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Op-Ed | Remembering Sandy: It will take solidarity (and resources) to tackle climate change in New York

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Ten years ago, New Yorkers witnessed a preview of the extreme weather events caused by climate change. Millions lost electricity, billions of dollars in damages were inflicted, hundreds died, and our city changed forever. The members of our unions, 1199SEIU and 32BJ SEIU, were on the front lines.

Thousands of 32BJ SEIU Lower Manhattan janitors lost work and had a front-row seat when Superstorm Sandy hit. When hospitals and nursing homes lost power, were flooded and suffered infrastructure damage, 1199 healthcare workers continued to work to check on patients and relocate patients to safer facilities. Health care workers in receiving facilities worked around the clock to accommodate the patient surge. 

Homecare workers climbed 20-story buildings to check on patients, taking care of patients while their own families faced displacement. Overnight, our workplaces – hospitals and some 100 New York City public schools – became shelters for people displaced by Sandy. Healthcare workers, and public school cleaners, security officers and maintenance people adapted to meet the moment, becoming climate shelter workers overnight. Some lived and worked at the shelters.

We opted to do something. 1199 deployed vans and RVs to provide disaster relief at impacted hospitals, nursing homes and home care agencies. 1199 set up We Care Centers in facilities for members to donate clothes, shoes, uniforms, food stuff and even furniture. Nurses provided health screening in the Rockaways where the community was suffering from the “Rockaway cough.” 

Accustomed to solidarity, a group of over 100 32BJ SEIU resident building managers and supers quickly organized to assist Rockaway and Long Beach residents whose homes had been irreparably damaged by the storm, volunteering to demolish over 100 homes, saving residents tens of thousands of dollars. 

Residential workers – door-people, porters, supers, and handy-persons – saw their responsibilities morph and expand. People stuck at home with no power and potable water came to rely on 32BJ members for water deliveries and even pet-care

Whether it’s a superstorm or a global pandemic, our members are on the frontlines and ready to adapt to the needs of the day. We were bombarded here by Sandy, and our families are being bombarded in Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines, by storms named Maria, Irma, Fiona, Ian, Noru and Haiyan. Our members in Florida are still recovering from Hurricane Ian.

This November, New Yorkers across the state can take proactive action to address this crisis by voting YES on Proposition 1, the “Clean water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act of 2022.”

Prop 1 will put nearly 100,000 people to work by allowing the State of New York to make necessary investments in our water, air and economy. It will update outdated infrastructure including sewers, drinking water pipes and stormwater systems to make us resilient when storms strike. It will prepare for heat waves, invest in energy efficiency, and reduce the pollution that causes climate change and dirties our
air. 

Importantly, 35-40 percent of total funding from Proposition 1 will advance Climate Justice and go to communities most impacted by pollution. These are the same communities that suffered the highest COVID-19 death rates due to pre-existing respiratory illness caused in part by pollution.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to safeguard clean drinking water, update infrastructure, address healthcare disparities, protect essential ecosystems that keep us safe, and improve quality of life in every county in the state. 

When you vote on November 8, make sure to flip over your ballot and vote YES for Prop 1 on November 8!

George Gresham is President of 1199SEIU, the nation’s largest healthcare union representing 450,000 members in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, and the District of Columbia. Kyle Bragg is President of 32BJ SEIU, the nation’s largest property services union representing 175,000 members in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

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