Portland Water Bureau union workers help New Orleans

By DON LOVING, Special Correspondent

NEW ORLEANS — Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but even by that accounting, the shots you saw on the TV news of Hurricane Katrina were undervalued.

Yes, just like on the television you see huge trees uprooted here … boats on top of houses … houses on top of cars … homes reduced to little more than piles of matchsticks, and more. Those TV images are all true, but they don’t begin to convey the breadth and depth of the destruction. All of the city was blown apart; half of it was flooded. You can walk through neighborhoods and see water marks on homes between 5- and 6- feet high.

For a comparison, imagine Portland, but a flat Portland — no West Hills or otherwise. Portland and New Orleans are of similar size geographically, so it’s a valid analogy. Now imagine the Pearl District maybe two-thirds up and running, plus Broadway with the major hotels through downtown somewhat back to business as usual. Substitute the French Quarter for the Pearl and Canal Street for Broadway and you have New Orleans today. But most of the rest of the town is abandoned. To further the analogy: Laurelhurst? Nobody home. St. Johns? Bye-bye. Eastmoreland? Check back in six months.

Offhand, the city might seem like a good place to get a job. Almost every business that is open has “help wanted” or “hiring” signs in the window. Except there’s no one to hire; no place for a potential employee to live. Most of New Orleans is a ghost town.

This is the scene that 35 members of the Portland Water Bureau stepped into in October. When the call for help went out following Hurricane Katrina, the City of Portland stepped up like no other. Through the direction of City Commissioner Randy Leonard, a former president of the Portland Fire Fighters Local 43 who now oversees the Water Bureau, Portland sent a convoy of equipment and 35 people for 30 days to help the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board (S&WB) get its system back up and running.

Most of the Portland workers in New Orleans are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 189. Other crafts included members of Operating Engineers Local 701 and Electrical Workers Local 48. Before the crew left for the Gulf Coast, on a trip funded by both the city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there were hundreds of details to work out. Among those were contract issues.

“We’re probably violating 110 provisions of the contract between AFSCME and the city,” Leonard joked at a press event when the equipment convoy left town. “Seriously, I can’t think of a better example of union-management cooperation. There were some hurdles, but everyone knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime, and we had to step up.”

Local 189 staff representative James Hester said discussions centered on articles relating to overtime, travel time, seniority and other issues.

“But mostly, we just had to make sure we were on the same page,” said Hester. “The members were anxious to go.”

It was a volunteer-only assignment, of course. The crew is bivouacked in a tent city on the S&WB grounds in the Algiers section of New Orleans west of the Mississippi River. The accommodations are best described as “spartan but comfortable.” The days are long, typically 12-14 hours. Two full water crews go from site-to-site throughout the city fixing water mains, fire hydrants and assorted other problems. Other members inspect water-damaged equipment. Others are in charge of simply keeping everything going.

There are many problems. A big one is supplies. While the convoy took as many supplies as possible, it couldn’t foresee every possibility. And purchasing supplies in New Orleans is a nightmare. There are lines out the door of every occasional Home Depot or Lowe’s that happens to be partially open in the suburbs.

Then there are the pipes.

“They have an all-lead pipe water system, which just sort of blew us away,” said Otha Govan, a longtime Local 189 member and the lead worker on one of the field crews. “We haven’t worked on lead pipes in ages back home; everything we do is copper. It seems to work for them, as they consistently pass EPA mandates. But it’s just so different, and it’s so old. We’ve seen stuff that dates back to the late 1700s under the ground here.”

The Portland crew will return home with hours of stories to tell. An elderly woman did a little dance in her street when one crew turned her water back on for the first time since the storm hit. Another woman searched the city far and wide so she could purchase one egg to make brownies as a thank-you to a crew. And one after another, New Orleanians — the few that are here — are astounded and appreciative that people from “Portland, Awrygone” would venture 2,500 miles to help them out.

But to a person, the Water Bureau workers say they will return home changed. Seeing the scope of the destruction first-hand has had a profound impact on all.

“This has been a life-changing experience,” said Local 189 member Jeff Casey, repeating a phrase used by many. “It sounds like a cliché, but these people here have lost everything. I think back to Oregon and my job, my house, my family and I feel blessed. When I get home, a lot of the ‘little things’ in life aren’t going to bother me as much, because I’ll remember the people down here. ‘Problems’ back home pale in comparison.”

The project has been successful enough that a second crew of 35 will replace this group later this month.

Of course, there are times the workers feel frustrated. “Sometimes you wonder if we’re making a dent” was heard frequently. Yet deep down, they know any progress is good. “Every repair we make adds to the overall pressure in the water system, and it simply has to be done,” said Govan.

Also deep down, the crews know they’re doing the right thing.

“I would have volunteered for free,” says Local 189’s Warren Gaston Jr. “I mean that. I’m glad we’re being paid, and I appreciate how the union and management cooperated to get us down here. But I would have done it for nothing.”

Gaston had one other thought.

“It’s great that we’re exhibiting the union concept of teamwork and helping those in need,” he said. “But ultimately, that can’t be dictated by your union. That has to come from your heart.”

(Editor’s Note: Don Loving is communications director for Oregon Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He was sent to New Orleans by AFSCME to photograph and document the work of the Portland Water Bureau employees.)

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.