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Feds come to rescue after Hurricane Sandy

Employees of the federal government have mobilized in both official and unofficial capacities to help those in the monster system’s path get their homes and lives back in working order.

Hurricane—and later Super Storm—Sandy took at least 100 lives and caused an estimated $50 billion in damages in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast—and those who work for the federal government have mobilized in both official and unofficial capacities to help people in the monster system’s wake get their homes and lives back in working order.

Since Sandy struck on Oct. 29, an all-department effort led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been joined by thousands of federal employees, organized by unions and on their own, who are distributing food, transporting people and moving emergency and repair equipment to put things right.

For its part, FEMA moved in thousands of emergency workers to aid in the crisis, and by Nov. 4 said it had approved more than $158 million in individual assistance. The agency has done everything from making sure there was advance staging of supplies prior to the storm, to aiding in the effort to restore electrical power, to signing victims up for financial help. According to the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, and many other officials, the agency—along with the American Red Cross—is doing a good job. National Guard members from the area and faraway states, along with federal employees in their official capacities, also are assisting in helping those hurt by the storm’s devastation.

But feds are helping far beyond their official capacity.

Unions call for feds to help feds

The National Treasury Employees Union, for example, is urging feds nationwide to come to the rescue of feds hit by Sandy, especially in New Jersey and New York. “The millions of people impacted by Hurricane Sandy include tens of thousands of federal employees, including many NTEU members,” NTEU said in a statement. “While those struggling with the storm’s aftermath remain in the thoughts of the entire union, there is more you can do to help.”

NTEU also recommends that feds contribute to the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund (www.feea.org), a charity that specifically helps feds in crisis, but one whose reserves are “suffering from previous disasters” and need fresh contributions.

The American Federation of Government Employees similarly asked members to help out—and lauded feds directly involved in the wider relief effort.

“In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I commend the tireless efforts of employees across the federal government who are aiding in the response and recovery efforts,” AFGE President J. David Cox, Sr., said. “The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Defense and numerous other federal agencies have been called into service to provide relief to the millions of Americans who have been affected by the storm.”

“In many cases, federal agencies and employees are among the victims of this catastrophic disaster,” Cox continued, echoing NTEU’s observation that thousands of feds suffered in the storm. “Federal offices in New York, New Jersey and surrounding areas have suffered damage from the high winds and rain, and federal employees who live in the area are dealing with similar damage to their homes.” 

Other federal unions also pressed their members to chip in. The American Postal Workers Union asked members to donate to the Postal Employees Relief Fund (www.postalrelief.com), and mourned the loss of one of its own, APWU officer Leonard Montalto of Staten Island. “We are deeply saddened by this tragic loss of life,” APWU President Cliff Guffey said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Lenny’s family and co-workers, and to all those who lost loved ones in this horrific event.”

Individual feds, union locals, pitch in

“Between Thursday [Nov. 1] to Monday [Nov. 5], we transferred a huge amount of supplies from the North Shore of Staten Island over to the South Shore area, where it’s needed,” Shaun O’Connell, a GS-12 Disability Examiner for the Social Security Administration and a vice president of AFGE Local 1760 covering the New York City metro area, told FEND. Most of O’Connell’s unofficial efforts—such as transporting supplies to storm victims—were done as part of a group called the Sons and Daughters of Erin, with the cooperation of a local bar that the group used as a temporary warehouse.

O’Connell, like many feds, has found his workplace as disrupted as his home. Normally, he and his colleagues work at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan, but—with the building’s boilers still nonfunctioning after Sandy’s tidal surge submerged them—as of Nov. 6 he has been reassigned to a federal office on Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island. The move enabled O’Connell and several colleagues to station themselves next door to FEMA workers, and to open for regular business and provide documents to victims very near the storm’s worst damage.

O’Connell told FEND he feels both the official and the off-duty and union efforts of feds are going reasonably well.

“A lot of the professional relief workers, mostly with FEMA, are not from the area—and that may give them more clarity on some of the problems,” O’Connell said. “It’s a good match, a good mix, of people—you have people like me who are local and doing a lot of informal help, and you have the professionals who are not as emotionally attached.”

O’Connell added that, for instance, “the professionals with FEMA could move large amounts of things” whereas locals, such as himself, could get around nearby New York neighborhoods, making deliveries to individual homes—what he called “micro-drops.” At one point, for example, O’Connell and his co-volunteers moved and unloaded deliveries from a seven-ton truckload of supplies brought in by the Utah National Guard.

“Somebody needs this item—say Pampers or whatever, and we could do it,” O’Connell said. “We know the neighborhoods, and where people are.”

But O’Connell also offered some criticism of official preparations for the storm—notably the words used in the warnings by government at all levels.

“I think that if officials had told people the effects of this storm would be like a tsunami, specifically, instead of comparing it to Hurricane Irene—I think a lot of the surprise of its power and some of the losses could have been avoided,” O’Connell told FEND. “I think people would have moved on that a little quicker.” 

SSA employee and AFGE member Lynn Kelly, who works with O’Connell, also is providing unofficial aid to storm victims.

“What I’ve been doing is pretty low-key,” Kelly told FEND. “My own house is flooded and we had no heat or hot water—but my daughter and I went around the neighborhood looking for people who needed things in Far Rockaway and Garretsen Beach. People needed toiletries and bleach, and so we took them to donation sites.”

Kelly has joined with neighbors and others to distribute food and cleaning supplies. Her next step is to help gather together and send more supplies to other “totally devastated” areas, and perhaps “help shovel out sand.”

I know there’s a lot of anger,” Kelly said, noting that some people were very upset at the scale of the damage and the level of some problems in getting gasoline, electricity and other supplies—and that some of this comes from being in areas that did not expect—at all—to be flooded.

“Remember, there are people here who are living without heat and hot water,” Kelly said. “From my perspective, I would say that FEMA and others are doing the best that they can. It’s a process and some people are having a hard time with the concept of this process.”

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