When Susette Lansing woke up last June 20, she discovered 4 feet of water in the apartment she rents in Duluth. Destructive flash floods were ripping through the city, most of the region from Two Harbors to Moose Lake, and west into the Iron Range. It was the result of record rainfall that dumped as much as 10 inches in slightly more than a day.
Lansing, a member of Local 2512 at Chris Jensen nursing home, looked at the furniture, clothing, computers, stereo equipment, books, CDs, and other belongings that were under water. “There was no way of salvaging very much,” she says. “There was nothing I could do about it.”
So Lansing did what many AFSCME members did. “I just got up, shut the door, and went to work.”
Personal situations take a back seat
Whether they worked for schools, prisons, street or highway departments, nursing homes, or city or county agencies, hundreds of AFSCME members fought the floods, repaired the damage, and kept communities functioning as normally as possible. They put the public ahead of their personal situation – even when they knew standing sewage, water-logged appliances, and damaged possessions were festering in their own homes.
Some, like Steve Trenhaile, of Local 3887, literally worked around the clock. Trenhaile is a correctional officer at the state prison in Moose Lake. But he also is chief of the fire district that includes the city.
When the lake rose to 9 feet above flood stage, it made the city inaccessible by land. Trenhaile, as fire chief, wound up in charge of flood operations.He got off his prison shift at 2 o’clock Thursday afternoon, went straight to the fire station – still in his Department of Corrections uniform – and essentially didn’t get home for seven days. “We ran almost straight for 44 hours before we got relief,” he says.
He stopped at home Saturday morning and found 5 feet of water in his basement. “I closed the door, turned around, and walked away” he says. “I figured I’ll get to it when I get to it.”
Crews split time
Half of Trenhaile’s fire crew – including his assistant chief, Local 3887’s Jim Michalski – are prison employees or members from Local 1092 in the nearby state sex-offender program. Trenhaile got the state to give those members three days of disaster leave so they could handle evacuations, pumping, and other flood-related emergencies in town.
But even after these officers went back to work, he says, when their shifts were over, they came back out to the fire station.
At the same time, other correctional officers supervised work crews from the prison’s minimum-security Challenge Incarceration Program. The CIP offenders filled nearly 100,000 sandbags in town, Trenhaile says, “and picked up every one of them afterwards.”
Long days, and more long days
Meanwhile, correctional officers like Eric Jacobson – whose own home suffered $35,000 in damage – put in 16-hour shifts at the prison until the floods receded. These COs had to cover for officers on disaster leave and for other officers who simply couldn’t get to work because of flooded or washed-out roads. “You ended up on some long shifts, then managed the crisis at home as well as you could,” Jacobson said.
At the same time, Minnesota Department of Transportation crews were trying to fix what the floods did to major routes like Interstate 35, US 2, and Highways 65 and 73. Their counterparts in county and city highway departments did the same with local streets and roads.
“Everybody worked straight through for a couple of weeks,” says Jason Loons, of MnDOT Local 695. “From when it started, I think our first day off was the Fourth of July.” It meant more than working day after day, says Loons, who suffered more than $5,000 damage to his home on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Cloquet.
“With all the detours, what usually took half-an-hour would take an hour and a half.” He would leave for work at 4 a.m., he says, but usually not get home until after 11 at night.
“We had to keep ourselves from getting burned out,” Trenhaile says. “But before that, it was: Do what you have to do.”