Follow
e f t y i

Serving Puerto Rico During Hurricanes

f t e +
By Kevin Zapf Hanes Explore the Issues

Editor’s note: This story reflects on the service our Puerto Rican sisters and brothers provided during Hurricane Irma. They have since been walloped by powerful Hurricane Maria. Please contribute to the AFSCME Fallen Heroes Fund today to help them recover from the effects of Maria.

Most people enjoy spending their birthday surrounded by friends and loved ones. Joseph L. Cortes Lugo is no different. Then Hurricane Irma headed for Puerto Rico, home to this member of Local 3234 of Servidores Públicos Unidos de Puerto Rico (SPU)/AFSCME Council 95.

Instead of celebrating his birthday that day – Sept. 7 – the family and social assistance technician for the Puerto Rico Department of the Family reported to the Escuela Carmen Cassasu shelter to serve as his agency’s emergency coordinator.

AFSCME member Joseph Cortes Lugo provides instructions to local residents who sought refuge in a shelter he oversaw during Hurricane Irma. (Photo credit: Joseph Cortes Lugo)
AFSCME member Joseph Cortes Lugo provides instructions to local residents who sought refuge in a shelter he oversaw during Hurricane Irma. (Photo credit: Joseph Cortes Lugo)

When Cortes Lugo arrived at the facility, he realized it wasn’t ready to receive the families that would seek refuge from Hurricane Irma. He and others assigned to the facility rushed to make sure it was ready for whatever was to come.

Even before Irma hit, Cortes Lugo went into the community to urge residents to evacuate their homes and come to the shelter.

“There were a lot of seniors that we had to convince,” he said. “It gave me great satisfaction that I was able to convince people that otherwise would have stayed home.”

Even though it was his birthday and he couldn’t be with his family, “I was happy to know that I was helping my community,” Cortes Lugo added.

Scared but secure

By day, Braulio Torres is a natural resources ranger, protecting Puerto Rico’s beautiful parks and beaches. He’s also a member of AFSCME Local 3647 and, in 2008, was elected to be an AFSCME International vice president.

As Irma approached, Torres’ role changed to inter-agency coordinator for his department. That meant he organized resources in the Emergency Operations Center in the Office of Emergency Management.

On Sept. 5, he arrived and stayed for three days as the Department of Natural Resources used 19 pumps across the island to remove flood waters from towns.

“It is difficult to have to leave your family in times of crisis,” said Torres. “The satisfaction of leaving your family safe, knowing you may be gone for days, gives you relief and motivates you to keep on serving your community.”

Cows were caught in floods caused by Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico. (Photo credit: Braulio Torres)
Cows were caught in floods caused by Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico. (Photo credit: Braulio Torres)

Irma left nearly 1 million Puerto Rico residents without power immediately following the storm – a number that has shrunk since then. Spotty cell phone service remains a problem, making communication difficult.

While Puerto Rico was spared the worst of Irma’s wrath, the preparations organized by Cortes Lugo and Torres were essential public services that could have meant the difference between life and death for many residents of the commonwealth.

“Situations like these is when our island comes together,” said Cortes Lugo.

No matter what – economic crisis or natural disaster – members of SPU and our retiree chapters in Puerto Rico never quit doing what it takes to keep their communities moving forward.

Now, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are under threat from what the National Hurricane Center calls a “potentially catastrophic” Hurricane Maria. The category 5 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph, is expected to strike Puerto Rico tonight into Wednesday. Many of the 12,000 working members and thousands of retirees represented by SPU and its retiree chapters will be in harm’s way. Our thoughts are with them.

Our thoughts are also with thousands of our sisters and brothers in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Georgia who were affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. They need our continuing support as they and their communities recover.