Whether at home, on the job or upon returning after mandatory evacuation, SIU members in New Orleans endured Hurricane Ida with determination and professionalism.
Many Seafarers continued working during the Category 4 storm, which made landfall in Louisiana on the sixteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Ida struck Aug. 29 and continued inland, bringing catastrophic winds, massive rainfall and tornadoes, plus flooding storm surge along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Even though it subsequently weakened, Ida still pummeled the northeastern U.S. with torrential rain. By late September, more than 100 deaths from the hurricane had been reported. Ida also knocked out much of Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s power grids, leaving more than one million customers without power (including all of New Orleans), some for more than two weeks.
“Everybody in this area was impacted,” said SIU New Orleans Port Agent Chris Westbrook, who followed an evacuation order and left the region for more than a week. “This was a much more intense storm than Katrina but not a widespread flooding event like Katrina. This was more a wind event.”
All things considered, Westbrook was pleasantly surprised to find that the hiring hall in the New Orleans suburb of Harvey sustained fairly minor damage. The hall reopened Sept. 9, shortly after its power was restored. One of the hall’s rooftop air conditioning units blew off, and a number of trees fell nearby.
“It could have been so much worse,” he said. “Once the hall had power and Wi-Fi, we made sure the members and retirees knew, so they could use it as a base of sorts. The internet connectivity alone was helpful for them to get information from FEMA and other relief agencies. We’ve also been able to assist members and retirees with some relief supplies – there’s a staging area near the hall, and we’re working with the local, state and national AFL-CIO, too.”
Westbrook also credited members who stayed on the job at the height of the storm.
“A lot of our tug guys went out and kept everybody safe,” he said. “These guys always step up to the plate. They understand it’s part of their job. They all have homes and families, too, but they ran right into danger. You’re out there in 120-, 140-mph winds on the Mississippi River…. They take pride in doing it.” One such member is tugboat Capt. Vic DiGiorgio, who has been a Seafarer for 37 years.
“We don’t run away from hurricanes and storms,” he said. “We stay right in the heat of it, and afterwards, we help get the port straight. During storms, most of our boats are holding onto ships and moorings.”
DiGiorgio was aboard Crescent Towing’s Margaret F. Cooper during Ida. That boat teamed up with the South Carolina and held the side-by-side, SIU-crewed Altair and Bellatrix in place at the dock for 24 hours.
“We fared pretty well,” he said. “After that, we were pulling barges and boats that had gotten blown away. A lot of them got twisted up in anchorage.”
DiGiorgio stayed on the job for three straight weeks. He returned home to find relatively minor damage to his roof.
“I’m pretty lucky,” he said. “In our neighborhood, we all have tarps on our roofs, but I didn’t get it bad to where my sheetrock fell through. A tree also fell on a bunch of our vehicles at work (in the office parking lot), but I’m not complaining. During Katrina, I lost everything – all I had to my name was my sea bag.”
Another of the vessels held in place by Crescent boats was the Cape Kennedy, where Recertified Bosun Mark Fleming worked during the storm. The Cape Knox was anchored next to it.
“We had to pass out a bunch of extra lines, and that was a good idea, because we broke two,” Fleming recalled. “We just bounced around a bit, and after the storm we had broken lines to pick up. We were up all night and had to run out and tend to the tugboats a few times. The lines had lifted and got draped over [items] on deck, so we had to straighten those. By then, the storm was slacking off.”
Fleming commended the Cape Kennedy’s crew for securing the vessel and added, “You’ve got to have the crew on there. If there was no one tending the ship, I’m sure it would’ve been a much different outcome…. The crew was outstanding, and everybody worked well. We’ve been through so many of these storms, I think we’re getting good at it.”
The Kennedy maintained power (thanks to four massive generators) and temporarily served as a floating hotel for harbor police and other essential workers.
As for his own house, Fleming’s circumstance largely mirrored that of Di- Giorgio (and Westbrook).
“I’ve got to get a new roof, but that’s all,” Fleming said. There are four or five bald spots. I’ve got a tarp on it and some tubs in the attic.”
Pumpman Victor Martinez lives in LaPlace, Louisiana, and remained in his house when the hurricane hit, but he described an unusual circumstance and urged people not to follow his lead. Martinez was too ill to travel with his family, who fled to Houston. Otherwise, he said, he’d have joined them.
“I thank God I’m alive,” Martinez said. “By the time I felt up to leaving, it was too late. I took as many precautions as I could take.”
He noticed the wind increasing around 1 a.m. “and then I felt the house shaking, saw shingles flying, bent my knees and started praying. It felt like the house was going to pop off from the ground. There was so much pressure.” Martinez got a respite 90 minutes later, but only because the eye of the storm was passing over his home. Still, he emerged unharmed, and his house wasn’t ruined (though it did sustain broken windows, roof damage and a wrecked air conditioning unit).
He said his daughter wasn’t as lucky – she lost everything, as did some of his acquaintances. “You don’t realize how powerful these storms are until you’re in them,” he concluded. “My advice is, it’s better to leave. Material things can be replaced. I thank God for everything.”