Exclusive report: Despite union volunteers on the ground, Puerto Rico recuperation efforts lag

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NO FOOD OR WATER FOR 5 DAYS: These children were crying when union volunteers finally got to their village with supplies. The one child holds a bundle of bread, the other is checking the bags of food and water. – Roy Gillespie photo

Residents overjoyed when help arrives, but destruction, red tape is slowing everything

By ED FINKELSTEIN
Publisher

San Juan, Puerto Rico – “Did we do something wrong?” asked the teamster of several little girls crying as union members were handing out water and food.

“No, we haven’t eaten or had anything to drink for five days. We love you,” they said behind tears of joy.

That’s emblematic of the reaction U.S. citizens surviving Hurricane Maria here are having as some 300 union members have been working around-the-clock to bring some measure of relief to this small U.S. territory island hit by the Category 4 storm last month with winds clocked at 155 mph.

The island is still a major disaster.

“It’s worse than anyone portrays it to be, worse than anything you can imagine, worse than anything I’ve ever seen,” said Roy Gillespie, Human Rights Commissioner for St. Louis Teamsters Joint Council 13, speaking exclusively to the Labor Tribune from San Juan where he couldn’t get a flight out until recently because so many people are trying to flee the island.

Gillespie, known as the “master of disaster” for his prowess in helping in crisis situations across America, was asked by Teamsters President James Hoffa on Oct. 4 to join 300 other union men and women, representing 20 different unions from 17 states, to help bring some order to the chaos. They were there for several weeks. Most have now returned home.

They were housed in a coliseum, slept on cots in hallways with no air conditioning and only cold water for showers.

0.1% IMPACT

Gillespie helped organize warehousing and get trucks moving to deliver vital goods.

The results to date: “0.1 percent because the devastation is so widespread,” Gillespie said.

Look at it this way, he said. “Consider a 50-story building on fire, and you try to put the flames out with a pitcher of water.

“It’s going to take years, years to bring some sense of normalcy back to this island.”

Despite the often heroic efforts of union electricians, operating engineers, nurses, painters, doctors, machinists, pipefitters, plumbers and other trades working with their local counterparts to restore electricity, open roads, get goods moving, it’s still a disaster, Gillespie emphasized.

“We’ve got 25 two-man teams using rental trucks to try and deliver goods, but many roads are still impassable,” he said. “When that happens, someone gets out and trudges up to whatever village they are trying to reach and people come down with wheelbarrows and baskets to get the food, water and relief supplies.”

EVERYTHING IS COMPLICATED

Without electricity, and the ability to speak Spanish, everything is complicated, Gillespie said.

“There are no working traffic lights, so driving is dangerous,” he said. “You can’t work at night because the roads are not lit; it’s pitch black, and there are power lines down everywhere. You could be driving along and next thing you know you’ve hit a downed power pole.

“And if you have to go out at night, it’s with a police escort.”

POLITICS AND RED TAPE

Adding to the tragedy is politics and red tape.

“There’s a lot of political games being played here,” he said sadly. “When you’re not from this area, it’s hard to know who’s the right person to deal with. We try to stay out of the politics, but….”

Before anything can get done, volunteers first have to satisfy the local politician, who often wants supplies to go to favored areas. Some even ask for campaign donations.

“There’s a lot of political backscratching,” he said.

And a lot of bureaucratic red tape.

“You have to get approvals from as many as 15 different agencies to get anything done. They don’t move very fast. Given the need, it makes your head shake.”

Gillespie said there are disagreements over who is going to get product that’s coming from the ports, and jurisdictional disagreements over where the food for residents should go – to the territory, the city or the local government.

‘GRACIAS, GRACIAS, GRACIAS’

Despite the challenges, Gillespie said, “No matter where you are, you hear over and over ‘Gracias, gracias, gracias’ as people grab your hands, often with tears in their eyes.

“Everything we are doing, when it finally gets to the people who need it, is incredibly appreciated.”

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Conservative right trying to smear union’s efforts

Even as the Labor Movement was reaching out to help residents of San Juan, anti-union forces were spreading lies during the Puerto Rican tragedy in their continuing efforts to smear unions.

A right-wing blog, Conservative Treehouse, leveled the false charge that the Teamsters union in San Juan went on strike using the disaster as leverage for better wages, and that they were intentionally keeping local drivers away.

Other conservative media websites and media outlets picked up on the story before the political fact-checking websites Snopes.com and Factcheck.org labeled the charges “Bogus” and “FALSE.”

‘LIES TO FURTHER DESTRUCTIVE AGENDA’

Teamsters President Jim Hoffa said: “These viral stories spreading across the Internet are nothing but lies perpetrated by anti-union entities to further their destructive agenda. The fact that they are attempting to capitalize on the suffering of millions of citizens in Puerto Rico that are in dire need of our help by pushing these false stories, just exposes their true nature.”

Colonel Michael Valle, who is coordinating relief efforts on the island for the U.S. Air Force, was misquoted in the conservative hit pieces which took his comments about truck drivers not being available to deliver relief supplies out of context. What the hit pieces left out was the second part of Valle’s comments, in which he said:

“There should be zero blame on the drivers. They can’t get to work, the infrastructure is destroyed, they can’t get fuel themselves, and they can’t call us for help because there’s no communication. The will of the people of Puerto Rico is off the charts. The truck drivers have families to take care of, many of them have no food or water. They have to take care of their family’s needs before they go off to work, and once they do go, they can’t call home.”

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