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A Harbor in the Storm

When Hurricane Sandy struck, AFSCME members were there for our communities

By Joye Barksdale
Bayonne (Photo by Kevin Zapf Hanes)

The forecasts were eerily precise: Hurricane Sandy would be a superstorm with devastating winds and high tides. Southern New Jersey and New York would receive the harshest blows, but the storm would affect the entire East Coast.

When Anna Hartung, president of AFSCME Local 1303-229 in East Lyme, Conn., first heard the predictions, she knew to expect the worst. But she also knew that the members of her union would do what they always do: put their own lives on hold to focus on protecting the community. And from coast to coast, that’s what AFSCME members did, coming from as far as California to help citizens on the East Coast before, during and after Hurricane Sandy hit on Oct. 29.

Hartung and most of East Lyme’s public service workers had been through this before, living and working in a shore town. Only a year earlier they were dealing with Tropical Storm Irene. But this storm, everyone believed, would be different. And it was.

After the storm hit, several members of Local 1303-229 didn’t go home for 24 hours straight. “They spent countless hours, sometimes risking their own safety, to make sure people were safe,” Hartung, an administrative assistant, said. “They were getting rid of branches along live wires, clearing sand, doing everything it took to help residents recover.”

For Julie Wilson, an administrative assistant in East Lyme’s Emergency Management Office, Hurricane Sandy provided an opportunity to put the department’s year-old Facebook page to the test. Just before the storm, the page had 124 followers. But as Sandy wore on and Wilson posted constant updates for the community – often on her own time – the page got more than 27,000 hits.

“It allowed us to have immediate communication with people through their smartphones, so even if they didn’t have power they could follow what was happening” Wilson said. “We were able to give out helpful information and I think a little bit of comfort, too.”

The story of public service workers reaching out to their neighbors during Sandy was the same everywhere. In Bridgeport, 60 miles west of East Lyme, AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders toured several damaged areas with Police Sgt. Chuck Paris, president of Bridgeport Police Union Local 1159.

“During Hurricane Sandy, AFSCME members were once again everyday heroes,” Saunders said. “We’re frequently criticized and put down by politicians, yet we consistently demonstrate the very best in public service because we know that people in every community are depending on us – especially when disaster strikes.”

Saunders also met briefly with Adam Woods, chief of staff to Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, and reminded Woods of the outstanding job AFSCME workers had done in the midst of Sandy, despite their own losses. “A lot of times city officials take our work for granted. But when disaster strikes, they get a reminder that what we do matters,” Paris said.

Madelyn Brown Madelyn Brown (Photo courtesy Brown family)

Work That Matters

Madelyn Brown, a Fire Department of New York paramedic and member of DC 37 Local 2507, has always known her work matters. And now her 7-year-old daughter gets it, too. On the day Sandy hit, Brown already had worked a double shift. She came home for a little rest but decided to go back in a little early. Her daughter, Siarra Naylani, asked her why she couldn’t stay home.

“I told her, ‘You know I’ve got to go out and help people. I give them medicine and I take them to the hospital,’” said Brown. So while her husband stayed home with their three children, Brown ventured out. 

One of the calls was about someone in apparent cardiac arrest. Brown and her co-workers ran up six flights of stairs, carrying heavy equipment, because the power was out and elevators weren’t working.

“Some politicians want to finish union members and public service workers off,” Brown said. “We don’t even get paid that much. They want to take our pensions, when we are the ones who always go out to work in times like this and make the difference.”

Members of CSEA Local 1000 worked throughout Long Island to clear tree limbs and directional signs from highways, keeping vital thoroughfares open so emergency vehicles could get through. Highway, sanitation and parks department workers were part of the clean-up effort as soon as flood waters started to recede. “A situation like this demonstrates the tremendous value of public workers and underscores the positive effect they have in their respective communities,” said Long Island Region Pres. Nick LaMorte.

Deployed to NYC

Although California was far removed from the impact of Hurricane Sandy, members of United EMS Workers/AFSCME Local 4911, paramedics and EMTs with American Medical Response (AMR), were deployed to New York by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Todd Bourgeois, a paramedic with AMR out of Sacramento County, Calif., is part of the 30-member NorCal Strike Team.

Bourgeois got a call on the Saturday before Hurricane Sandy made landfall and was asked to prepare his “red bag” – an emergency backpack with enough clothes and provisions for 72 hours – and meet with other crew members. That night, they were on a plane to the East Coast. They went to Fort Dix in New Jersey, met with rescue workers from other parts of the country and readied supplies. By 2 a.m. the morning after the storm, they were rolling into Manhattan with orders to evacuate New York University Langone Medical Center.

Emergency responders deployed by FEMA set up on an old air field in Brooklyn and lived out of ambulances, sometimes getting only two hours of sleep before their next assignment. Bourgeois was also part of the team that evacuated patients from Bellevue Hospital Center on Halloween night after its backup generators failed.

After their evacuation and rescue work, his team went right to work fielding 911 call response.

Todd Bourgeois Todd Bourgeois (right) and fellow paramedics. (Photo by Kevin Anderson)

Bourgeois could have returned home after 14 days. He remained for 36.

“I stayed because the mission wasn’t over. I wanted to see it through,” he said. “No matter how cold and wet I was, I knew that I could go home eventually. The people whose houses were either in the ocean or buried in sand, they didn’t have that option.”

Other members of AFSCME 4911 found a way to join the recovery efforts. They held a clothing drive to help their EMT sisters and brothers who suffered losses during the hurricane. EMTs and paramedics from the Fire Department of New York had traveled to California to help organize Local 4911 in 2012; for the California workers, the clothing drive was their way of giving back. 

The drive ultimately yielded 1,600 lbs. of clothing. Local 4911 shipped 51 boxes to the Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors F.D.N.Y., Local 2507.

“We checked on the workers we’d met and found out that some of them came home from their shifts to find out they were homeless because of Sandy,” said Paige Miller, an EMT with AMR out of Contra Costa County. “We asked what they needed and clothing seemed to be the main thing.”

“Being in a union is really about brotherhood and sisterhood,” Miller said. “It’s not just about fighting the employer or fighting for a higher salary and better benefits. It’s also about standing by each other no matter what the needs may be.”

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