Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Mar/Apr 2017, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

ON OCTOBER 29, 2012, the electricity went out for over half a million residents in New York City as Hurricane Sandy descended as one of the strongest storms the City had ever seen. Many of us were glued to our television sets and computers watching as different parts of the City were flooded and devastated by the storm.

In CAAAV’s neighborhood of Chinatown, cell phones, television, and internet were all down. There were no signs of police officers, elected officials, or emergency personnel. Given how low income communities of color and immigrant communities have historically been left out of recovery efforts, we knew we were going to have to organize among ourselves.

Our First Responder Operations

We began our operations with the goal of providing information and some basic supplies for Chinatown residents in need. On the first day even before we opened up the CAAAV office, there was already a line of people outside our door. Community members heard what we were doing through word of mouth and the Chinese language press and flocked to our office.

We were able to secure a generator to charge people’s cell phones. We set up a system where our allies who lived outside of Chinatown could text us to give us the latest information the City was providing, such as when the electricity would come back on, when schools would reopen, and when public transportation would be running again. As soon as we received updated information, we would write it up on chart paper outside our office and ask people in the community to pass the word along. Some buildings had no water, and all buildings were without electricity. Tenants had to climb anywhere from six to forty stories in pitch black darkness to get home. In a building next to the CAAAV office, an elderly woman fell down the stairs and was severely injured. Meanwhile, the New York Stock Exchange was open and in business after only being closed for two days.

On the third day, we heard that our elected officials were holding a press conference with FEMA only a few blocks away. We knew that even though they had finally shown up, they were not going to be going into the buildings where people were most impacted. As a result, we shifted our strategy to going into these buildings to support residents who had a hard time leaving their homes, such as the elderly, people with disabilities, and those with children. Chinatown and Lower East Side residents played a key role in helping each other out. They cooked and donated food, checked in on the elderly, and helped to carry donations back to their buildings.

Trust Isn’t Built In a Day

There really is no amount of gratitude we can express to all the people in New York City who organized their friends to volunteer and support these community-driven relief efforts. We weren’t even able to collect the names of all the people who dropped off car loads of donations and volunteered every day. Former CAAAV members made multiple trips to buy supplies, find gas, and drop off people to our office. Individuals from Occupy Sandy and CAAAV’s closest ally organizations from all over the City came to help for multiple days, many of whom walked back and forth from Brooklyn in the cold. Many spent their entire days helping with these relief efforts. At the height of our relief work (Days three to five), we had over 500 volunteers each day. We see this success as a result of our movement and relationship building work over the last 27 years.

Because there were so few organizations putting information out, CAAAV’s daily updates were often the only information people in New York City and around the country were getting around direct relief efforts.

Fundraising and Meeting People’s Needs

Taking time to fundraise during the relief efforts didn’t even cross our minds at first. The first couple of days, staff and volunteers just used the money we had in our pockets to buy the basic essentials and asked for donations of supplies. A former board member offered to draft a proposal for a rapid response grant from North Star Fund, and in less than 24 hours we got our first grant for $5,000. A few days later, we received an unsolicited check for $5,000 from a former funder.

Additionally, we created a donate link for all of our email and Facebook communications. The response was overwhelming. Since the storm, we have raised $90,000 in individual donations from over 500 people from around the country, almost all received within two months of the storm. We have also received $75,000 from foundation grants to do ongoing outreach, education, advocacy, and organizing work.

The importance of our day-to-day work organizing low-income Asian communities around access to affordable housing and calling for accountable policing was magnified during this crisis. As an organization that has struggled to raise money for our day-to-day work, we had mixed feelings about so much coming in the door in such a small amount of time for relief work. What we were able to do during the storm was a direct result of the work we do all the time, and we didn’t want to be known just for our relief work. Furthermore, while the funds came in quickly at first, they also stopped quickly.

When the electricity came back in Chinatown, we knew our direct relief work was not going to go on for much longer. We were also on the cusp of the national elections and had made it an organizational priority to learn how to organize around the local elections in 2013. So we had to shift some of our energy back into the elections.

Nevertheless, we made an effort to send supplies and other donations to neighborhoods and relief efforts in Brooklyn and Queens. We rented vans and sent people out who wanted to volunteer their time. We also worked with the Urban Justice Center to provide weekly legal clinics for people to access FEMA and other benefits provided by the state. We continued to do outreach and education in our community, talking to people about their experiences and answering their questions.

This moment was a time for us to organize our community members as well as a broader network of allies and supporters. While we have been doing outreach in the community, we have also been building on the systems we had in place to follow up with our donors. It was important for us to acknowledge the individuals who gave generously, entrusting us to do this work. It was also important for us to keep in touch with the hundreds of individuals who gave their time to us. We sent thank you letters to all the people who donated and added everyone who volunteered to our database and email list.

Was sandy a superstorm or hurricane, and does it really matter?

In the aftermath of the storm, we heard stories of insurance companies denying claims to people because Hurricane Sandy was downgraded to a superstorm before it touched ground. We saw public housing residents who were left to fend for themselves for weeks without electricity while generators sat unused in Central Park as Mayor Bloomberg debated whether to cancel the New York City Marathon.

2012 was the hottest year on record ever in the United States. We have seen an increase in tornadoes, droughts, wildfire’s, and hurricanes, not to mention changes in the environment that have affected animal and plant species. As the global command center for capital in the world, many of the decisions that are made every day on Wall Street are responsible for global climate change. And as many of our elected leaders have chosen to protect and defend Wall Street, they have also exacerbated human-made disasters by choosing to continue to neglect low-income communities of color in priorities around rebuilding.

Since Sandy, CAAAV has participated in a number of conversations with other advocates, city and state officials, and business leaders. While the frame about rebuilding to take climate change into consideration is the right one, the disheartening solutions provided by our elected leaders include privatizing public utilities, increasing our reliance on technology for communication during disasters, and creating private sector emergency response corps. These so-called solutions rely on market mechanisms that make us believe we can go about living our lives in the same unsustainable ways. We simply cannot “invent or invest” our way out of future disasters.

Looking forward

These are the main lessons we took away from this experience:

  • There is no such thing as a natural disaster. These human-made disasters exacerbate racial, social and economic inequality
  • We are not prepared for what climate change will bring us. These crises—like all crises—give us opportunities to organize. Mutual aid and support is what will save us. There needs to be an investment in communities BEFORE crises hit, with government agencies taking leadership from the community in determining what kind of relief we need.
  • We need to proactively fight back against disaster capitalism, demanding that we build based on the social values of equity and meeting the needs of the community.

What we do know is organizing and building community is time consuming and all-encompassing work that is necessary to our survival. In doing this work, we center humanist social values and believe people can come together and give more of themselves even when faced with great challenges.

While we are grateful for the donations and the grants that have come in for us to continue to do Sandy-related work, that well has dried up considerably. We are under no illusions that this work will continue to be funded in the same way. What we do know is that through organizing, we will build and sustain the necessary resources (beyond money) to take care of our communities.

Regardless, CAAAV is having conversations that move beyond environmentalism to tackling the questions about the kind of world we want to leave for the future. It is still imperative for us to be connecting bread and butter and civil rights issues to neighborhood-based organizing and building power for changes that are both concrete and broad. In that process we are also building CAAAV to be able to continue to be nimble, responsive, and flexible to people’s needs while holding our elected leaders accountable when we have to rebuild.

Ultimately, we are working to build organizations and communities that can withstand all storms; however they may come.

Helena Wong is currently the executive director at CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. She joined the organization as a high school intern at the age of 15 and hasn’t looked back since. For more information about CAAAV, visit caaav.org, or follow us on Twitter (@caaav) or on Facebook (facebook.com/CAAAVnyc).