With a merciless string of natural disasters hitting parts of the country over the last two months, the Teamsters have been at the forefront of disaster relief efforts from Texas to Florida to Puerto Rico.
UPS Teamsters in particular have stepped up to deliver aid to hurricane victims. And some were themselves victims of the storms’ devastation.
“We got a lot of help from volunteers and Local 988 has been helping me a lot,” said Houston-based Local 988 UPS Business Agent Felton Jolivette, whose home was flooded by Hurricane Harvey. “A lot of Teamster brothers and sisters told me they are here if I need them, and that means a lot.”
At the height of the flooding, the water in Jolivette’s house was waist-high.
“It’s a very stressful, tiring experience. My family, we lost a lot of things – things that we worked hard for but you can’t save,” he said.
Despite his own troubles after the storm, Jolivette took part in local relief efforts to help others.
“Teamsters, we stick together and help each other – and we help other non-Teamsters as well. This was a traumatic experience. Having others helping made it easier to cope. You see it on TV, but to experience it yourself is different,” Jolivette said.
Other Teamsters who needed help included Alex Gonzalez, a 27-year UPS driver and member of Local 988. Forced to evacuate as floodwaters rose in his neighborhood, Gonzalez returned to see his entire cul-de-sac damaged from flooding.
“This cul-de-sac is like a big family, we all help each other out,” Gonzalez said. “Even so, I’ve never been through a flood before, and I’m not going to lie to you: it’s devastating. After losing everything, I’m still at a loss for words.”
Gonzalez was fortunate to have the support of his Teamster brothers and sisters.
“My union always helps out in every situation. They’re like pit bulls. They latch on to something and won’t let go until something gets done,” he added.
From the Keys to the Caribbean
UPS members also felt the effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and their brothers and sisters responded.
Representatives of Local 769, which represents about 4,000 UPS and UPS Freight Teamsters in South Florida, were granted access in September to the disaster area in the Florida Keys where the brunt of Hurricane Irma’s destruction was felt. They made 16 stops in the region to deliver much-needed supplies to members and communities. The local set up a warehouse staging area in Port Everglades where Local 25 in Boston sent a truck full of food, water, diapers, clothes and other items.
Charles McEntee, a UPS Freight driver with Local 707 in Hempstead, New York, joined dozens of Teamsters who flew to Puerto Rico to assist with disaster relief efforts on the island.
“Our dispatch terminal posted a notice that volunteer help was needed so we responded,” McEntee said as he stood with his coworker Ever Arroyo who also took part in the volunteer mission. “We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into but we are both veterans and feel it’s our duty. I have friends in Florida who had to evacuate because of Irma. So I knew help was needed.”
For Arroyo, who also drives for UPS Freight in Newburgh, New York, the trip to Puerto Rico was even more personal.
“I have family on the island and I had not been able to reach my brother since the storm,” Arroyo said. “I wanted to go down to help and do my part – and to also find out how my family was doing. I want to see the island get back to normal.”
The situation in Puerto Rico remains most dire, with one in four Puerto Ricans still lacking access to clean water and electrical power still down for nearly three-quarters of the island. Meanwhile, health care workers are growing more concerned about the spread of water-borne illnesses.
Getting Back to Normal
McEntee and Arroyo joined a plane-load of Teamsters and other union members on a United Airlines flight chartered by the AFL-CIO and stayed on the island for two weeks.
They slept on cots at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, which was turned into a disaster relief center. From there, Teamsters organized and dispatched trucks to distribute water, generators, food and other supplies throughout the island. Union nurses were transported by Teamster members to treat those in need of medical attention.
The headquarters of Teamsters Local 901 in Puerto Rico was without power after Hurricane Maria hit. Three generators were brought into the building and the local was converted into a temporary disaster response center. Three weeks after the storm, the union hall had phones, lights, and computers, but still no air conditioning in the blistering heat of the island.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Local 901 – which represents 20 UPS air package drivers in Puerto Rico – was unable to contact their membership, but they have since been able to speak with a majority of workers. The local is attempting to bring some level of normalcy back to the lives of Puerto Rican Teamster members.
“I’m glad we were able to help, even if it was in a small way,” said Roy Gillespie, Joint Council 13 Human Rights Coordinator. “There’s going to be a lot more needed for the long term. They won’t be able to get back on their feet until everyone has clean drinking water, electricity, and all the stuff we take for granted. You go to stores, and the shelves are bare or there are still lines around the block.”
UPS members and other Teamsters returned from Puerto Rico on October 19and many said their lives were forever changed by the experience.
“I volunteered through Joint Council 16 and it was my first time doing disaster relief,” said George Zamot, a UPS package car driver and Local 804 member in the Bronx. “I saw there wasn’t enough being done and wanted to do my part. And I expected to see horrible living conditions. But we Teamsters go out and do what we gotta do to get the job done.”