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Photo Credit: Kevin Hanes

Despite Catastrophe, AFSCME Members in Puerto Rico Remain Grateful

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By Kevin Zapf Hanes Worth the Fight

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Immediately following Hurricane Maria’s September 20 landfall in Puerto Rico, thousands of Servidores Publicos Unidos (SPU) (Council 95) members showed up to work, taking on roles outside of their job descriptions, lifting up their communities and never quitting doing what was necessary.

Pictured: Ana Candelaria. Photo Credit: Kevin Hanes
Pictured: Ana Candelaria. Photo Credit: Kevin Hanes

Ana Candelaria, a member of Local 3234, stepped into the role of emergency coordinator for the Family Department in San Juan, Bayamon, Toa Baja, and Cataño. Her responsibilities included going from shelter to shelter to document the needs of residents.

“We were working seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” said Candelaria. “We did what we could in these 12 hours and continued the next day.”

Nearly three months after Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, with electricity slowly becoming more available, she has resumed her normal responsibilities of protecting children and seniors from abusive homes. However, she’s still handling about 40 cases that she calls “urgent,” rather than the normal 22 she usually handles. She continues to spend her weekends checking in on families at the shelters. 

Pictured: Officer Jose Marín Ramos. Photo Credit: Kevin Hanes
Pictured: Officer Jose Marín Ramos. Photo Credit: Kevin Hanes

Mudslides and Destruction

Candelaria is not alone. Officer Jose Marín Ramos, of the Natural Resources Police and member of Local 3647, sprung to action in Utuado, one of the areas most affected by Maria. He rescued residents from mudslides and the massive destruction brought on by the Category 5 storm, with sustained winds of 175 mph.

“We are not doing our normal security job,” said Ramos. “We are serving as police escorts and delivering emergency provisions to those in need throughout the area. Every day, we have new situations and experiences that really impact you. I don’t want to keep any memory of what we have seen – no pictures, no videos.” 

Despite the horrors he’s witnessed, Ramos added, “The work we are doing gives me satisfaction because we are providing assistance directly to the public.”

Pictured: Camalich Albino Crespo. Photo Credit: Kevin Hanes
Pictured: Camalich Albino Crespo. Photo Credit: Kevin Hanes

Also in Utuado, Camalich Albino Crespo, a Department of Transportation worker and member of Local 3889, had a wall collapse on her car. Albino, along with her mother and two daughters, were forced to abandon her home in the middle of the storm to seek refuge in her cousin’s house next door.

“Thanks to God, we have the strength to carry on,” said Crespo. “This is what keeps up getting back up – we have Christ in our heart. Thank God we are all alive.”

SPU Members across the island were ordered back to work, in many cases, to unimaginable situations. 

Suffocating Stench, No Water

In Arecibo, the Department of Child Protection office was flooded by up to 4 feet of water. Workers were ordered back to work. Four weeks after the storm, the commonwealth finally came in and removed half of the mold-ridden walls and all of the furniture in the office. But the government didn’t remove soaked and moldy files that contained sensitive information about child-abuse cases.

The moldy odor that remains in the office is suffocating. The staff was granted a shorter work day of 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., but had to make do with four plastic chairs and no running water. If not for Council 95’s aggressive plan to deliver more than 14,000 bottles of water to work sites across the commonwealth, workers would have nothing to drink at work. 

In Loíza, the poorest community on the island, the Department of Family office suffered extensive flooding after the hurricane’s winds ripped the air conditioners off the roof, leaving the office exposed to the wind and rain. Members returned to work with no electricity, no running water and no working toilets. Workers now show up in the sweltering heat, sitting in the doorways to attend to residents in need of assistance. 

Never Quit Spirit

One member told Council 95 staff who delivered food and emergency supplies to the office, “Thank you for not forgetting us.”

While everyone on the island was affected by the devastation, some have suffered more than others. The attitude of Council 95’s members, who’ve continued to show up to work to care for those in need, has been to acknowledge that someone else always has it worse off.

The 11,000 members of SPU Council 95 have remained steadfast since the hurricane struck their island and will continue to be there for the people of Puerto Rico. They will never quit on their communities. 

Photo Credit: Eunice Salcedo
Photo Credit: Eunice Salcedo