October 19, 2017
For Teamsters Local 174 member Ben Narayan, the decision to go down to Puerto Rico and help with hurricane relief was easy.
“I saw on CNN that the Mayor down there was pleading ‘we can’t move the containers, we don’t have truck drivers.’ Well the Teamsters are built on trucking – it’s the backbone of our Union,” said Ben, a 30-year Teamster who has worked at Safeway since 2009. “I said ‘we need to be helping these people by sending truck drivers down.’”
Local 174 Senior Business Agent and Recording Secretary Carl Gasca, on the other hand, was a bit more apprehensive. “I’m a pretty boy,” Carl joked. “I don’t go camping. I don’t share a bathroom.” Still, the prospect of helping people who had lost everything to Hurricane Maria was something that even “pretty boy” Carl Gasca could not resist.
“We’re Teamsters, and the whole point of the Teamsters Union is to help people,” said Teamsters Local 174 Secretary-Treasurer Rick Hicks. “Whether we are helping working people fight for their rights on the job, or helping fellow Americans in Puerto Rico who have lost everything to a natural disaster, the Teamsters don’t just sit back and watch. We get up and we help.” And so arrangements were made for Carl and Ben to travel to Puerto Rico on a relief mission organized by Teamsters Joint Council 16 President George Miranda.
The flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico left from Newark, New Jersey and was donated by United Airlines. The Boeing 777 aircraft was loaded with more than 200 volunteers from various labor organizations: 79 Teamsters, along with the representatives from the IBEW, the Laborers, the Operators, nurses, and others. The aircraft also contained 35,000 pounds of relief supplies for the people on the island.
The mood at Newark airport and on the flight was electric, as everyone was thrilled to be making this trip. They couldn’t wait to get to Puerto Rico and begin the hard work of cleaning up and helping people, no matter what the conditions. Videos of people at the airport and on the flight show them singing, chanting, laughing, and grinning.
“My daughter had just come back from a trip to Uganda, and she had said to me ‘Dad, this is exactly what you’re always trying to teach us – to go out and help those less fortunate whenever we can,’” Ben said. “This was my opportunity to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. I was excited.”
That excitement hardened into a steely resolve as the aircraft arrived in San Juan. The group of volunteers was loaded into buses to travel to the Roberto Clemente Coliseum where they would be staying for the duration of their 7-day or 14-day tours.
“It was like a military operation,” Carl said. “The Coliseum was one of the only places on the island that had power. It was guarded 24/7. The minute we saw that, we started to realize exactly what we were getting into. This wasn’t Club Med, not by a long shot.”
“When we drove into the compound, there were people with AKs guarding the perimeter,” Ben added. “That’s when I realized that hey, guess what, we may actually need to put ourselves in harm’s way down here.”
For Carl and Ben, the hard work they had come to the island to perform started almost immediately. “When everyone else was going to their cots to go to bed for the night, we got called out on our first mission. Night shift, bringing supplies to some of the hardest-hit areas,” Carl said. “We had to have police escorts, because there was no light anywhere at night. 90% of the island still didn’t have electricity. I’ve never seen it so dark. The whole island was under curfew because of it. It felt like martial law.”
Carl and Ben spent that first night delivering food, water, and baby supplies including diapers and formula. When morning came, their work simply continued. “We didn’t need to sleep,” said Ben. “People were suffering. We could sleep once we finished helping them – if we ever finished.”
The next day was spent helping to clear debris, which still litters the island and makes many roads impassable. “We were both in dump trucks hauling debris. It was sink or swim,” Carl said. “I’ve never driven a dump truck before, and I’ve never driven an automatic truck before. I’m a Teamster though – I figured it out.”
The rest of the week was a nonstop blur of helping desperate people in desperate situations. “Many of these houses didn’t have any roofs. They might have had one or two walls still up,” said Carl. “I’ve never seen anyone so incredibly grateful for something as simple as a tarp to keep them dry.”
“We delivered water to people, and one man started to cry. Crying like a baby, because we gave him water. It was a very emotional experience. Life-changing.”
Ben agreed with Carl on the life-changing nature of the trip. “There were kids jumping for joy over a bottle of water,” he said. “Things that we absolutely take for granted, these people are dying over. The worst thing I ever felt was having to turn someone away because we ran out of water. Saying ‘no’ to someone who just needs some water for their family.”
“I don’t think you can go through that without it affecting your life,” Ben continued. “You see what other people are going through and it just changes how you view your own life.”
The two men were also deeply moved by the generosity of the people they met. “These people had lost everything. Everything. That’s not something you or I can even really conceive of,” Carl said. “Their cars, their homes, their belongings, their livelihoods, even their food and water – they had nothing left. And yet still, anything that we gave to them, they wanted to share with us, and every picture I took, they were ready with a smile. If I were them, I can’t imagine I would be smiling.”
For the Teamsters and volunteers from other crafts working on the cleanup effort, the trip was truly eye-opening. “Before we came out here, we would see the devastation on the news and we would think ‘that’s just awful’ … but then we just turn the TV off and go to bed,” Carl said. “You can’t turn it off out here. One night, it was raining so hard that things were starting to flood again, and so we had to go out and rescue people from areas that were flooding. It was nonstop.”
“These people’s lives were in danger every minute of every day, and there was no turning it off,” he concluded.
However, the two 30+ year Teamsters feel that they made a difference during their 7-day tour in Puerto Rico. “Sure, we didn’t fix everything,” said Ben. “But we did the best that we could. We need to keep Puerto Rico in mind for a long time after this. I know I certainly will.”
As the two men return back to their everyday lives, some of the memories of Puerto Rico may fade, but the lessons they learned will last a lifetime. “Everyone laughs when I say this, but I truly am a changed man,” Carl said. “One week in Puerto Rico has changed me forever.”
“I’m so proud of Ben and Carl for everything that they did,” said Local 174 Secretary-Treasurer Rick Hicks. “They represented Local 174 with diligence and pride. But that doesn’t surprise me one bit. Our job as Teamsters isn’t just to bargain contracts and file grievances – at our core, we are humanitarians. It fills me with pride to see our members – and even one of our elected Executive Board members – step up to the plate like this. The Teamsters care about all people – not just our members, but the communities that we live in and the communities that our fellow Americans live in.”
“Helping people is what we do best, and Carl and Ben demonstrated that. They are the type of Teamsters we should all aspire to be,” Hicks concluded.
Founded in 1909, Teamsters Local 174 represents 7,200 working men and women in the Seattle area. “Like” us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TeamstersLocal174.
If you are a Local 174 member interested in volunteering for future trips to Puerto Rico, please contact Local 174 Communications Director Jamie Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org.