Superstorm Sandy highlights vital role of public employees

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Not surprisingly, AFT members along the Eastern Seaboard felt the impact of Superstorm Sandy—both professionally and personally. The storm and its aftermath highlighted the essential services provided by educators, state workers, healthcare professionals and other public employees. Many of these workers stepped up to help with the rescue and relief efforts. In some cases, these employees mounted heroic efforts in the face of very difficult circumstances.

For example, when several state medical facilities had to be evacuated in the midst of the storm, nurses represented by the New York State Public Employees Federation were there to play an integral role in moving patients to safer facilities. And while state government offices in the New York City area and on Long Island, N.Y., were closed all week, PEF members considered "essential personnel" reported to work.

In many parts of the storm-ravaged region, power outages and the loss of phone and Internet service have complicated the recovery efforts and forced many affiliates like PEF, the United Federation of Teachers, and the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York to close their offices.

As with all the other colleges on Long Island, Suffolk County Community College was shuttered for the week, but "the good news was that the college was able to get the payroll out on Thursday despite the storm issues," reports Ellen Schuler Mauk, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College. "The college administration realized that too many of our employees depend on the regularity of their paychecks and, given the stresses created by the storm, didn't need to worry about not making their mortgage payments, etc. Payroll staff came in and worked hard to make that happen."

Lower Manhattan, where the UFT headquarters office is located, was hit hard by the storm. Where Internet service is available, the union's Facebook page has become an important link for members navigating the watery post-Sandy landscape. UFT members have been posting photographs of their fellow unionists volunteering in recovery centers, as well as pictures of the damage.

New York City public schools were closed all week. Some schools have become evacuation centers, host to families that have been displaced, and even pets that have been rescued from floodwaters and areas without power. Other schools are still closed due to damage or lack of electricity. Some teachers will be reporting to alternate sites for work, and the UFT is coordinating carpools on its Facebook page to help them. The union also has set up an emergency hotline for members.

UFT member Eleanor Jacobs, a paraprofessional at Staten Island's Hungerford School, brought her son to volunteer at his school, Susan Wagner High School in Staten Island. Homes in that area were severely damaged by flooding and high winds. "We helped wherever needed," said Jacobs, "whether it was putting blankets on babies or taking care of pets."

Veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement have morphed into Occupy Sandy, a shelter, food and relief offshoot, according to a Nov. 1 report posted on Huffington Post. Two days after the hurricane, when FEMA had yet to appear, volunteers in the hard-hit Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook were organizing to get food, clothing and other necessities to the elderly and others marooned in high-rise apartment buildings that lacked electricity. "We've been walking up and down stairs, providing care packages of food, and flashlights and bottled water," said Conor Tomás Reed, a member of the Professional Staff Congress who is a doctoral student at the City University of New York and a professor at Baruch College.

"Occupy has gone from general protest work to now direct community support," Reed told Huffington Post.

UFT members at Rockaways food drive.

The AFT-affiliated Health Professionals and Allied Employees in New Jersey represents thousands of nurses and health professionals, many of whom have been working around the clock to care for patients, in addition to dealing with the impact of the storm on their own lives. The union says it is working to get a full picture of what's happening with HPAE members in the state, and estimates that at least half of its members are still without power or a way to communicate.

Palisades Medical Center, which is located near the Hudson River, was evacuated but has now resumed full operations. Three other hospitals where the HPAE represents healthcare professionals—Christ Hospital, Bayonne Medical Center and Meadowlands Hospital—are operating on generators. An influx of local nursing home residents to these facilities has them bursting at the seams with patients.

The hardest-hit area is the Jersey Shore, where the AFT affiliate has members employed at Jersey Shore University Medical Center and Southern Ocean County Medical Center. Thanks to generators, the hospitals have managed to stay operational. However, the winds and flooding have completely destroyed the homes of some of the local's members who live in that area, HPEA president and AFT vice president Ann Twomey reports.

An article in the Nov. 1 edition of the New York Times chronicled the work of nurses and health professionals represented by the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, an affiliate of the Federation of Nurses/UFT. Allison Chisholm, who works for VNS, pressed her way through the difficult challenges created by the storm to take care of her patients. "It was treacherous driving during the hurricane. But it's just something you do as a nurse," Chisholm told the Times. "That continuity of care helps the healing. I don't see this as being heroic. I have a conscience. I need to get to sleep at night."

The hurricane presented several challenges for members of the University of Connecticut Professional Employees Association, reports UCPEA member Chuck Morrell, the associate director for operations at the university. He says that during an emergency like this one, the Student Union serves as a central gathering place for the campus, providing not only the food court options but also charging stations for cell phones, tablets, laptops and other electronic devices.

The key has been advance planning, Morrell says. "It always will come back to planning and the preparations that are made in advance of the weather event. Here in the [Student Union] building we began the process on Friday [Oct. 26] by bringing in all outdoor furnishings and other objects that in a high wind condition could become a missile causing significant damage. We also cleared the roof drains and downspouts to prevent water collecting and possibly penetrating into the building."

In Ocean City, Md., city employees braced for the storm days before Sandy hit the coastal community, and followed that up with damage assessment so that city facilities could be reopened. Emergency personnel not only responded to calls during the storm, but also continued to assist residents and visitors upon their return to Ocean City, working closely with the Maryland State Highway Association, the Maryland State Police, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Guard to make sure the town was safe.

Public Works staff assisted in picking up debris, transporting citizens to and from shelters, and cleaning up the beach. Countless other employees and volunteers worked around the clock monitoring the storm, staffing the Emergency Operations Center and meeting the needs of city residents, businesses and visitors before, during and after the storm. Damage was limited to beach erosion, flooding and marginal debris in some places, but the Ocean City Fishing Pier was severely damaged. [Roger Glass, Adrienne Coles, Virginia Myers, Barbara McKenna/photo by Miller Photography]

November 2, 2012