Lessons of Disaster: Sandy, New York City, Housing Projects, and Lost Wages

New Orleans   After Katrina and the continual start-and-stop-and-slow rebuilding process in New Orleans with side trips and explorations to Kobe and more recently cities in Eastern Japan after those earthquakes and the tsunami attacks, and other cities near and far, I have come to believe that the way governments, established institutions, and community and popular organizations deal with disasters is extremely important.  These are the ultimate “stress tests” not simply of the built environment, but of the organic resilience of human and social organizations.  So in the same way I couldn’t stop reading Katrina stories and participated in the watch “force” on the nuclear meltdowns in Japan, I’m all over Sandy, as well, especially in the way it looks at the impacts across the entire community.

There were two very interesting pieces in the Times this morning that were both significant in this regard and disturbing.

One was about life in public housing without electricity or heat.  First you had to get past the headline on the front page which was meant to project all possible fears of the worst kind on the projects:  “In New York’s Public Housing:   Fear Creeps in With the Dark.”  Interestingly, the headline in the on-line version was much more balance, as you can see by including “heroism.”  Ok, well a little more balanced anyway.

The actual story was less lurid and more helpful.   Less than 10% of the more than 2000 NYCHA buildings were powerless, which deserves an attaboy of some kind right there.  There were stories of people looking after people.  Building by building impromptu barbeques to share the food that would have spoiled was reported.   Hallways became public spaces.  People talked of visiting with neighbors not usually part of their circle. The rhythms of life move with the sun, which speaks as much to what I always refer to as “inside camping” on the Gulf Coast hurricane hunkerdowns, as it does to any particular or latent fear of crime and mayhem.

Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster has handled this phenomena best in this book about the way that in the worst of times sometimes the best arises in people to build real communities from the San Francisco Fire to Katrina.  My Battle for the Ninth Ward about the post-Katrina experience found many of these same elements in the fierce fights for people to come home.    If you can survive the latent racism lurking behind the headlines, there’s a lot to feel good about in these stories of adaptation.  One quote from a 73-year old tenant that identifies with what he inaccurately thinks is “half of the world” living without electricity is a classic!

Another story  looked at the problem of lost wages for workers displaced in the storm who don’t get paid if they can’t get to work or if work is shutdown from flooding, power failures, and other catastrophes.  Too often we read about “stay-cations” and “hurrica-tions,” as if these are party times for people, as long as the storm “attacks,” as they correctly call these natural events in Japan, who escape the devastation.   People are hurting everywhere including the pocketbook, and no matter what the Republican Congress thinks, we don’t do enough to help individual families bounce back.  One man talks about how to pay for $7000 in roof damage.  Looking at my roof that still lacks gutters 7 years after Katrina, I could tell him the answer, but he might not like it.  I can already see the articles the Times will be writing about homes without any flood insurance up and down the East Coast, because who expected the 100-year “super storm.”

I haven’t read any story yet where they recommend not rebuilding New York City and the East Coast, like we read daily about New Orleans, so that’s refreshing.  Maybe this “shared suffering” in the media center of America, will lead to some compassion and public policy reforms on a number of fronts for post-disaster families and communities?  Dare we hope?

Hurricane Sandy devastation in the Rockaway and Breezy Point Queens area


Advocating Alternative Models for Community & Labor Organizing in Japan

Tokyo  Ken Yamazaki is the deputy senior research officer in the international affairs branch of the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, a Phd, just published author on community organizing, and a helluva guy in my book.  Having visited New Orleans recently with his delegation as they tried to better understand labor and community organizing, when I said there was a chance I could come by Japan en route to a commitment in Korea, he jumped to the task to cobble some pieces together to help pay the freight for this side trip to Tokyo and eastern Japan to the footprint of the earthquake and tsunami.  Within days he said, no problem, you’ll need to do a seminar.  I should have been suspicious when the topic seemed to be history of community organizing, proscriptions for rebuilding the labor movement, and, yes, and…what we had learned in New Orleans about rebuilding after disaster from Hurricane Katrina.

One thing led to another and the next thing I knew as it came closer to the date, the seminar was really more like a lecture, and the topic was a combination of all of these things and 130 or so people were already committed, having responded to the call.  The location was going to be in the auditorium of Liberty Tower at Meiji University it turned out, but that wasn’t really clear until Ken walked me into the tower an hour before the scheduled beginning.  As we had traveled around eastern Japan, I was starting to understand, since I had prepared one paper for him for the money and then at the last minute needed to ship off to Tokyo the appendix from Battle for the Ninth Ward, my last book, entitled “The Organizer’s Short Guide to Rebuilding after Disasters.”  I’m used to some high wire trapeze work without a net working across cultures and languages, but my comrade and colleague might have gotten me higher that I was ready for in order to dance for my supper in Tokyo.

members of the panel

When I finally got the list of panelists who were going to respond to my “lecture,” I knew I needed to hustle and step up to the mark.  Ken was moderating the panel that would give comments and ask questions on my remarks, but it included Yoji Tatsui, a key researcher for the Japanese Trade Union Congress (JTUC- RENGO) who was the Deputy Director of their Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards, (closest to me in the picture of the panelists), Yoshitake Obata, a founder of the Edogawa Community Workers Union and activist with the Network of Community Unions of Japan, who had visited ACORN International and A Community Voice in late 2008 about living wage campaigns in New Orleans and written for Social Policy, Takanarita Takeshi with the Japanese Workers Cooperative Union whose work we had seen in the disaster zone and who had written about the work in a forthcoming article in Social Policy, and, very interestingly, Makoto Kawazoe, the Secretary-General, of Shutoken Seinen Union, the general union of Young Workers in Tokyo.

Ken Yamazaki introducing me

It all went well enough, and I hope I made in difference.  Puzzling out reactions through translations is difficult, and when I heard different translators had been called to duty on almost every page, one pauses to think how it might have come together for the readers, but at least they have their own puzzling they can do later.

They took seriously my notion of “majority unionism,” and it provoked comment.  The notions of “community unions” connected to the major labor federation I continue to find fascinating.  How much they are involved in organizing was hard to tell, but work on living wages counts for a lot in my book, so I’m looking forward to learning more.  The young workers union was also of interest.   We ran into a similar effort recently in El Alto in Bolivia.  Neither effort is very large yet, but both focused on informal or irregular workers, as they are called in Japan.  These are large gaps and established unions, judging from Brother Tatsui’s responses, see them positively.

Tatsui’s questions from the point of view of the institutional labor movement were excellent.  He was interested in whether current workers had more loyalty to the company or the community?  Japan is obviously legendary for the commitment workers have to their firms, but I shared with him what we had learned organizing Walmart workers in high turnover retail.  The commitment was to their sense of themselves as being “skilled” in retail and though they may have left Walmart, most of them were going through the cycle:  Target, Home Depot, and, often as not, back to Walmart and around again.  The “community” was the network of jobs and the workers who did them, and neither the company nor the geographical area.

This is an important dialogue, and Ken Yamazaki understood fully, even if it had taken me awhile to catch on, what he was doing and what he hoped from me.  He, like so many of us now in the United States, has come to believe that community-labor models offer hope for revitalizing labor, and he understands that there is a lot about community organizing methodology that speaks to a possible future for labor’s next stage.  The conversation has now been engaged.  Walking into the night, I could taste how much people wanted to be part of the discussion in Japan – I did, too!

Now, it needs to happen everywhere!  Then, we must move past talk to real action.

Makoto Kawazoe (the Young Workers leader) on the right and Takanarita Takeshi from the Japanese Workers Cooperative Union

Ken and some of the other panel members honoring the tradition of sharing a meal after