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Hurricane Sandy highlights vital role of public employees

Not surprisingly, AFT members along the Eastern Seaboard felt the impact of Hurricane 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 affiliates like PEF and the United Federation of Teachers to close their offices.

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 have been 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.

The AFT-affiliated Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) 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 the 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 the 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.

General city employees in Ocean City are in the midst of an organizing effort, and are watching a ballot measure that will determine whether they have collective bargaining after Nov. 6. [Roger Glass, Adrienne Coles, Virginia Myers]

November 2, 2012