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Public Employee Press: PEP Talk

Local 1506 Climbers & Pruners VP is part of hurricane relief team sent to PR

Photos courtesy of Jose Torres
Local 1506 Climbers and Pruners Vice President Joe Torres with his abuela, Nydia Ortiz, near her home in Yauco, PR, after Fiona damaged the island.

Hurricane Fiona ripped through Puerto Rico on Sept. 18, deluging the island with more than 30 inches of water. The storm wiped out roads and highways, and decimated towns and neighborhoods throughout the island.

“I was on a plane to Puerto Rico three days after the hurricane as part of Mayor Adam’s emergency response team,” said Jose Torres, vice president of DC 37 Climbers and Pruners Local 1506. With almost a decade of experience removing tree hazards for the New York City Parks Department, Torres was one of 14 experts the Office of Emergency Management sent to Puerto Rico to assess and mitigate hurricane damage and offer recommendations to rebuild the island’s infrastructure and essential services.

The Category 4 storm left the island’s 3.3 million residents without electricity and clean running water. Fiona cut off access to food, medicine, and other vital emergency services like hospitals. The storm submerged major agricultural crops of sugar cane, coffee, fruit, rice, and corn.

NYC DOB inspector Jason Rolon offers guidance on rebuilding a damaged bridge in Patillas, PR.
Hurricane Fiona killed 31 people and inflicted about $4 billion in damage to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Bermuda, and eastern Canada. President Biden visited Puerto Rico on Oct. 3 and pledged $60 million in aid to repair the U.S. territory’s coastal areas.

New York City’s response team included employees from OEM, NYPD, the Department of Construction and Design, the Department of Buildings, and the Parks Department. The team coordinated with the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other emergency responders.

“The rains had a cumulative effect and did a lot of damage,” Torres said. Torrential downpours in the weeks preceding Fiona’s landfall left the ground overly moist. Trees were no match for Fiona’s 130-mile-per-hour winds. The hurricane uprooted trees that fell across roads, onto rooftops, and tangled in power lines.

“Parks Foresters are like the doctors, and Climbers and Pruners are like the surgeons who operate to remove dangerous trees and keep healthy trees alive,” Torres said. “It was very similar to what I saw after Hurricanes Sandy and Isaiah hit New York City, but Fiona decimated the entire island of Puerto Rico. I believe this time the damage was worse than Hurricane Maria five years ago.

Mayor Adams with the emergency response team.
“I saw buildings with watermarks as high as six or seven feet,” he added. “It was sad to see areas where entire roads and bridges were washed away. The floodwaters swept away everything in their path and carved deep valleys. Fiona was scary and humbling at the same time.”

For two weeks, Torres and others worked intensely from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later, six days a week with one day off. “The days were long and hot. The humidity was intense,” Torres said. “We had no air conditioning. The job was very physically demanding, so it’s essential to stay hydrated.”

Despite the hurricane’s destruction, Torres said, “What was amazing was the people were super hospitable, offering us coffee and water. Even after losing everything, they remained upbeat and generous, helping each other out as neighbors.

Hurricane Fiona was one of the worst storms in 20 years and caused $4 billion in damage to Puerto Rico and other islands.
“I was glad to offer my expertise as part of New York City’s relief mission, especially since I have family on the island,” Torres said. His grandmother, Nydia Ortiz, and cousins live in the southwest town of Yauco, PR.

“The help New York City and FEMA offered to Puerto Rico will speed up the recovery process,” Torres added. “I am especially proud because our team was comprised of mostly Hispanics coming together to assist others.”

New York City is home to the largest population of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. outside of Puerto Rico.