December 4, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco
Beleaguered victims of Hurricane Sandy living in storm-tossed Far Rockaway, Queens got help clearing out water damaged homes this weekend when the the Retail, Wholesalers and Department Store Union (RWDSU) dropped a busload of eager volunteers on their doorstep.
"Never underestimate people's hearts," said Far Rockaway resident Joe Graham after welcoming a cadre of new friends. "Yesterday, these people didn't have a clue about who we were. Now, they're in my home fixing it up out of the goodness of their hearts. It's makes you realize that there are good people in the world. I'm very grateful."
The RWDSU provided the bus as well as some health and safety support in special consultation with the Hunter College School of Occupational Safety.
In addition to airborne mold spores, volunteers outfitted with respirators, jumpsuits and goggles, also benefitted from a crash course in how to properly remove contaminated drywall, as well as how to operate inside potentially unstable interiors.
"The water has receded but there is mold that is growing, so I think that is the greatest concern right now," RWDSU Director of Health & Safety Steve Mooser said.
Potential health concerns aside, volunteers were eager to just get in and help people like Graham and his family.
"I was living in the Bronx when the hurricane happened and we were completely unaffected – never even lost power or cable," said RWDSU organizer Christina Baal. "We basically sat at home and saw all the devastation, but then realized that there was a vehicle through the union to be able to help folks."
Members of Occupy Sandy – the grassroots disaster relief group borne out of last year's Occupy Wall Street campaign – were already on the ground and rendering aid in Far Rockaway – so, the RWDSU immediately decided to partner with them.
"We partner with community groups on a lot of other campaigns, like the campaign for a living wage and the car wash worker campaign," Baal said. "This latest effort came together out of those community groups looking to us to see what they could be doing to help. So, we partnered with Occupy Sandy. They've been doing some great on-the-ground-work, and we knew that they would know the needs of this community. So, we just plugged in with them."
After a brief orientation delivered courtesy of Occupy Sandy disaster relief experts, volunteers were split up into small teams and dispatched throughout the neighborhood to families identified as still needing help cleaning up a month after Sandy's rampage.
"This experience has made me believe in humanity again," said Far Rockaway resident Melinda Santiago. "After this is over, I'm going to volunteer and I'm going to pay it forward. So, I think it has enriched our lives in that way. It's a blessing in disguise."
The RWDSU continues to aid its own members as well. A fund set up through its UFCW affiliate is providing devastated families with much needed financial assistance that is not available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
FEMA is made to basically bring you back to baseline," Baal said. "But there are a lot of folks who lost things like automobiles and washing machines. And then there are those people who have had their hours cut back because of the storm. Those workers are really suffering right now financially."
Brendon Griffith, director of Mobilization for the Central Labor Council, was also in Far Rockaway to pitch in.
"A lot of what we have been doing is trying to coordinate resources so that unions and their members know what support is out there through different government agencies, FEMA, the Red Cross and the Small Business Administration, and making sure that everyone's aware of where they need to go to get help," Griffith said. "We're just trying to make other unions aware of the other efforts are going on so that they can all plug into each other."