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As Hurricane Irma Set Records, AFSCME Members Scrambled to Help Others

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This year’s Atlantic hurricane season may not be over yet (it ends Nov. 30), but its history is already being written. As The Washington Post pointed out in a recent article, “The extreme ferocity of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season will be talked about for decades.”

Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in Florida just over a month ago, is likely to be remembered as a record-breaking storm. Irma had sustained winds of 185 miles per hour for an unprecedented 37 hours, and it broke the record for the longest distance traveled as a Category 5 storm – more than 1,100 miles.

But what we must also remember are the courageous and selfless actions of the many individuals, including public service workers represented by AFSCME, who worked nonstop to protect others from the storm’s violence.

Maria Monsalve is a custodial worker at Florida International University and a member of AFSCME Florida. She and her adult son, as well as two other relatives, were at her home preparing for Irma when her employer called.

As Irma prepared to make landfall on Sunday, Sept. 10, the FIU Arena had been set up as a shelter for individuals and families whose lives were at risk. Many came from the Florida Keys and were lower-income families who lived in trailers. Others were homeless people who had nowhere else to go.

“They wanted to know if I could help out full time at the Arena,” she said.

Monsalve said she was happy to help out, not only because she felt a sense of duty but because she felt safer at the FIU Arena than at her own home. And she was able to bring her son with her.

There were hundreds of people at the Arena, and she spent two nights there, working from Saturday to Monday. She cleaned bathrooms, emptied trash, and generally helped keep the place clean.

There was a sense of worry and concern among the people there, she said, as families tried to keep up with the latest developments. But there was also a strong feeling of solidarity. 

“I felt good being able to help out,” Monsalve said. “It was the right decision. You see people who’ve just left their homes behind and took whatever little they could with them. I’m glad I was able to assist them in whatever way I could.”

All-Around Problem Solver

Yulisney Sotolongo also responded and helped out at the Arena when the storm hit. A member of AFSCME Florida, he normally works as a plumber at FIU. But on this occasion, he was an all-around problem solver.

“You’re there because of an emergency, and so if somebody calls you with a problem, you scramble and do whatever you can to help them solve it,” he said. “That’s what it was like.”

There were many children in the Arena, Sotolongo said, and as they grew bored with the slow ticking of the hours, he and other colleagues found them toys to play with. Some people were so saddened from leaving their homes all they needed was a sympathetic ear, and Sotolongo obliged.

It is these and other stories of workers going beyond the call of duty that AFSCME will remember when the history of this hurricane season is finally written. It’s during natural disasters that society at large discovers the true value of public service workers.