10 Year After Katrina, Teamsters Look Back
Following Hurricane Katrina, thousands of uprooted Teamsters living in the Gulf Coast region were left picking up the pieces. Many lost everything—their homes, cars, valuables...lives, in some cases. Yet somehow, amidst the ruins, the people of the Gulf Coast found hope, strength and solidarity.
Bobby Mauffray has come a long way since he last appeared in the pages of Teamster magazine.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” said Mauffray, looking at the image of his daughter Emma on the cover from 2005. “I can’t believe it’s been a decade. The girls were so young.”
Mauffray flips through the magazine and spots a picture of his wife, Marla, holding their oldest daughter, Ryann, on the concrete slab where their home once stood. A decade later, it is a solemn reminder of the family’s strength.
“The entire street was wiped out by the storm surge,” said Mauffray during a recent visit to the family’s former beachfront neighborhood in Long Beach, Miss. He holds up the magazine to make sure he is at the right spot on Markham Drive, now a stretch of empty lots where he and his neighbors’ homes once stood.
Not far down the road, but far enough from the water, the Mauffray’s new home is full of life and lots of toys. It also comes with an extra bedroom.
Not long after moving into the new house, Ryann and Emma learned a new brother would be filling the room. Emma suggested they name him Markham.
Back at the house, 7-year-old Markham brings added life to a new home full of photographs from before and after the storm. The ones that survived Katrina are the most precious to Marla, who lost her and Bobby’s wedding album and “too many family baby photos.”
From the comforts of his living room sofa, Mauffray feels he can finally reflect on the last 10 years with a sense of gratitude for his life now, saying there is no way to express how fortunate he feels to have a “good-paying, union-backed job” at UPS.
“It’s doubtful I could have weathered the storm’s aftermath. Between the insurance and all the expenses to rebuild, I can’t even imagine,” he said.
Hell and High Water
In New Orleans, about two-thirds of Local 270’s 3,000 members were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Teamsters were scattered across the United States, some with relatives, others in motels or temporary shelters. Located just above the French Quarter, Local 270’s offices were consumed by the flooding of New Orleans’ breached levees.
After visiting with displaced members in Mississippi and Louisiana, General President Jim Hoffa and General Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall (who, at the time, was Director of the Package Division) made it their mission to get displaced members back to work.
“Our priority from the very beginning was getting members back on their feet and back to work. The most important part in rebuilding a community after a disaster like Katrina is helping people lift themselves up, regain their identity, their respect.” Hoffa said.
As locals and Joint Councils dispatched the union’s own tractor-trailer trucks full of supplies and medical aid, Hoffa and Hall worked to ensure displaced members could return to work.
“Bobby Mauffray’s oldest girl pulled on Jim Hoffa’s pant leg and pointed to one of the corners of the slab where their home used to be and said, ‘My room used to be right there. It was a really great room.’ Jim turned to me and said ‘We’ve got to go, I have to raise these people some money,’” said W.C. Smith, President of Local 891 and Secretary-Treasurer of Joint Council 87, both in Jackson, Miss. “He rolled up sleeves and got to work, somewhere around $2-3 million raised in total.”
“I wanted to do something for our members and getting them the right to transfer to other locations so that they could continue to earn a paycheck was something I felt was so important. It helped financially and it helped people keep their dignity,” Hall said.
Drivers at Local 270’s two largest employers, UPS and ABF, agreed to the Teamsters’ request and displaced members returned to work immediately.
“The day after I called the ABF terminal in Baton Rouge I was back to work,” said Matthew Shropshire, a driver at ABF for more than 30 years. “It was a blessing.”
In the months following the hurricane, Tim McCall, Director of Organizing for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED), was a very busy man. More than 500 BMWED members and their families were affected by the storm and McCall was given the daunting task of coordinating aid for them.
An initial ground team comprised of BMWED officers and staff, members and retirees, was promptly assembled and dispatched to the region. Their objectives were to locate every member, assist them in communicating with loved ones and employers, assure that each one had found adequate temporary shelter, quickly distribute BMWED emergency aid to qualifying members, and help those in need with their applications for Teamsters Disaster Relief Fund, American Red Cross and FEMA funds.
“The resilience and solidarity of the BMWED family following Hurricane Katrina is a testament to our strength as a union. It’s still hard to believe the devastation many of our members endured. Their ability to rebound and rebuild has been incredible,” said Freddie Simpson, BMWED President and International Vice President.
We Are Grateful
Mauffray’s UPS coworker Terry Bang also suffered the loss of his Mississippi home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
A steward at the time, Bang was more concerned about members like Mauffray in Long Beach. A child of Hurricane Camille, Bang and his wife, Michele, had bought their home away from the water to stay safe from the surge waters in the event of a hurricane. A spawn tornado, however, he had not expected.
“You can outrun the water but you can’t outrun the wind,” Bang said. “The entire house was shaking and windows were exploding. Then the bricks started getting sucked up and we became hysterical.”
The Bangs squeezed into the small, windowless bathroom as the funnel made its way through the house.
“My son and daughter were home from college at the time, so there were four grown adults in there, as well as a hamster we were babysitting for our young nephew that I was not about to let die on my watch,” said Michele, laughing. “Terry and the kids were sitting on the garbage bags while I sat on the commode with a hamster in my lap.”
“It was a lot of stress,” said Bang of the years that followed. “We were in a FEMA camper for 18 months and we’ve had to redo the inside of the house twice now because of bad Chinese drywall. And then there’s the high insurance.
“My union is one of the few things that has helped,” said Bang, crediting the Teamsters for allowing him to live the American dream, noting he wouldn’t have been able to own a home in the first place if not for the union’s strong representation of UPS workers.
“The Teamsters’ commitment to members knows no bounds. I knew they’d come here after Katrina hit,” said Bang of the union’s relief efforts. “But to see what they did was above and beyond anything I could have ever expected. What they have done for the people of this community is incredible.”
Teamsters Helping Teamsters
In response to the devastation, Teamsters from across the country showed their support, volunteering their time and sending money to members in need.
As labor’s liaison to the American Red Cross, Teamster Roy Gillespie played a pivotal role in the relief efforts. Tasked with logistics for all incoming aid and supplies, Gillespie witnessed Teamster solidarity every day.
“The role of the labor movement during Katrina cannot be overstated,” Gillespie said of the work done by unions in the aftermath.
For Gillespie, there was no day more telling of the union’s role during Katrina than the day Hoffa visited members in the affected states immediately after the storm.
“It was almost impossible to get into the city at that point in time, but there was our General President rallying members and handing out $500 debit cards from our Disaster Relief Fund,” Gillespie said. “It was a beautiful thing.”
Gillespie said the work done by International Representative Bill Moore and W.C. Smith were most critical to the Teamsters relief efforts, noting that Smith “knew just about everybody down there.”
“Whatever we needed, W.C. made it happen and Bill Moore was constantly on the ground, going neighborhood to neighborhood in his own truck to deliver to those in need,” Gillespie said.
“The devastation was unbelievable, block after block of ruins, whole condo parks wiped out,” Moore said. “I thought I was tough and I thought the Teamsters with me were tough-skinned. But meeting these members and their families who were left with nothing choked us all up.”
“There was an incredible show of solidarity from Teamsters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” said Antonio Christian, head of the Teamsters Disaster Relief Fund. “Truckloads of needed supplies traveled from all over the country to assist our brothers and sisters in need.”
“By the time we left, it felt like everyone knew the Teamster name,” Gillespie said. “The Teamsters are very popular in New Orleans now.”
The Teamster Family
When Dina Benoit realized the storm was coming, her priority was family members—both blood and union.
While most of the state was without power, Benoit had been prepared, purchasing several generators and extension cords to share power with her neighbors.
“President Smith was working nonstop after the hurricane hit to help members who’d been hit,” Benoit said. “I did everything I could to help him in the recovery.”
Benoit stayed in constant contact with Local 891 to help with communications and aid to members.
“We are lucky to have such caring members in our local,” Smith said. “But it’s not surprising. Being involved and helping people in need is what being a Teamster has always been about.”
Due to her knowledge on the ground, Benoit was able to assist Smith with contingency plans.
“I would do anything for my family. And that includes my Teamster family,” the 22-year Teamster said of her efforts following Hurricane Katrina.
In the months and years that followed, Benoit continued to play an active role, helping with fundraisers and attending conventions.
As she reflects on the past decade, she is upbeat as usual. “I used to say that we are not where we want to be, but we are not where we used to be. Today I think it’s safe to say, we’re all where we want to be.”
Brothers in Arms
When Local 270 member Alex Kalo learned that the Teamsters had arranged for UPS to employ displaced members across the country, he felt like a weight had been lifted.
“At first it wasn’t that bad,” Kalo said of the beginning of the hurricane. “We thought we were going to be okay. We had dodged a bullet. But then the levees broke.”
Thirsty and tired, Kalo spent most of the chaotic week on a neighbor’s roof avoiding the flooding, fearing each gunshot and hoping to be rescued.
When Kalo joined his family in Nashville, Tenn., he had a difficult time being out of work, not to mention all the stress from his experiences in New Orleans.
“It was like this weight constantly hanging over you,” Kalo said. “Being able to work again brought me sanity. It was the only thing that made me feel normal.”
Kalo becomes emotional when speaking of his union brothers and sisters in Nashville, especially his steward.
“I showed up one morning and everyone was outside waiting for me. I said, ‘What’s everybody doing here?’ and that’s when I saw the car. My steward had asked everyone to throw in money to buy me a car. I couldn’t believe it. Thinking about it still brings me to tears,” Kalo said.
Inspired by his former steward’s leadership, Kalo returned to New Orleans and became a steward himself. As a Local 270 steward at UPS, he now helps members in New Orleans when they need their spirits lifted.
“I’ll go to the end of the world and back for these guys,” Kalo said. “Sometimes management asks me why I do all that I do, and I just say ‘Because someone once did it for me.’”
Back to 3,000
For Local 270 President David Negrotto, words cannot express the devastation. It’s simply “indescribable.”
“It looked like the apocalypse. We’ve come a long way,” said Jim Nolan during a recent visit to his former office to discuss Local 270’s response after Hurricane Katrina.
“The first call I got at home once the electricity came back on was Jim Hoffa telling me that people were coming down to help,” Nolan said.
After Nolan retired in 2006, Negrotto took the reigns as President of Local 270 and found himself with an impossible task. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, up to 100,000 people never returned to New Orleans after the evacuation, including 1,500 members of Local 270.
“We still don’t know where everybody went,” Negrotto said. “With so many people displaced and so much devastation, it’s impossible to know. I just hope they made it out.”
As New Orleans began to bounce back, so did Local 270, organizing new members like never before.
“We have been through so much and we have worked so hard to get to this point,” Negrotto said. “Thanks to the hotel, school bus and pipeline construction, we were able to rebuild.”
Today, Local 270 is back to 3,000 members.
Teamsters Bring Christmas to Gulfport
In December 2005, members of Local 63 in Covina, Calif., took a Teamster truck to Gulfport, Miss. filled with presents wrapped and donated by Local 63 members—and brought smiles to the faces of countless children and their Teamster parents.
Members from Locals 891 and 63 worked together to bring Christmas to Gulfport, said Dina Benoit, who put together a list of Teamster children who had been affected. A list specifying each child’s name, age and gender was sent to Local 63 so that members could individualize each gift.
Making his third trip to the Gulf in less than three months, Local 63 member Robert Turner said the scene was as heartwarming as it was heartbreaking, noting the appreciation of children and their families.
The gratitude experienced by Local 891 members devastated by Katrina is still felt to this day.
“It warmed your heart,” said Bang, who helped distribute gifts. “All the bikes and toys they brought down lifted my spirits more than anything else at that time. It was all so thoughtful, from the personalized, hand-wrapped gifts all the way to the member who drove down dressed as Santa.”
“It was a no brainer,” said Local 63 Secretary-Treasurer and International Vice President Randy Cammack of his local’s 3,000-mile holiday delivery. “Our members were going to do whatever we could to make sure these kids did not miss Christmas.”