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BY CYNTHIA MAGNUS | The unexpected snowstorm on Saturday, Oct. 29 may have highlighted new issues of safety, sustainability, and liability for both the official owner of Zuccotti Park, Brookfield Properties, and the park’s current occupants, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. The FDNY’s removal a day earlier of fuel containers and generators from the park underscored concerns of city officials and stakeholders about safety conditions.
In the past week a veritable tent city has sprung up in Zuccotti Park, intensifying, especially at night, an already crowded environment. A number of park occupants would like to see the space reorganized with passable walkways, distinct “neighborhoods,” a social lounge area and space for shared public use by the community.
Mike Esperson, 22, heads the O.W.S. “town planning” working group. Part of an attempted reorganization effort last week was cut short due to a lack of coordination with other O.W.S. groups such as sanitation. Esperson would like to see a grid system established for the park to aid accessibility and cleaning efforts. He said that overcrowding is now a problem.
“What would be cool is if we had less people,” said Esperson, adding that an effort was underway to establish a “nomadic group” that would disperse campers to other parts of the city.
Meanwhile, Esperson and a number of others are endeavoring to conduct a census and an in-depth survey of park residents. “A lot of people feel excluded,” he said, stating that the one-to-one surveys are a way “to crystallize people’s concerns.”
Another O.W.S. planning volunteer, Audrey Hollingsworth, 19, said that the census would ask for the number of occupants in each tent, and would help planners “determine how many tents we have and how much space is available in the tents.” Hollingsworth said that earlier last week O.W.S. received a donation of 30 two-person tents, which were distributed. There are also a number of larger tents in Zuccotti. The census would also aid planning the installation of insulation material under the tents, said Hollingsworth. Planners are attempting to secure pallets, preferably scavenged from willing retailers glad to get rid of them, to get the tents off the ground.
One member of the O.W.S. finance working group agreed that a camp census would be useful in planning for the winter. Estimated costs for winter supplies could reach beyond $60K for the month of November, he said. These would include insulation-board for the tents, and materials to make reusable body-warmers, a project conceived by an M.I.T. student at the camp. The group is also working on getting a van donated for transporting supplies, and for evacuating people to NYC homeless shelters in cold-weather emergencies.
Various members of O.W.S., and their representatives, denounced the October 28 seizure by the Fire Department of the six generators and 13 fuel containers.
Frank Dwyer, a spokesman for the FDNY, said, “This is a public safety issue. We’re happy to return the items to the owners but they are not permitted in the park.”
Marc LaVorgna, a spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg, said that the office has been working closely with the community to address the quality of life issues surrounding the occupation, while supporting the right to protest. LaVorgna said that the confiscation of the generators and fuel last week, “was a fine example of how the city is handling the dynamic.”
Councilwoman Margaret Chin said, “We have to make sure that Zuccotti Park remains open and accessible to emergency personnel and fire inspectors. There are a lot of tents and concealed spaces in the park, and we must ensure that fuel, gasoline, and other flammable materials are removed by the appropriate agencies.”
Gideon Oliver, a National Lawyers Guild attorney who represents the several owners of the individual items seized by FDNY said that when the city takes property, it is supposed to be given back. He said of his group, “We’ve tried every channel we can think of,” to try to retrieve the seized items. Oliver faxed a letter to FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano on Oct. 29 demanding the return of the generators. He said he was told that it was forwarded to FDNY legal counsel, but that he was given no point person with whom to follow up.
Dwyer said the owners of the items may call 311 to inquire about instructions on how to retrieve them.
New York State Sen. Daniel Squadron said, “The fire risk from the gas and the generators affected the protesters and the community. I’m glad the removal went off without incident.”
Dealing with weather-related issues in the coming winter months is foremost on the minds of many O.W.S. demonstrators.
Maria Fehlig, a registered nurse from Nevada, and a member of National Nurses United, a group that supports O.W.S., says she has been at Zuccotti Park since the start of the occupation. She said of the Oct. 29 snowstorm, that during a 24-hour period from Saturday morning to Sunday morning, the O.W.S. medical group in Zuccotti saw 150 patients, including 45 hypothermia cases.
On average, the group treats about 100 people per day, according to Fehlig, who also said that all members of the medic team have some medical training. She stated that while conditions in the park are crowded, that people usually make way for the medics if they need to reach someone in a hurry.
Councilmember Chin said, “Space in the park is already at a premium. The population swells on the weekends and as such we have to keep a close eye on issues related to capacity in order to avoid a potentially dangerous situation.”
“New York City safety regulations were developed for a reason,” said Catherine McVay-Hughes, co-chair of Community Board 1. “We have seen the tragic consequences when they are violated. We want everyone to be safe Downtown.”