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East Lyme, CT -- Julie Wilson of AFSCME Local 1303-229 has lived in East Lyme for more than 20 years and raised her family here. So when Hurricane Sandy blew into town her town with gale force winds and flood waters, leaving 99% of the residents without electricity, Wilson felt a communal sense of pain.
“I care about the citizens of this town,” said Wilson, an administrative assistant for East Lyme’s Emergency Management Department. “All of us who work for the town want to make a difference.”
Forrest Andrews, President of AFSCME Local 1303-436 shared those feelings when Sandy overwhelmed East Lyme, making the shoreline town of 20,000 among Connecticut’s hardest hit communities.
“I grew up a few hundred yards from one of the worst-hit areas. It was the beach I played on as a kid. It was a sad day to see my childhood memories in a state of destruction,” Andrews reflected.
Like Wilson, Andrews had little time for mourning. He works for the town as an emergency dispatcher and also serves as bargaining unit president. “As dispatchers, we’re the first responders. We’ve got to be calm and collected.”
Wilson, Andrews and the rest of East Lyme’s public workforce put aside their own problems –including water-damaged homes, fallen trees and loss of power – to meet the challenge of rebuilding their town.
The public works crew worked with little rest to clear brush, trees and other detritus from beaches and roads. Water and sewer employees made sure the water supply was safe and available. Administrative staff came to work and assisted citizens even though Town Hall and other facilities lacked power two days after the storm.
“We’ve had guys work some really long tough shifts,” said Local 1303-229 Vice President Gregory Rienks, a heavy equipment operator. “As soon as you’re working over 24 hours, that stress level rises. It’s the nature of it. We rise up to it.”
Rienks and Water Department Foreman Vinny McGinty were among the town workers feverishly working along the damaged shoreline sections of town in Sandy’s immediate aftermath.
“The damage was pretty significant. Our challenge was to keep our wells up and running and get water to the people. We were able to keep up with it,” McGinty said.
Working at the Emergency Management center gave Wilson a birds-eye view of the challenges facing East Lyme. Her responsibilities include maintaining the East Lyme Public Safety Facebook page that she developed to keep citizens informed during an event such as Sandy.
Just before the storm, the page had 124 followers. One week later, it had grown to over 1,200. The content on this page was viewed by over 27,000 people over the course of the storm.
“In these situations, social media becomes a lifeline for people without power. Our citizens are relying on us and I wasn’t going to let them down,” Wilson said.
As they did after last year’s violent storms Irene and Alfred, public workers in East Lyme and across the state rose to the occasion under extraordinary circumstances.
“This is the most intense damage I’ve ever seen,” Andrews said. “Everyone has done a wonderful job under stressful circumstances. I’m proud of my co-workers.”
“The employees we represent are the safety net for the town in an emergency,” added Local 1303-229 President Anna Hartung. “Even before Sandy hit, we were working extended hours, protecting and servicing the community.
Wherever they work in town, our members are proud to serve. That’s what public employees do.”