IBEW helps hurricane survivor start anew in Oregon

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

TANGENT — Former New Orleans resident Eric Guzman has a new life — in Oregon — with the help of Tangent, Oregon-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 280.

Guzman, 27, was a fifth-year apprentice electrician with Metairie, Louisiana based-IBEW 130. His uncle is the local’s business agent.

Guzman is one of the lucky ones. He and his wife Lisa had just sold their New Orleans home on Aug. 25 — three days before hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast — and had yet to close the purchase of a new one.

When TV news announced that Katrina had become a Category 5 hurricane, aimed at New Orleans, the pair packed a few belongings into their car and got out of town.

What to do next was the dilemma. Lisa’s parents were in Salem, Oregon, ready to take them in, but her grandfather was staying in New Orleans because her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimers, would be difficult to evacuate from St. Rita’s Nursing Home. Traffic fleeing the hurricane had slowed to a crawl heading West and North. So they headed East toward his parents’ house in Florida, and weathered the storm there for a few days until they were able to make contact with her grandfather again.

Thirty-four people drowned at St. Rita’s, but Lisa’s grandparents survived — her grandmother made it out by helicopter, her grandfather by shrimp boat. After days of worry and frantic searching, they were reunited.

Guzman and his wife lost most of their possessions, which were in storage. With New Orleans under water, they had nothing to stay for, Guzman says, and headed for Salem, Oregon, where Lisa’s father’s health was in rapid decline. He soon died of pancreatic cancer, and the couple decided to stay on with her mother.

His second day in Oregon, Guzman made his way to the Local 280 hall, where he met with Business Manager Dennis Caster. Earlier that day, IBEW International President Ed Hill had issued an appeal to all locals to help IBEW brothers and sisters who were victims of the disaster. Caster checked Guzman’s credentials and got to work finding him a job.

Guzman got a call that night from Caster: “Can you start tomorrow?”

Staff at Local 280 put together a tool bag for Guzman, and the next morning he was at work on the construction of a new Oregon State Police Trooper Training Facility in Aumsville, Oregon.

“They took me in with open arms,” Guzman said.

On the job, members of other union crafts heard about Guzman’s story and took up collections to make a donation. The Guzmans also had vouchers from the Red Cross for groceries. At union meetings, door prize winners gave their winnings to the Guzmans.

“People are so nice up here,” Guzman said.

Lisa Guzman, who was a medical student at the University of New Orleans, is now enrolled at Western Oregon University under an arrangement that allows her to pay in-state tuition rates.

Guzman said thanks to the help from the union, he’s here to stay. Guzman said he doesn’t care for Oregon’s rain, but finds his new home beautiful, and clean. “I’m making real good money. The benefits are great. There’s no reason for me to go home.”

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