Florida hurricane: Workers lend a hand, Bushes play politics

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is hustling across this state seeking to turn the human misery inflicted by Hurricane Charley into votes for his older brother in the Nov. 2 election. It is a task so crucial to George W. Bush that the governor announced he would skip the Republican convention in New York. The hurricane, packing 174-mile-per-hour winds, killed 26 people and left 141,000 homeless as it cut a swath across the state Aug. 13.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has rushed in, presumably with an open checkbook for well-heeled Gulf Coast enclaves like Captiva Island. But anger boils over when working-class people, sweltering in their wrecked homes without water and electricity, talk about FEMA red tape.

Johnny and Brenda Wilder were removing rubble and downed trees from around their home. He is an air conditioner installer and she works at a dry cleaner’s. They told a harrowing tale of riding out the storm in their modest but well-built house as the rafters shook and the doorjambs groaned. “Yes, I know George Bush was right across the bridge in Punta Gorda telling FEMA he was giving them a blank check to help us out in any way we need,” Brenda said.

“But we haven’t got any help from FEMA. None. The only help we got was from the Red Cross.”

A portable generator was running nearby and they also have a chain saw. But friends lent both to them, she said.

Johnny interjected, “So many people here are devastated. They go to FEMA and wait five hours for help and leave empty-handed. We’ve got a big fat zero from them. Home Depot told us we could get a voucher to get things we need to repair our house but we went to FEMA three times and they said they didn’t know anything about it. I’m just a good ole boy from Kentucky but I know this: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

A few blocks away, Emma Ritchie was picking up a case of bottled water from a Red Cross truck. “The roof’s gone from my home,” she said. “I’m sleeping on the floor and I caught a cold. A roofer says it will cost $9,000 to repair the roof. I went to FEMA and they told me I’d get some help. But I haven’t heard anything from them. I told them I need a grant. I can’t afford $9,000.”

The Red Cross has brought in more than 3,000 volunteers. Kelly Reffett, an AFL-CIO Community Services organizer from Chicago, is serving as an AFL-CIO liaison with the Red Cross in Bradenton. She said scores of union members have poured in to help.

Patsy Smith, a retired Flint, Mich. autoworker, is a member of UAW Local 651. “Disaster is a way of life for working people. Look at Flint. It’s dying,” she said.

“People are not getting the jobs they need. We’re about to lose another plant. There is only one truck plant left. I’m retired and I decided it’s payback time. I want to give something back to people in need.”

Viviana Carloss, a Red Cross volunteer from Sacramento, Calif., said she is responsible for “diverse communities” such as low-income people, people of color, as well as senior citizens and disabled people.

“Yesterday we had a meeting with farm worker organizations. We’re trying to get more services for the migrant farm workers who have not only been displaced but are now unemployed because 80 percent of the citrus crop was destroyed,” she said. “We have entire families living in shelters.”

Larry Gray, a veteran lineman from Jefferson City, Tenn., was one of 76 linemen, all members of Local 760 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in east Tennessee, toiling in the sweltering heat to restore power in Port Charlotte. “Our company is a union company,” he told the World. “Our joint apprenticeship program teaches every worker to do this kind of work. Right now we’re working to restore power to hospitals and other emergency services. Then we’ll shift over to the residential side.”

Florida National Guard units came here soon after returning from Iraq. Some soldiers expressed joy at being assigned to a duty where the people “welcome us rather than shoot at us,” the St. Petersburg Times reported.

James McGill of St. Pete Beach, in an Aug. 21 letter to the Times, commented, “We should all pitch in and do what we can to help the victims of Charley … At the same time we should reflect on what we as a nation have done, or not done, to help millions [in Iraq] who are still trying to recover from Hurricane Shock and Awe.”

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.