We all watched as the news reported the devastation from Hurricane Maria when it struck Puerto Rico. Regarded as the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rican history, it made landfall on September 20, 2017 as a high Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 175 mph. The storm destroyed the electrical grid and knocked out power on the entire island along with leaving immense amounts of debris, making the roads virtually unpassable.
CPG’s own James Halminiak was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post from Milan Peele, UAW WCMA Mobile Trainer, who provided a link for those wishing to help in Puerto Rico. James has several unique talents from his years working for UPS including a valid CDLA with air brakes and current DOT medical card. He also listed his motorcycle endorsement and that he was a “shade tree mechanic” and although he did not speak Spanish, he did have Google Translate. The AFL/CIO was heading this volunteer opportunity and they wasted little time in responding and gave him very little notice for leaving, with an email on October 2 telling him the plane leaves tomorrow. It was quite a scramble to get things together and make the arrangements with FCA for approved leave. When asked how FCA responded to this opportunity, he said Bill Heeney, Local 1284 acting President and Steven Bonnett, Manager of Department 5460, offered full support. Corporate would have liked more notice, but were very helpful in making the necessary arrangements to allow leave time.
He arrived on October 4, only two weeks after Maria made landfall. Volunteers were housed in a basketball coliseum, which he lovingly referred to as ‘a two week jail sentence in hell’. Everything ran off generators and air conditioning was non-existent. He could not remember ever being that hot in his entire life and at night, he lay sweating in a cot looking forward to a cold shower to start his day.
The first two days were spent cleaning road debris in the town of Rio Grande. After that, he spent the rest of his time driving a fuel truck to various sites to refuel the heavy machinery used for clean up. Local police provided escort and the locations were very diverse, ranging from refueling the mayor’s generator to driving the fuel truck to remote locations where debris clean up was underway. One of his least favorite experiences was when he had to deliver fuel to a cemetery where a Bobcat was holding up a casket of one who did not survive when it ran out of fuel.
Although they were surrounded by suffering and destruction, the camaraderie among the volunteers and meeting so many people from all over the United States who came together to help their fellow citizens was his favorite part. Operating Engineers Local 15 out of New York quickly adopted James as their mascot and gave him the nickname “Road Runner.” In addition, even though he did not learn any Spanish while he was there, the gratitude of the locals was evident far beyond the language barrier. Another take-away is the Puerto Rican “can-do” attitude with everyone working hard together make the best out of a really bad situation.