The United States territory of Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, leaving millions of people to pick up the pieces in the wake of the storm’s devastation. U.S.-flag vessels (many with SIU crews) promptly began transporting relief supplies to the island, which was in desperate need of clean water, generators and other basic necessities.
The SIU, along with the union’s allies in the maritime, labor and business communities, has continued to support recovery efforts in the New Year. For example, the SIU is a co-sponsor of Operation Agua, an initiative spearheaded by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) that has helped provide clean drinking water to people throughout the territory.
Operation Agua’s other cosponsors are the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR, an affiliate of the AFT), Seafarers- contracted Tote Maritime, AFSCME, Operation Blessing International, and the Hispanic Federation.
“The AMPR is here for our students, our members, our schools and our communities,” said Aida Diaz, AMPR president. “We started our efforts in the schools because we wanted to ensure our students and staff had safe drinking water. This is a continuing plan to help Puerto Rico recover and rebuild and to support public education on our island.”
As of mid-January, the coalition had raised more than $1.6 million dollars in donations, all of which go directly to providing Kohler Clarity water filters to families in need all over the island, as well as larger-capacity filtration systems for schools, union offices and other community centers.
“We delivered Operation Agua water filters, clothes and gifts to students and faculty at Puerto Rico public schools—some still without electricity and only intermittent access to drinking water for the past three months since Hurricane Maria,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “I am in awe of all the educators and students here who are striving to move forward in the face of such daunting circumstances. I am equally inspired by the generosity of people all across our country who have collectively helped us get half way to our goal. We will continue to support Puerto Rico to help make sure that our children are safe, that they receive all the help they need and that this crisis is not invisible, and the federal government should do the same.”
All the filters that have been distributed on the island as a part of Operation Agua were shipped to Puerto Rico free of charge by Tote Maritime. Containers full of filters and other relief supplies continue to arrive weekly on Tote-operated Jones Act vessels.
Separately, Seafarers-contracted Crowley and other vessel operators have also been delivering relief cargoes to the island. As stated by the new chairman of the American Maritime Partnership (AMP), Matt Woodruff, during recent testimony before Congress, “Since Hurricane Maria hit the island, domestic liner carriers including Crowley, TOTE, and Trailer Bridge have delivered over 75,000 containers to the island. These containers include relief cargoes like food, clothing, water, and medicine as well as rebuilding supplies. In addition to containers, roll-on/roll-off, tank, and bulk shipments have delivered fuel, electric poles, utility trucks, tanker trucks, heavy equipment, and other cargoes.”
Woodruff concluded, “Finally, the Puerto Rico carriers are doing more than just delivering cargo – they are supporting the island, including using their own truck distribution networks to deliver goods; coordinating with federal and local government entities and relief organizations to improve final mile delivery; and organizing community events and donations on the island.”
In addition, Kohler produced a short video on the relief efforts, and how to donate to Operation Agua. Links to more information, as well as details on donating or becoming an Operation Agua sponsor, can be found at www. operationagua.com.
Meanwhile, some private individuals are making their own contributions to the recovery of the island. Assisted in their endeavor by Tote, Deb and Robin Roberts recently distributed more than 30,000 pounds of food, bottled water and other necessities to the people of Puerto Rico. They had organized their relief effort in November by asking their local community in Wilton, Maine, to donate supplies in honor of their son, Michael Holland.
Holland was serving aboard the El Faro as the third engineer when tragedy struck in October 2015, claiming his life and those of the other 32 people aboard, including 17 SIU members, amidst a hurricane not unlike 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Holland had spent considerable time in Puerto Rico, as the El Faro was dedicated to the Puerto Rico trade lane. The Roberts felt called to support the people and communities who played such an integral role in their son’s life.
“It was truly a rewarding experience to be able to help the people of Puerto Rico in memory of our son, Michael,” commented Deb and Robin Roberts. “We are so grateful to everyone at Tote for helping us to make the drive a success. Without their efforts and support, we never would’ve been able to make it happen.”
“Partnering with the Roberts to bring goods to the island has been a gift,” said Anthony Chiarello, president and CEO of Tote. “There are still so many families and communities struggling to survive after Hurricane Maria – these goods will be invaluable to people throughout the island.”