Americans Workers on the Ground Helping Disaster-Struck Areas While Congress Drags its Feet
It has been months since 2017’s historic hurricane season laid waste to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida, in some areas destroying critical infrastructure systems, plunging millions of Americans into darkness, and further aggravating an already desperate need for safe water.
For months, affected communities have been waiting for Congress to provide adequate relief funding that is so urgently needed. Congress has been dragging its feet, and now is poised to potentially pass the buck even further with yet another continuing resolution to keep our government funded. But, brothers and sisters of some of the nation’s largest labor unions have been working hard to pick up the slack, providing much-needed relief to communities in distress.
Puerto Rico’s water infrastructure was in bad shape before Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017. According to one report, 99.5 percent of the population was served by community water systems in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Maria only made the situation worse, leaving at least 30 percent of the population without access to drinkable water of any sort. Reports from the island told of desperate citizens drinking from hazardous Superfund sites, and filling jugs in contaminated runoff.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) could not stand by as the health, safety, and lives of millions of American citizens were put at risk. AFT launched Operation Agua to provide safe drinking water to families across Puerto Rico. The union collected donations for the purchase and distribution of water filtration systems throughout the island. Operation Agua has raised more than $1.5 million since it was launched.
When flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey forced hundreds-of-thousands of people from their homes in Texas, members of United Steelworkers (USW) were among those to brave the rising waters to rescue individuals and families stuck in dangerous situations. When the water finally receded, USW members were there to help their brothers and sisters begin to rebuild.
Hurricane Harvey impacted more United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA) members than any of the other storms to hit the U.S. in 2017. As the storm began to clear, UA members immediately began collecting supplies. A distribution center was organized to get donations from UA members throughout the nation out to those in need.
By the end of September, 2017, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART) had distributed roughly $500,000 in cash and material relief to impacted members. Volunteers across the U.S. and Canada collected and delivered box, fans, dehumidifiers, bleach, food, diapers, and other items to members in affected communities.
In addition to manning the boats that were used to rescue people from the flood waters in Texas, USW launched a disaster relief fund, as did UA. A similar fund was opened by the Service Employees International Union to help members in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California impacted by 2017’s powerful storms and the wildfires that continue to burn in the west.
Members of the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) were among the first to spring into action after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma left thousands of residents in Texas and Florida without electricity. UWUA members from across the country loaded up their trucks to help get the lights back on in impacted communities.
Another BlueGreen Alliance member, the Sierra Club, was quick to launch relief efforts after the Hurricanes hit. The group mobilized a response team to get on the ground in Puerto Rico as rapidly as possible. The response team worked with contacts in Puerto Rico to arrange shipments to the island of solar lanterns and water filters, which were then distributed in many cases door-to-door to those without electricity or access to clean water.
In early December, members of the BlueGreen Alliance called on Congress to act swiftly to provide aid to impacted communities and give them the resources to re-build stronger, cleaner, and more resilient. Nearly two months later, an emergency aid package has stalled in the Senate while thousands of Americans who have been displaced, who have lost their electricity, and who still lack clean drinking water, wait.
Throughout the nation, America’s workers have been on the ground, helping to provide critical services to those in need, volunteering their time and money to those who have lost everything. Unfortunately, the problem is much bigger than can be handled by even the most ambitious of our laborers. It’s time for Congress to take a cue from these hardworking men and women and get to work to provide much-needed emergency relief to communities impacted by the record-breaking storms of 2017.