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Starting All Over

Safe at last in her aunt's Baton Rouge home, Katrina survivor Charssie Muse in September reflected on the two weeks since the hurricane destroyed her home in St. Bernard Parish. "It hurts so much to see that what you've worked so hard to build is gone," she said haltingly, tears welling in her eyes. "It's something we wanted to leave for our children."

A Medicaid analyst for the state's Department of Health and Hospitals, Charssie — and her family — lost virtually all of their possessions. But she was obviously more worried at the moment about being separated from her two children and her 77-year-old mother. Deaths had been coming quickly: her father a year ago, a sister six months later. (Her children and mother, it turned out, were thankfully safe.)

"If I weren't a Christian woman, I would kill myself," Charssie admitted. "I just need to get back on my feet and start all over again."

'It Was My Job'

When New Orleans' mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city, with Hurricane Katrina bearing down, thousands fled their homes and drove north. But thousands of others threatened by the storm had no access to transportation. They ended up seeking shelter in the Superdome, and for West Bank residents, that meant taking the ferry across the Mississippi River.

Michael Mitchell, a member of Council 17's Local 3805, was as usual captaining the state-run Canal Street Ferry, providing what he calmly calls "a public service." For seven straight hours, until ferry service was shut down, Mitchell made about 30 trips, transporting vehicles and nearly 1,000 refuge-seeking passengers. "It was my job," he says.

He then rushed home to find his wife, Yolanda, and sons Christopher, Michael and Malcolm, anxiously waiting in the endangered Gentilly neighborhood. Later that same day, joined by six other relatives, the captain led a four-car caravan 130 miles north to a church shelter in Opelousas.

'Nothing to Lean on but God'

The slam-bam hurricanes forced New Orleans custodian Daren Stacker, his wife, Michelle, and their children to endure two evacuations: first, to Houston, when Katrina pushed canal waters over their adjoining house in New Orleans; then back to Louisiana, to escape Rita.

Stacker, a head custodian with the New Orleans public school system, serves as vice president of Local 872. Carrying only a few clothes with them, he and his family escaped the city in his truck. Their drive to Lake Charles took 17 hours, four times the normal duration. After an overnight stay, they moved on to Baytown, Texas, and then to Houston, where they settled in Daren's brother's apartment. But not for long: They soon packed up again and drove 300 miles back to Alexandria, La., where they found shelter in the city's convention center.

"I have no home to return to," Stacker laments, "and nothing to lean on but God."

Up to Her Neck

Michele Baker, president of Local 872 (Council 17), and her husband, Alexander, endured Katrina in their SUV. The reason: Her father lay seriously ill in a nearby hospital. By the time he died, Katrina was assaulting their east New Orleans neighborhood.

A custodial worker for the Orleans Parish School District, Michele remembers being rocked in the wind for hours. But rising flood waters the day after forced them to abandon "ship" and wade through deep water for about a mile and a half towards the Superdome. "I was up to my neck in it, and I can't swim," says Michele. "I held onto my husband." After spending the night at the 'dome, the Bakers boarded a bus for Baton Rouge.

Riding It Out

When schools re-opened in Jefferson Parish on Oct. 3, fewer children waited for bus driver Jane Brown to pick them up. In 32 years on the job, Brown has always heard "giggling and vibrant chatter from the kids. But this time, the mood was subdued. These kids are struggling to regain some normalcy in their lives." Brown — president of Local 3091 (Council 17) — is also trying to get her union back to normal. Each of her 350 co-workers owns and drives a school bus. But on opening day post-Katrina, only 175 reported for work. The rest lost their homes and buses. Observes Brown: "It's like a bomb went off."

Janet Thomas was six years old when Hurricane Bessie destroyed her family's home by the banks of the Mississippi River. She's homeless once again since her current New Orleans home got flooded up to the roof. A custodial worker (Local 872, Council 17) for the Jean Gordon Elementary School in New Orleans, Thomas evacuated to a church shelter in Smyrna, La. Her mother and six adult children also fled New Orleans. "I'm just thankful that my family is safe, that we still have each other," she says.

Marylan Carter's home in Hattiesburg, Miss. — about 90 miles northeast of New Orleans — was in the path of the hurricane. Having lived through a few storms before, she decided to ride this one out. Now she wishes she hadn't. She was alone in her house when the wind blew off the roof. After two weeks, Carter, a U.S. Department of Agriculture regional supervisor (Local 3020 of Washington, D.C.'s Council 26), got her roof covered with blue tarp. Still, her downtown office a wreck, she worked at home for more than a month.

Protecting the Poorest & Neediest

Marooned for days — without power, medical supplies, food and water — hundreds of nurses, doctors, patients and workers at New Orleans' Charity Hospital struggled to survive while Katrina's floodwaters rose. "I was scared but I also knew I had a job to do — to help save lives," says Alfretta Bush, one of five custodial workers — all members of Local 1991 — who stuck it out during and after the storm. Charity, the oldest hospital in America, serves the city's poorest and neediest.

Oveal Jackson was on the same "Activation Team," required to work 12-hour shifts and not allowed to leave the hospital during the crisis. That was not a problem for team member Jackson, who says of her patients, "There was no way I was going to leave them." Although asthmatic and very thirsty, she gave her "whole bottle" of water to a patient who begged for a drink.

Meanwhile, the workers' fretted about their own families. It took more than three days for Jackson's four children and two grandchildren — intermittently wading in dangerous waters — to reach the Superdome.

After five days, Jackson, Bush and their co-workers — Michelle Bush, Kim Boyd and Anna Collins — were rescued. Candice Cheney, Local 3074 president, welcomed them to a medical facility in distant Pineville. "I didn't think anybody cared until Candy came over to hug me," Jackson says. "She was crying. She was even gladder than I was."

Emergency Super Care

Bobbie Jones braced herself for a deluge of phone calls when she saw part of a roof crash outside her window. Katrina was barreling through Independence, La. — northwest of New Orleans — where AFSCME members of Local 3121, on staff at the Lallie Kemp Medical Center, were on emergency duty. That meant working around the clock for days at a time, with only a few hours of sleep. An administrative coordinator, Jones fielded frantic calls for four straight days. She also handled walk-ins, including a woman who suffered severe burns when her car caught fire.

Bio-med technician Dan Bourgeois made sure that basic supplies such as medicine and flashlights were on hand and that oxygen tanks, heart monitors and other machines were working properly. At the height of the storm, Bourgeois had to drive 30 miles to rescue a nurse who ran out of gas on her way to the hospital.

With electricity out and needing a working computer, health information director Lisa Hagans called on her experience and smarts to tap power from a hospital generator. As a result, doctors and nurses were able to access vital medical records.

"It was like a nightmare," Bourgeois declares, "but we all pulled through as a team."

'Putting Out Fires' as They Flared

On her first day on the job as assistant labor liaison with the Red Cross, Dorinda Miller was on the phone coordinating the arrival of 26 refrigerated, 10-wheeler trucks at the Baton Rouge staging area. With two years of Red Cross training, Miller, a member of Local 3700 (Illinois Council 31), applied everything she learned in disaster relief. It helped that she's had 16 years ofexperience working for the University of Illinois' Department of Natural Resources, where meticulous attention to detail is a must.

During her four-week deployment, Miller helped set up phone banks, coordinated distribution of relief goods to union warehouses and assembled workers to build everything from clothes racks to makeshift kitchens. But the most important job was locating 75,000 union members who were dispersed in more than 200 shelters and entering their names in a database. "The minute-to-minute changes were chaotic," Miller recalls, "but I learned to adjust and to put out fires as they came."

Turning on the Good Water

It was a satisfying sight: a 60-year-old woman doing a little dance in her street when water was turned on for the first time since Katrina hit. To the City of Portland Water Bureau workers — all members of Oregon Council 75's Local 189— the impromptu jig said it all: Mission accomplished.

For several weeks in October, in a unique effort to help rebuild the Crescent City's damaged water system, the Portland workers put in days that often amounted to 16 to 18 hours. Using their expertise and the equipment they brought with them, the Portland crew unclogged storm sewers and repaired broken water mains and hydrants.

Among the worksites was the East Bank Sewage Treatment Plant, which handles the majority of the city's sewage. The plant covers 60 acres of the heavily damaged ninth ward and pumps 60 million gallons per day. Altogether, the city has 1,610 miles of water main and 160,000 service connections.

When New Orleans sent out a nationwide call for help, Portland alone offered to provide it on a large scale. The city sent a convoy of water department trucks and a crew of 35. All were volunteers, and they were not paid overtime. The partnership between the Portland Water Bureau and the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board is partly funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Crew members say they're glad they made the trip, despite having to live in makeshift tents. "Helping others in need is what we preach as a union — and it's a chance to put those words into action," declares longtime Local 189 member Greg Olson, who jumped at the opportunity to volunteer.

Turning on the Good Water

It was a satisfying sight: a 60-year-old woman doing a little dance in her street when water was turned on for the first time since Katrina hit. To the City of Portland Water Bureau workers — all members of Oregon Council 75's Local 189 — the impromptu jig said it all: Mission accomplished.

For several weeks in October, in a unique effort to help rebuild the Crescent City's damaged water system, the Portland workers put in days that often amounted to 16 to 18 hours. Using their expertise and the equipment they brought with them, the Portland crew unclogged storm sewers and repaired broken water mains and hydrants.

Among the worksites was the East Bank Sewage Treatment Plant, which handles the majority of the city's sewage. The plant covers 60 acres of the heavily damaged ninth ward and pumps 60 million gallons per day. Altogether, the city has 1,610 miles of water main and 160,000 service connections.

When New Orleans sent out a nationwide call for help, Portland alone offered to provide it on a large scale. The city sent a convoy of water department trucks and a crew of 35. All were volunteers, and they were not paid overtime. The partnership between the Portland Water Bureau and the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board is partly funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Crew members say they're glad they made the trip, despite having to live in makeshift tents. "Helping others in need is what we preach as a union — and it's a chance to put those words into action," declares longtime Local 189 member Greg Olson, who jumped at the opportunity to volunteer.

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