By HENRY GARRIDO
Putting aside the Trump administration’s lackluster response to the devastation from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, we all should be proud of the dedication of the government workers who are providing crucial humanitarian aid on the island.
Thousands of federal, state and local public employees from around the country have volunteered for the disaster relief effort.
Six members of DC 37 — a nurse and five construction workers—were among 320 union workers who left New York City on Oct. 4 on a flight to Puerto Rico in a humanitarian mission sponsored by the AFL-CIO. The workers on the United Airlines union-made Boeing 777-300ER flight included doctors, nurses, electricians, carpenters, masons, engineers and truck drivers.
The city’s outpouring of support for Puerto Rico reflects our special ties with the 3.5 million people on the island. The 723,621 Puerto Ricans living here make up 8.9 percent of the city’s residents, according to the 2010 census. Those numbers have grown as thousands have migrated to the U.S. mainland because of the island’s economic crisis and, now, Hurricane Maria. Thousands of our members are Puerto Rican. Most have parents, siblings or relatives on the island. And quite a few DC 37 retirees live there.
By Oct. 7, New York City had dispatched 158 city employees to the island to provide direct assistance and help coordinate the Hurricane Maria relief work. The volunteers are from the Fire, Citywide Administration, Buildings, Housing Preservation and Development and Sanitation departments.
Unions are also working with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s relief and recovery effort. New York health response teams have delivered shipments of vaccines and medical supplies to the island. Members of Civil Service Employees Association, an affiliate of our national union, and the Public Employees Federation are among the state workers now on the island.
The union workers from the United States have joined Puerto Rico’s large disaster relief workforce, which includes members of Servidores Publicos Unidos de Puerto Rico. SPUPR is an affiliate of our national union — the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — that we helped organize many years ago. While they are on the front line helping families whose lives have been turned upside down due to the hurricane, many of SPUPR’s members are victims themselves.
Yet while union workers are selflessly helping the recovery effort, the Trump administration has been under attack for responding slowly and providing insufficient aid. Many of us were appalled by the television images of the condescending president tossing paper towels to survivors during his visit to the island.
Islanders complained about FEMA’s slow response to the hurricane. Ten months into his administration, Trump hasn’t even appointed a new director at FEMA.
During his visit, Trump downplayed the devastation, describing Hurricane Katrina as “a real catastrophe” compared with Hurricane Maria. He complained that the island was a burden to the United States. “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, you’ve thrown our budget out of whack,” he said.
To help union members affected by the hurricane, you can make a donation to the AFSCME Fallen Heroes Fund, which is listed on the national union’s website afscme.org. At DC 37, we have donated $25,000.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has underscored his commitment to send any city worker who wishes to volunteer to Puerto Rico. The city will foot the bill for plane flights and accommodations.
From the moment Hurricane Maria touched down on the island, AFSCME has called upon the administration to step up its help.
“We step up for one another,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders said. “It’s about serving those who need our help.”
Henry Garrido is the Executive Director of DC 37. This editorial originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Public Employee Press.