Surviving Harvey with the Spirit of Community Service Intact

HOUSTON – Public service workers across south Texas worked tirelessly to keep basic operations going throughout Hurricane Harvey and in its aftermath.

AFSCME workers and retirees in and around Houston and throughout south Texas, from Beaumont to Corpus Christi, were a huge part of that effort. They continued serving their communities even though their homes and neighborhoods were devastated and their families were in need.

AFSCME represents at least 8,500 workers and retirees in south Texas, including municipal employees at HOPE (Houston Organization of Public Employees) AFSCME Local 123, Harris County Hospital employees at AFSCME Local 1550, AFSCME Texas Corrections employees, and members of Houston Retiree Chapter 1550 and Texas Retiree Chapter 12.

Physical and Emotional Toll

At Local 1550, nurses and other hospital employees provided selfless service even though they were worried about their own homes and loved ones.

“This storm has taken a physical and emotional toll as well as mentally draining our members,” said Local 1550 Executive Director Cynthia Cole. “They always go above and beyond as hospital employees, but to deal with what was happening at the hospital and constantly worrying about the health of their own families was a heavy burden to carry.”

Cole said the local has talked to more than 300 members and is reaching out to the others.

“Our immediate concern is making sure our members are safe,” she said. “Some of them have lost everything.”

After Harvey came ashore, AFSCME Texas Corrections members in Angleton, Beaumont and Huntsville evacuated about 4,500 prisoners from three prisons as the Brazos River began to rise. Now that the storm moved away, their commitment to serve remains strong – starting with the people closest to them.

Joshua Mesa, a correctional officer in the Stevenson Unit in Cuero, has been allowing his family and friends who lack power and safe drinking water to stay at his one-bedroom apartment.

“I have folks from Victoria, Texas, who don’t have power right now at their house, so I’ve been letting them stay with me. And we’ve been sending food back and forth to Victoria to some of our friends and family over there,” Mesa said. “I’ve been allowing them to come over and shower.”

HOPE after Harvey

For two weeks, HOPE members have been working around the clock to save the lives and neighborhoods of their fellow Houstonians.

Greg Williams, a senior inspector, made sure that people had safe, running water as he worked 12-hour days, five days straight without a day off.

“That’s just part of the job,” said Williams. “When you fill out that application, you know that you can be used in whatever way the city needs.”

Gwen Alexander, a senior inventory management clerk, worked through the Labor Day weekend to deliver cots to the city’s workers so they could rest.

“Because our city was so impacted, it wasn’t about being exhausted,” said Alexander. “You’ve got to get out there to help. Even if it’s just being at work yourself.”

Noel Pinnock ordinarily helps run My Brother’s Keeper, a program for troubled youth run by the City of Houston. During Harvey, he was stationed at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where more than 10,000 evacuees sought shelter.

He helped coordinate the massive relief effort by local, state and federal agencies and helped Houstonians with everything from filing claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to shepherding them through the process of putting their lives back together.

“You have to treat people like humans,” Kinnock said. “You’ve got to drop what you’re doing, secure your family and get out there to serve others.”

Escaping Harvey’s Wrath

When Harvey hit, Melva White, 72, was ready.

The recording secretary and political action chairperson for Houston Retiree Chapter 1550 was prepared to hunker down with her son and sister. Luckily, she was able to safely ride it out alone. Three days later, when the rain stopped, her neighborhood was fine but White was worried about others in her chapter.

“The ones I was able to contact were OK. They either went out of town or went with their relatives and stayed at some location or stayed at home. The majority had minimal impact in terms of water,” said White, a former registered nurse.

White went to her church to volunteer to collect items for people in shelters.

“We’re continuing to do that now,” she said Thursday. “My heart goes out to those that were impacted. I just keep thinking how blessed I am.”

Members Hurt by Harvey

Not all AFSCME members were that lucky.

Take Charles Sneed. The solid waste truck driver tried to work during Harvey but was sent home to care for his 81-year old mother, who lived with him until their home flooded.

By the time Sneed was able to return, the water was knee-high. For now, Sneed is living in a hotel paid for by FEMA as he figures out what’s next for him and his mom. But his home probably can’t be salvaged.

“The house is totally damaged. It’s not safe to go back in, the odor is so bad. It’s a health hazard,” Sneed said. “It’s hard, but we’re making it.”

(Contributing: Raju Chebium)