Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A union's unsung heroes: New Orleans Teamsters who stayed behind to help

Matthew Shropshire, a Teamster hero at ABF
Observing the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we continue our look back at the disaster and the heroism of Teamsters who helped those in need. Today's post tells the story of two Teamsters in New Orleans who risked their lives to help those less fortunate in the community. 

Matthew Shropshire, an ABF driver and 30-year member of Local 270 in New Orleans, was ready to leave town when he received a call from one of his church members asking to help evacuate elderly congregants. Without hesitation, Shropshire stayed to assist, boarding up windows and transporting members from their homes to seek refuge elsewhere. He returned home that evening with the intention of leaving the next morning. Little did he know the levees would break:
The next morning I got a call from my daughter telling me the levees broke. I couldn’t believe how much water there was when I looked out the window. My SUV was sitting in the drive way and all I could see was the windshield up. It was that much water. By the time I went downstairs and opened the door, the water had made it to the top step. It was moving that fast.
Stranded in his upstairs bedroom, Shropshire spent days waiting to be saved. After four days with no sign of rescue, he and his neighbors began communicating from their top floor windows to discuss escape plans. Shropshire got to work on a makeshift raft using a door from his closet:
We could see the interstate through our windows and knew if we could make it to the overpass that we’d get picked up by someone. Finally I said, ‘If nobody has come by Wednesday I’m going to swim out. Wednesday came and me and my neighbors made our way through the water using my closet door as a raft. On the way to the overpass, I saw at least three bodies float by…We were picked up and relocated to the airport. When I saw all the body bags on the tarmac, I knew the death toll was going to be high. All we could do was pray that the others still stuck inside the city would be as lucky as us.
Richard Pierre, a Teamster hero at UPS
Like Shropshire, Local 270 member and UPS feeder driver Richard Pierre was helping members of his church the day before the storm, too. A part-time pastor of a church in East New Orleans, he also stayed behind to help those in need: 
I remember there was one woman with six children who needed her windows boarded and a blind elderly lady who needed to be transported to the church. The names of people needing assistance were piling up. I did everything I could to help anyone who needed help.
As a child of Hurricane Betsy, Pierre had an idea of what was to come when he heard the levees had failed. He also knew East New Orleans would be hit the hardest. A wall of water rushed toward Pierre while he was searching the streets for people in need of refuge:
I didn’t see it at first, but I could hear it intensifying. It sounded like a machine gun. Then I saw a huge wave of water coming my way. We started running back to the church. I’ll never forget seeing the lady in her car, flipping over and being washed away by the wave of water coming down the street. I watched out the window for hours as a man clung to a pole. Everything from shrimp to bricks to cars and tree branches were flying past him and hitting him. To this day, I still don’t know how he withstood the force of it all. He was flapping on that pole for seven hours straight. There was just no way for us to get to him.
Tired of watching helplessly, Pierre and another man decided to take action, risking their lives to swim out and rescue the man. Despite sustaining multiple injuries bringing the man to safety, he continued to brave the dangerous waters in the pursuit of helping others in the days before the helicopters arrived to transport him and the others to the Superdome, where he received immediate medical attention.

The resilience, courage and compassion of brave members like Richard and Matthew serve as two examples of how the Teamster spirit triumphs in the face of tragedy. A grateful union thanks them for their service and leadership.