Ships pass in the night and airplanes crisscross the skies in a determined quest to bring Puerto Rico back from the ravages of Hurricane Maria. Some bring fresh water, supplies and personnel; some leave with families and students coming to the mainland to relocate and attend school.
Recovery will take years. Most of the island is still without electricity, and will be for months. With their homes leveled, people scramble for shelter. Many are sickened by disease, dehydration and hunger. Union members nationwide, statewide and locally are responding to the catastrophe without hesitation.
Emergency room nurse Bita Mehrjou and visiting nurse Alicia Schwartz, both members of the United Federation of Teachers/Federation of Nurses, spent weeks in Puerto Rico as part of a national team of volunteer health care professionals from the American Federation of Teachers.
Mehrjou told a CNN reporter that her team found a woman trapped on an upper floor of an assisted living facility who had not eaten in three days. They cared for an older woman with a gangrenous foot who was bedridden and dehydrated. Her family could not get her an ambulance.
The nurses also met with a colon cancer patient who had been unable to receive chemotherapy for three weeks, Mehrjou said. Another family lacked access to the medication needed to control the violent behavior of a relative, so they were keeping him locked in a room.
"People are scared," Schwartz said. "They're not sure what to do."
Margarita Montes, the 95-year-old grandmother of NYSUT legislative staff member Alithia Rodriguez-Rolon, lives in Luquillo on Puerto Rico's northeast coast. No one heard from her for three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit. When Montes finally gained access to a phone, she told her family she was okay and her concrete house was spared, but one of her two generators was stolen and her vegetable garden was wiped out.
"She lives off the land; bananas, fruits and vegetables," said Rodriguez-Rolon. "People who used to live off the land can't anymore."
Without electricity and water, school must wait for most Puerto Rican children. Many school buildings are in shambles. Though some reopened weeks after the storm, they serve only as connection points for communities.
The Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, led by Aida Diaz, has been working tirelessly since the hurricane to help members and students recover and to help schools reopen.
"We have students who can't sleep," Díaz told Education Week. "We have students who see rain and start crying. We have to work with all of them." Many of her members lost their homes, she said.
The AFT, which welcomed the union representing the island's 40,000 teachers into its ranks this summer, has an intense disaster relief campaign underway for Puerto Rico, sending supplies and volunteers to help. AFT President Randi Weingarten traveled there in October. NYSUT, through the generosity of its members, local unions and staff, has sent $50,000 in direct relief to the island.
Meanwhile, New York education officials expect some 200,000 children from the island will arrive to attend school here.
Though the city has not seen enrollments increase significantly yet, some students from Puerto Rico are already in classes at the School of Science and Applied Learning, a pre-K–5 school in the Bronx, and in other New York City schools where UFT educators are helping them adjust.
Both the city and state education departments issued guidance to schools highlighting programs and protections for students displaced by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Resources include the McKinney-Vento Act for students in temporary housing; extensions for providing proof of immunization records and health requirements; registration exceptions for unaccompanied youth; free meals and guidance for English language learners. The state's Board of Regents also took action to allow displaced teachers to obtain temporary nonrenewable teaching certification to teach here.
"We have not had an influx of Puerto Rican students yet, but our current students report that their families in Puerto Rico are reeling," said Patrice Delehanty, English as a New Language teacher and member of Shenendehowa TA in Saratoga County. " We are in the midst of planning fundraisers in order to send money and supplies there."
The State University of New York, meanwhile, revised residency guidelines at its campuses for in-state tuition rates to include undergrad and graduate students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for this academic year.
Members of United University Professions, NYSUT's affiliate at SUNY, are part of the crew from the SUNY Maritime College aboard Empire State VI. The 565-foot ship was dispatched to San Juan to provide housing, power, food and water to 650 first responders and relief workers. It was first activated for a 30-day mission to Texas to help Hurricane Harvey victims, but was sent to Florida instead to help with the pressing needs from Hurricane Irma. Ten days later, it left for Puerto Rico.
UUPers Dominic Valvo, Edward Madigan, Matt Mahanna, Ron Sigemann and James Carlucci are the mates and engineers dealing with power lines, tides, meteorology and oceanography on the ship, said SUNY Maritime chapter president Barbara Warkentine.
"It's a hardship to leave on a moment's notice,"she said of the UUP responders. "But when they call us, we muster." Warkentine said the campus takes great pride in the ship and its ability to provide vital help. On this trip, Empire State VI carried more than $30,000 worth of water and supplies donated by New Yorkers through Empire State Relief and Recovery Efforts. All were distributed.
Your help is needed
Members of the Mohonasen TA, led by Maria Pacheco, holding sign, below, rallied on short notice and packed food, diapers, wipes, batteries and flashlights to fill some of the 27 suitcases bound for Puerto Rico. The TA is now collecting money for solar chargers.
The effort is just one of many. "This is what unions do. We stand together and work collectively for the good of our members and the good of our communities," said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. "New York educators are giving generously and saying to their colleagues in Puerto Rico, ‘We are with you.'"
NYSUT has so far sent $50,000 in disaster relief to the island. A statewide donation drive for supplies for Puerto RIco is planned for early November.
You can do your part. Donate online at www.nysut.org/disasterrelief. Or, make your check payable to NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund and mail to:
NYSUT Headquarters, Attn: Disaster Relief, 800 Troy- Schenectady Road, Latham, NY 12110.