of power in most homes, heat and hot water is still offline throughout many of the area's public housing communities over a week after the storm made landfall. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo

NEW YORK Hundreds of New Yorkers got on buses at City Hall and headed to help people in neighborhoods devastated by Superstorm Sandy this morning.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed up to greet the volunteers before they boarded yellow school buses going to Staten Island, the Rockaways and Coney Island.

One volunteer heading out to help was 25-year-old Andy Josuweit. His home in Manhattan has power and heat, and it would be easy to keep the people suffering in remote flood-damaged neighborhoods "out of sight, out of mind." But Josuweit says he and his friends feel like they need to do something.

The volunteers planned to sort donated goods, go house to house to check up on residents, deliver supplies, and even clean up parks.

Also joining in relief efforts; Occupy Wall Street, whose activists are fanning out across New York to deliver aid, including hot meals, medicine and blankets.

Occupiers brought food and water to Glenn Nisall, a 53-year-old resident of Queens' hard-hit and isolated Rockaway section, Nisall, who lives alone, lost power and has no family nearby. "I said: 'Occupy? You mean Occupy Wall Street?'" he said. "I said: 'Awesome, man. I'm one of the 99 percent, you know?'"

Occupy Wall Street was born in late 2011 in a lower Manhattan plaza called Zuccotti Park, with a handful of protesters pitching tents and vowing to stay put until world leaders offered a fair share to the "99 percent" who don't control the globe's wealth. The world heard the cry as that camp grew and inspired other ones around the globe. Ultimately, though, little was accomplished in the ways of policy change. But core members have persisted and found a new cause in Occupy Sandy.

It started at St. Jacobi Church in Brooklyn the day after the storm, where Occupiers set up a base of operations and used social media like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word. Donations come in by the truckload and are sorted in the basement. "This is young people making history," said Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University who has been studying Occupy Wall Street. "Young people who are refusing to let people suffer without putting themselves on the line to do something about it."

Now the group has dozens of relief centers across the city and a stream of volunteers who are shuttled out to the most desperate areas. It is partnering with local community and volunteer organizations.

A recent post on Occupy Sandy's Facebook page announced: "Attention! If anyone in Rockaway needs to have their basement pumped, please contact Suzanne Hamalak at suzybklyn(at)aol.com. Her family wants to help and have industrial pumps...they will do it for free....."

In Rockaway Park, Occupier Diego Ibanez, 24, has been sleeping on the freezing floor of a community center down the street from a row of charred buildings destroyed by a fire. "You see a need and you fulfill it," he explained. "There's not a boss to tell you that you can't do this or you can't do that. Zuccotti was one of the best trainings in how to mobilize so quickly."

At one Occupy outpost in Rockaway, residents wandered in recently off the garbage-strewn streets looking for medicine. They lined up in an ice-cold abandoned store that had been hastily transformed into a makeshift pharmacy. Gauze bandages and bottles of disinfectant were piled on tables behind a tattered curtain.

"I think we wouldn't be able to survive without them," said Kathleen Ryan, who was waiting for volunteers to retrieve her diabetes medication, stamping her feet on the plywood floor to keep warm. "This place is phenomenal. This community. They've helped a great deal."

In the church basement, Carrie Morris said helping the community was a big part of what they do. "That's the idea, to help each other. And we want to serve as a model for the larger society that, you know, everybody should be doing this."

To those who wish to volunteer:

You may register with the Red Cross; there are requirements, including the ability to do some heavy lifting.

Go to tunneltotowers.org and help with a door-to-door initiative based on Staten Island. It's also serving Brooklyn and Long Beach on Long Island.

You can also find an endless list of calls for help, volunteer opportunities and unique needs at Rockawayhelp.com also lists opportunities to help.

To help victims of Sandy, donations to the American Red Cross can be made by visiting Red Cross disaster relief, or you can text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

Donations of assistance have come from as far as New Orleans, as an Amtrak train arrived in New Jersey carrying tons of donations, mostly from people who were hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The "Train of Hope" pulled into Newark's Penn Station on Saturday afternoon.

Volunteers are working with officials in Bayonne and Hoboken to deliver donations including baby formula, school supplies and clothing.

Many relief items came from St. Tammany Parish and Slidell, which suffered extensive flooding during Katrina. "Train of Hope" co-organizer Donna O'Daniels says those Louisiana residents feel a kinship with Sandy victims, who are going through similar hardships.

O'Daniels said the donations that arrived Saturday filled an 85-foot-long box car. She said five more pallets will travel up on another train Sunday.