Reducing Our Risk

The Working World WORCs Program and Rockaway Wildfire

The Rockaway Wildfire and WORCs project team

Entry Overview

When Hurricane Sandy hit the Rockaways in October 2012, it flooded the neighborhood, destroying thousands of homes, and displacing hundreds of families. The people hardest hit were those already weathering the slow storms of poverty, unemployment, and poor education. Immediately, Occupy Sandy rose to meet this challenge, raising over a million dollars, mobilizing over 20,000 volunteers, restoring thousands of homes and offering start up grants to local organizations and ongoing recovery. From this unprecedented effort, two partner organizations were born.

The Working World’s “Worker-Owned Rockaway Cooperatives” (WORCs) program, in partnership with Rockaway Wildfire, is rebuilding the Rockaways in a way that addresses both the storm’s immediate impact and the long-term systemic issues in the neighborhood. First, we address residents’ civic needs by organizing neighbors to work together towards the ethical development of the peninsula as a whole. Next, we facilitate long term economic growth and community wealth building through a series of intensive business workshops and trainings, at the end of which residents in the Rockaways can become entrepreneurs and owners of their own worker-owned businesses, or cooperatives.

Taken together, these efforts make the Rockaways stronger, more resilient, and more rooted in place - so that if another Sandy hits, they will be better able to respond to it.

General Info
Email :
Organization Address: 
394 Broadway, Fifth Floor
New York, New York 10013
United States
Population Impacted: 
2,000 - 2,500
Storm Surge
Identify the likelihood and frequency of this hazard : 
Twenty hurricanes have hit NYC since 2000. Not only are these storms increasingly frequent, they are also growing in power. Sandy was the largest to hit NYC since 1992 - a year which also marked the beginning of an extreme increase in sea level rise. This enabled Sandy to destroy 25,000 additional homes than would have been lost otherwise. Harvard geologist Daniel Scharg said that 13 foot storm surges will be the new normal by mid-century.
Explain how vulnerable the community is to this hazard: 
The Rockaway Peninsula is vulnerable to continued hurricanes, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay. This geography creates violent storm surges from the Atlantic that meet inundation from the bay, creating flooding up to 13 feet that is able to penetrate far beyond the shore-line. Additionally, the Rockaways natural geology is a wetland with a water table right below the surface. These factors heighten risk, especially for impoverished communities that have little access to resources.
List the potential affects of this hazard: 
Forty-nine New Yorkers lost their lives in Hurricane Sandy. Many of these were elderly people forced out of nursing homes, three of which are located on the Rockaway Peninsula. Hurricane Sandy caused over $10 billion in damages in NY alone. The Rockaway Neighborhood of Arverne took 10 feet of water, destroying over a thousand homes in a low income neighborhood already under extreme financial stress, making the rebuilding process almost impossible.
Identify how sensitive the community is to these affects: 
The Rockaways is home to some of the most economically disadvantaged NY residents. Our constituency has a family median incomes between $15,000 and $40,000, and an unemployment rate of 14%, falling far below the poverty line. Low income communities like these will always be disproportionately impacted by climate disasters, having both the least mobility to escape and the least ability to rebuild.
Preparedness Goal: 
We unite residents to create a resilient community that is not only prepared to face climate shocks, but is also more equitable and prosperous.
Implementing Actions: 

By mobilizing communities into disaster preparedness networks and supporting local business development, we are reducing Rockaways residents’ risk of damage and displacement should another hurricane hit.

Firstly, we are organizing the Far Rockaway community to establish a coalition that is proposing a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA)--to establish benchmarks for the ethical and sustainable development of the Rockaways Peninsula. To do this, we have brought together an unlikely coalition of developers, architects, public officials, lawyers, and community groups to draft and propose a CBA that would develop 81 acres of beachfront property sustainably. We are proposing including a job training center and vocational school focused on green jobs, affordable housing units, community-run meeting spaces, and LEED-certified buildings that can stand the force of future hurricanes within the development site. Working together, we hope to have a signed CBA between the United Peninsula Working to Attain Responsible Development (UPWARD) and the developers of Averne East, by April 2015.

Next, we are building long term economic infrastructure in the neighborhood by developing worker owned business cooperatives that deliver much needed services to the area while providing stable, long term, wealth-building jobs where workers are full owners of their own businesses.

WORCs incubates worker-owned cooperatives through its unique set of products and services. These include: (1) a series of free bilingual trainings on business planning, market research, and cooperative governance structures; (2) financing in which loan repayments and interest are only recovered from businesses once they reach solvency; (3) intensive follow-up and technical support by WORCs cooperative developers; and (4) networking and community-building opportunities between community members.

So far, we have launched two successful worker-owned companies, with eight in the pipeline to build wealth in the community and address residents’ needs, from construction & remodeling services to transportation to food access.

Describe Your Solution: 

Today, Rockaway Wildfire and WORCs create a holistic response to the economic and climate crises facing the Rockaways, mobilizing people to work together and building wealth for residents to keep them rooted in their communities.

Rockaway Wildfire’s continued advocacy work opens up new pathways for WORCs. Rockaway Wildfire pushes for the inclusion of WORCs programming in the vocational school. We will also work together to increase NYC’s commitment to cooperatives in the future. Together, we aim to build a resilient cooperative economy as we advocate for the reform of existing economic and social realities for Rockaway residents.

We see our economic and community building program as inextricably linked to our disaster preparedness work. When a community is well networked & organized, and when neighbors know their neighbors, there is a higher likelihood that such a community will be able to respond quickly and efficiently when disaster strikes. We know this both based on extensive research, and based on our experience responding to the Sandy relief effort, when at the time the Rockaways weren’t able to receive FEMA and Red Cross aid because the communities were so isolated and disorganized. With Occupy Sandy, we were able to reach those communities well before official agencies arrived. (see NY Times, Where FEMA fell short, Occupy Sandy Was There, Nov 9, 2012)

We combine our economic and advocacy work with disaster preparation in our CBA campaign. Rockaway Wildfire works with the top architects in storm mitigation in the country. We currently work with the architect of Arverne East to study double dune systems, the creation of coastal dune forests, water inundation controls and disaster response infrastructure. Together, Rockaway Wildfire and WORCs reduce the short-term acute risk of future disasters as we mitigate the long-term social risks of poverty and geographic isolation. 


Our sustainable economic approach creates community-based resources and businesses that can be leveraged in the moment of disaster.

Specifically, our WORCs business incubation program will create thirty new permanent jobs within eight cooperative businesses. Workers at these new businesses will not only go home with a fair wage, but also build equity within their business as each worker is also an owner. Our CBA with the Averne East Developers will additionally create over 1,000 jobs. These local wealth generation solutions impact the entire community; we estimate that hundreds of people will benefit from the creation of these businesses as community assets.


Rockaway Wildfire’s environmental justice results focus on city-wide infrastructure improvements and local Rockaway resilience. Rockaway Wildfire is a member organization of the Alliance for a Greater NY (ALIGN). Together we have implemented carbon cuts on large buildings in Manhattan and are beginning this spring to roll out a climate jobs campaign that will support our CBA campaign.

Locally, we are focused on the reclamation of vacant properties for the creation of community gardens and improving dune strength to stand up to storm surges. Finally, Rockaway Wildfire organizers led the largest community response to Hurricane Sandy, coordinating over 6,000 volunteers and distributing over 85,000 meals.  We are well prepared for the future.


Our programs build the social fabric of the Rockaways: the relationships between families and neighbors that keep people safe in the next crisis. We have organized a massive recovery effort in the past and the strength of the relationships we have built in the interim will allow us to respond to the next disaster with more ease, more safety, and more comfort for our members.

We carry out our projects with a deep belief that the self determination of our membership is our top priority. Whether it is the cooperative ownership

of a business or the collective operation of a community organization, putting power in the hands of the people builds skills, confidence, dignity and self respect.


What were the negative or unintended impacts (if any) associated with implementing this solution? : 

One positive unintended impact has been the cross-pollination between our two programs. Cooperative businesses members developed by WORCs voted to join the mass coalition created by Rockaway Wildfire and participated in climate change advocacy including the historic People’s Climate March in September 2014. Moreover, organizers in Rockaway Wildfire, desiring more economic agency, have created a juice bar cooperative through WORCs.  

While our efforts have largely generated positive impacts, the programs are not without their challenges. The greatest challenge has been converting the energy and success of the immediate Occupy Sandy disaster relief effort into sustained initiatives that address the deep underlying vulnerabilities of the Rockaways that make it prone to devastation by future storms. We mastered the creation of systems to deliver meals and remediate mold, but to solve the underlying issues of climate change, sea level rise, isolation and poverty that made the Rockaways so vulnerable to the storm in the first place, we have had to harness our resources with a longer-term vision. Our vision is that in 10 years, the Rockaways community is not only able to respond to disasters in the immediate term, but that the entire community is better off than it was before.

Return on Investment: How much did it cost to implement these activities? How do your results above compare to this investment?: 

Both Rockaway Wildfire and the WORCs project have a very high return on investment in terms of impact, people reached, and concrete change felt for the Rockaways community.

In its two years of its operation, WORCs has delivered over 120 hours of cooperative business incubation workshops along with hundreds of hours of individual coaching and support to a total of 63 participants in the Rockaways. They have developed 10 in-depth business plans which have resulted in 2 successfully launched and operating new businesses with a total of 10 worker owners, and more coming down the track.

Each project has very low overhead: Rockaway Wildfire maintains a staff of six people, the majority of whom are programmatic, as leading organizers of campaigns. The WORCs program is a project of the Working World, and is led by a group of seven core staff of diverse and capable individuals. Taken together, the cost of the two programs totaled less than $500,000 over the past year - a fraction of the cost of comparable relief, advocacy, and development organizations. We are lean organizations with an eye towards results and impact for our constituents. 100% of our programming, technical assistance support, and advocacy work is free to the hundreds of members and constituents we work with. We continue to maintain relationships of deep trust and mutual respect with the residents of the Rockaways, with high community participation at our events, trainings, and advocacy days.

What are the main factors needed to successfully replicate this solution elsewhere?: 

While our two programs bear the facade of a localized initiative prompted by an exceptional Superstorm, a deeper look reveals our innovative strategy capable of eliminating expansive inequalities across the country in disaster-prone regions. The Rockaway Wildfire model has been gaining traction on a national scale. The group’s advocacy towards a successful Community Benefits Agreement has inspired others across the country to push for similar agreements and mobilize community members both pre-and post-natural disasters. RWF members have given trainings and talks on their disaster preparedness model in the Rockaways and to community groups in Florida, Oklahoma, California, Mississippi and beyond.

Nationally, the WORCs program is seeding a scalable and replicable model that aims to be self-sufficient within five years. Launched in 2012, WORCs is an initiative of the award-winning 501(c)3 business incubator The Working World (TWW), which provides educational workshops, non-extractive financing and long-term coaching and technical assistance follow-up to worker-owned businesses in Nicaragua, Argentina and the United States. Since 2004, TWW has successfully placed more than 800 investments totaling over $5M into over 200 businesses. 98% of those projects have come to fruition and paid themselves off with new economic activity. Because of our success on an international scale, we believe we can replicate the WORCs model of economic development in communities vulnerable to climate disasters across the country.

Contest Info
Contest Name: 
Reducing Our Risk

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