The images of the devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria are hard to shake, even weeks after the storm made landfall. Homes destroyed, hospitals without power and people without access to drinking water were common sights — and still are, in many cases.
There are many folks, though, who have given their time, energy and labor to bring a little bit of life as usual back to the island territory. This includes the men and women of the waste industry.
The New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY), for example, sent 31 employees to Puerto Rico to aid in relief efforts. 77 Teamsters from across the country went down at once, too. Waste Dive was able to speak with three department employees and one Teamster about their weeks of working in Puerto Rico, and how their jobs in New York prepared them for the challenges of working in a disaster zone.
'We did what we could do'
The workers from DSNY thought they'd be going down to collect and haul garbage. That idea didn't last long. The wind and rain had washed out roads, downed trees and destroyed bridges. Some towns on the island had started some form of garbage collection, too — so there were better ways for the sanitation workers to spend their time.
"We were kind of entrepreneur-ing it as it went on," Al Molina, a DSNY sanitation worker, said. "From morning to night it was something added on to the list."
Molina, who's in his 25th year working with the department, said the work "just kept evolving." When hauling garbage proved impractical, the mission became assessing roads and the needs of the different towns they were able to travel to. The sanitation workers were also delivering supplies, like food, water and flashlights, to people who needed them.
"Road assessments might not sound like something we do, but we do it every year, for snow routes," said Bobby Goffredo, a supervisor at Fresh Kills Landfill and an 18-year veteran of the department.
DSNY rented jeeps and each morning would stock the vehicles with food, water, toothpaste, flashlights, snacks and other supplies that people in Puerto Rico may have needed. Assessing the roads turned into a humanitarian mission of delivering supplies and surveying towns to see where people may have needed generators, tarps, pumps or other supplies. Two workers would go in each jeep, ensuring that there was always a Spanish-speaker to communicate with the people they were helping.
One day, Frank Caraballo, a 10-year veteran of DSNY said, he and his partner were driving and saw a group of kids playing. Knowing they would be thirsty, they stopped to talk to them.
"So I asked them," Caraballo said. "I said, you know, 'would you guys like some water?' And the little kid looked at me — sorry, I get a little choked up — the kid looked at me, and he was like, 'Really? You want to give us water?' And I was like, 'Why not!' And I whipped out a case of water and gave the kids the case of water. This little kid chugged down this water. That really, it hurt. To know that there's that much need."
'If you don't go with a plan, you're gonna fail'
Sanitation workers in New York get invaluable on-the-job training that's applicable in a lot of situations — including hurricane zones. The same is true for Jessica Yance, a crane operator at Sims Municipal Recycling in New York City and a member of Teamsters Local 210.
A skill she said was most useful in Puerto Rico was being patient, and learning how to work with people. She said she's learned to deal with a lot of different personalities.
"We all got along really great," Yance said. "We all had the same work ethic. It was just about helping people. There was no, 'This is my title, this is what I do.' It was just helping in whatever way we can, that's it."
The Teamster volunteers and the workers from DSNY all said they were up and out by 6 a.m., and not done working until sometimes 8:30 p.m. For the sanitation workers, the early mornings and flexible working schedules weren't out of the ordinary.
"It was just about helping people. There was no, 'This is my title, this is what I do.' It was just helping in whatever way we can, that's it."
Crane Operator, Sims Municipal Recycling
"I mean, we get up early and do our jobs," Caraballo said. "We help people on a daily basis out here in New York. We'll help whoever we have to help. My job is what it is. It's taking care of the city."
Molina said that the structure of DSNY — working with supervisors and planning things out — was helpful, too. The group would have morning roll call and discuss the best plans for tackling the day. Each team took phones for emergencies, walkie-talkies and had a Google Map of Puerto Rico downloaded to their smartphones.
"If you don't go with a plan, you're gonna fail." Molina said. "You have to have a plan. That's what the bosses are there for."
'Willing and able'
Yance, who helped translate between English-speaking doctors and nurses and Spanish-speaking patients, said she already told her team leader that, if any other disaster happens in the future, she'd want to go and help.
"I know all of us Teamsters, we're always willing and able, you know? There's no doubt about that," Yance said.
Goffredo, the supervisor at Fresh Kills, said it was bittersweet coming home — despite barely speaking with his family for three weeks — because he felt like they could have done more work. "I always feel like you could do more," Goffredo said. "But then you have your families at home."
For Molina and Caraballo, going to Puerto Rico was more personal: They have family on the island.
Every morning at roll call, when DSNY supervisors were planning out the day, they'd announce what towns they were planning on sending people to that day. If anyone had family that might be there, that worker was allowed to go. Caraballo said he was able to see some of his family members. "It was great to see them," he said. "They were fine, thank God."
For Molina, the situation with his family was critical — they had been unable to communicate since Hurricane Irma. Once in Puerto Rico, Molina contacted his cousin who lives on the island and was able to relay to his mother that they could meet. They finally rejoined at a nearby convention center, where Molina's mother told him they had no food, water or electricity, but that everyone was OK.
"I luckily had my suitcase packed to the gills," Molina said. "I was able to leave her with everything."
Republic Services, the major hauler on the island, said that some work was starting back up a week after the storm hit. Republic CEO Don Slager also said that the company's landfill assets were in good shape, and that the company expected to benefit from construction and demolition tipping. However, other sectors in the island appear to be in worse shape.
All the volunteers who spoke with Waste Dive said they'd go back to Puerto Rico if they could, in order to continue to help with recovery efforts. Based on current conditions, the island may need those attitudes — less than half of the island has electricity and around 10% still lack drinking water. According to some of the volunteers, things were worse than they had thought.
"I mean, they're in bad shape over there," Caraballo said. "A lot of people don't want to leave what they have, because it's all they do have."
The head of Puerto Rico's emergency management agency resigned early this week, creating more uncertainty about what may happen on the island. While the exact path of repair and recovery may be unknown, one thing is for sure: The men and women of the waste industry have been, and could be, great volunteers for the effort.
"Honestly, I would have stayed longer if they would have allowed us to. It did feel good coming home, of course, I wanted to see my wife, see my family," Caraballo said. "But like I said, I'd go back in a heartbeat."