ILWU disaster relief team provides solidarity and assistance to communities in Puerto Rico

Power to the people: ILWU mechanic Arch Chaney helped get the power
generator at the Mayaguez Zoo in Puerto Rico running. They then discovered the
control panel would need to be replaced. After returning to the mainland, the ILWU team worked to get a replacement part donated and shipped to the zoo. Photo by Benson MacForrest.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, it left millions of Americans on the island without access to clean water, food and electricity. After hearing news reports of the devastation and humanitarian crisis – and slow response by FEMA to provide emergency relief – ILWU Local 23 members were moved to action.

The ILWU is no stranger to disaster relief. In the past few months alone, ILWU members in the Pacific Northwest and California have donated money, supplies, and time to assist those impacted by wildfires in Oregon and California. The ILWU has always been quick to send financial assistance from the union’s disaster relief fund when tsunamis, earthquakes and other disasters harm working families and communities around the globe.

Local 23 President Dean McGrath reached out to Tote Marine to see if they would be willing help support a relief mission to aid Puerto Rican
families. McGrath was familiar with Tote’s regular service from Tacoma to Alaska – and he also knew they operated a run from Jacksonville to Puerto
Rico, and were familiar with servicing remote communities.

Tote immediately agreed to help. They covered most of the transportation costs for the relief crew and equipment.
Ports America donated four generators and four chainsaws; WCTS donated six cordless hand drills. Local 23 voted to provide financial assistance for the delegation. A total of 9 ILWU members went on the relief mission: six members from Local 23, two members from Local 21 and one member from Local 19. Each member of the delegation came prepared to camp for
the eight days during their relief effort and brought their own food, water and other supplies. The delegation members included Local 23 President Dean
McGrath, Local 23 members Arturo Guajardo, Arch Chaney, Benson Macforrest, Steven Conde and Derek Phill;
Local 22 members Craig Brix and Scott Hopson; and Local 19 member Jennifer Haynes-Borden.

“This was the most amazing experiences I’ve ever been a part of and also the most difficult thing logistically I’ve ever tried,” said McGrath. “Something like this helps build solidarity in the local. You get to work closely, side by side with your union brothers and sisters in a way that you don’t on the job. On the docks, we are all stuck in a piece of equipment. Here we are working
together, shoulder to shoulder, like the old days.”

McGrath said he tried reaching out to labor unions and aid groups that ILWU members could join to coordinate their efforts. He eventually found a group of military veterans called the Warfighter Disaster Response Team (WFDRT), who were already in Puerto Rico providing aid on the ground and welcomed the ILWU team to join them. The Afghanistan and Iraq combat veterans formed WFDRT after Hurricane Harvey struck Houston. Their mission was to utilize skills and training they had acquired while on active duty to help those affected by natural disasters or other emergencies. The ILWU relief delegation set up base at the Port of Mayaguez on the Northwest side of Puerto Rico. They worked with WFDRT to distribute
food and water to isolated villages and communities. They distributed as many as 8,000 meals a day.

“As longshoremen, we move cargo. We don’t own the cargo, nor do we own the businesses that ship the cargo,” said Local 23 member Benson MacForrest. “We are labor, and one thing Labor does well is take care of their people. That’s what we came to Puerto Rico to do.”

Another project that ILWU members took on was at the Dr. Juan A Rivera Mayaguez Zoo, where they cleared debris and fallen trees at the zoo. The three ILWU diesel mechanics that were a part of the delegation helped get the zoo’s Caterpillar generator running to restore power there. They discovered that after 15 years without being used, the generator’s control panel was not operating ILWU disaster relief team provides solidarity and assistance to communities in Puerto Rico properly and had to be replaced. After the ILWU team left Puerto Rico, they worked with Caterpillar to secure a replacement. Caterpillar donated the part and shipped it for free to Puerto Rico. The generator is now up and running.

ILWU ambassador: Arturo Guajardo’s Spanish speaking skills were invaluable
to the ILWU team. He helped to make contact with residents daily and explain what
they were doing. This helped make sure assistance got where it was needed. Photo by Benson MacForrest

“The Zoológico Dr. Juan A. Rivero recognizes the ILWU team for their selfless sacrifice in the recovery efforts,” said zoo officials in a recent statement. “This team was instrumental in the removal of trees that had fallen in difficult places and in difficult conditions that were extremely dangerous to remove. All of which the team did successfully, with no injuries because of a professional standard is rarely seen in the workforce.

“After the team had left the island, Arch Chaney and Dean McGrath, along with the team and their supporters continued to aid us in our mission. The team was instrumental in getting the Zoo a badly needed part for our Caterpillar Generator. This incredible fortitude by the union members reflects great credit upon themselves, their community, the International
Longshore Warehouse Union, our great nation and humanity in general.

“The situation of the zoo is the reflection of the island where communities had to empower themselves to be able to provide basic needs. There are volunteer heroes like you who do not shy away leave a legacy and make this a better world.”

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