Public Employee Press
Vamos 4PR rallies for Island
Members respond to Puerto Rico crisis
By ALFREDO ALVARADO
District Council 37 members were part of an army of hundreds of union workers from around the country who volunteered to go to Puerto Rico and help residents deal with the damage caused by Hurricane Maria.
The category 4 hurricane wiped out a fragile electrical grid, ripped apart roads and bridges and left most of the island without power and clean drinking water. Thousands are homeless and 51 deaths have been confirmed.
“It looked like a war zone,” said Lt. Jose Gonzalez, a member of Uniformed EMS Officers Local 3621.
Gonzalez arrived on the island on Sept. 26 and every morning would hop into a jeep with other volunteers to visit fire stations around the island. “They were in bad shape,” said Gonzalez. “They had generators but they needed diesel.”
Dave Thomas, a Construction Laborer who works for the Dept. of Environmental Protection, spent 10 days in Puerto Rico.
“It looked like someone came along and chopped off all the branches from every tree,” said Thomas of the destruction he saw. He was stationed in San Juan at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum.
In the morning, Thomas and the crew would get their assignment for the day. They set up water filtration systems around the San Juan metropolitan area and cleared roads and highways of fallen trees, power lines and of zinc roofs blown off from houses by Hurricane Maria’s 145 mph winds.
Members travel to small towns
The group also traveled outside of the capital to the city of Mayaguez, on the western coast. They helped distribute boxes of food with a team of nurses from other unions who were among the hundreds of volunteers that traveled to Puerto Rico to help. The nurses established a fund and raised money online to buy food and water.
The team of DC 37 members and the nurses traveled to a public housing complex where they distributed supplies to more than 500 people. “They were so grateful and happy to see us; it was hard for me to keep from crying,” Thomas acknowledged.
New York State Assembly member Marcos Crespo traveled with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Puerto Rico a couple of days after the hurricane. Crespo saw inundated streets and people getting around on kayaks. “It broke my heart to see this,” said Crespo at DC 37’s Latino Heritage celebration on Sept. 29.
Judith Mendez Maldonado, a Jr. Public Health Nurse who works at University Neighborhood High School in Manhattan, cried a lot too.
She left for Puerto Rico on Oct. 4 and worked with a team of volunteers from the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers. Everywhere she went she saw lines of people waiting for hours for water, food and at ATM machines to get cash in the hot sun.
Mendez traveled outside of San Juan to the smaller towns of Yauco, Juncos and Rio Grande going door to door to check if people needed assistance. In the southern city of Guayama, Maldonado, a member of Local 436, helped an elderly couple. The 88-year-old man was bedridden and she changed his diaper. “His wife wants to get him out of the island so he could can get better care,” said Maldonado, whose bilingual skills came in handy.
Among the many challenges islanders — as well as union volunteers — are facing is getting clean drinking water. “Water was scarce for everyone,” said Milton Velez, a Construction Supervisor and member of Local 1322. Velez was dehydrated by the time he left Puerto Rico and went straight to his doctor when he returned. Food was also scarce, he said. “We joked that some days we ate ham and cheese sandwiches and the next day cheese and ham sandwiches,” he said.
More than 30 members of Local 1322 volunteered to go to Puerto Rico. They were among a team of six volunteers for the mission picked by Velez, who is the local’s vice president. “Those were my soldiers and they all worked very hard,” he said of his hand-picked crew.
“What we did for Europe we can and should do for our own people. It’s time for Congress and the White House to commit to a long-term recovery strategy following the devastation unleased by Hurricane Maria.”— Lee Saunders
Donations pour in
Union members who could not travel to Puerto Rico and help, like SSEU Local 371 member Fernando “Ponce” Laspina, pitched in by gathering donations in their communities to send to the island.
A couple of days after the hurricane swept Puerto Rico, Laspina sprung into action, using social media and passing out flyers in his Bronx neighborhood to encourage donations. People began showing up at the gym he runs on Southern Boulevard. They came with cases of bottled water, canned food and diapers.
“People who come to the gym, the boxers who train here, their wives and girlfriends, everybody came by to contribute,” said Laspina, when asked where the donations came from. With contributions starting to pile up, he had to put a sign outside the gym letting everyone know they’re not accepting any more. That weekend, the supplies collected were stuffed into a massive 18-wheeler by a team of volunteers and sent to Puerto Rico.
In addition to the union effort, the Dept. of Sanitation sent more than 50 sanitation workers and building inspectors to assist in debris cleanup. There are also 22 workers from the housing and building departments on the island to conduct safety inspections of buildings. A group of 89 workers from the Port Authority’s Emergency Services Unit also volunteered in Puerto Rico.
To help people leaving the island and relocating to the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio opened an office to offer services for them. The new center will provide access to city services.
Representatives from the American Red Cross, New York Disaster Interfaith Services, Animal Care and Control and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will also be available.
These services are being provided at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center at 1680 Lexington Ave. in East Harlem. Appointments can be made by calling 311 or visiting nyc.gov.
Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico
Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, DC 37’s national union, called on the U.S. Congress to develop a new Marshall Plan, like the United States did to help rebuild Western Europe after World War ll.
“What we did for Europe we can and should do for our own people. It’s time for Congress and the White House to commit to a long-term recovery strategy following the devastation unleased by Hurricane Maria,” he said.
One month after Hurricane Maria struck, residents still lack safe drinking water. To address the problem, AFSCME has joined with the American Federation of Teachers, Operation Blessing International and the Hispanic Federation and launched Operation Agua to provide clean water for people across Puerto Rico.
The goal of Operation Agua is to purchase and distribute 100,000 individual water filtration systems for homes and classrooms and 50 large-capacity clean-water devices to a network of nonprofit groups, union offices, schools and community based organizations.
Despite the difficulties they faced on the island, getting clean water to drink and being exposed to health risks, all of the DC 37 members said they would volunteer for another trip to Puerto Rico.
“Of course I would go back,” said Maldonado. “In a heartbeat.”