PROVIDENCE — More than 40 workers were honored for their part in cleaning up state beaches and parks after Superstorm Sandy in an appreciation ceremony in Providence on Friday.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Sen. Jack Reed presented each of the workers, most formerly unemployed and many military veterans, with a certificate of appreciation for their work.
The $1.5 million in funding to hire the 98 temporary workers came from federal national emergency grant money, and was managed through a collaborative effort of the governor’s office, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. Workers were stationed at parks and beaches around the state, with many concentrated in Charlestown and Westerly, where the storm damage was most severe.
The speakers included Amy Grzybowski, code enforcement director and grants administrator for Westerly. Grzybowski said that 5 to 6 feet of sand covered roads near the Misquamicut beach after the storm, and approximately 500 structures were damaged or destroyed. The 20 workers sent to Misquamicut cleared 80 tons of debris in the first few weeks of work in March.
“You folks were nothing short of amazing,” she said. “You did it. We did it.”
Chafee and Reed also expressed gratitude for the workers’ contributions to state recovery. “You made a real difference and I deeply appreciate it,” Reed said.
The workers said they were gratetful for the opportunity after long stretches of unemployment.
John Hassell Jr., of Coventry, worked for four months in Burlingame State Park in Charlestown, where as many as 300 trees were downed by Sandy’s winds, according to Janet Coit, DEM director.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he said. “I like to clean up and help preserve Rhode Island as much as I can.”
Hassell described the seven months he was laid off from a maintenance job at the Residence Inn Mariott in Coventry as frustrating, especially with a wife and two of his five children living at home. At 57, Hassell said finding a job was difficult because many organizations hiring for manual labor prefer younger workers.
“I want to get something before I’m too old,” he said. “I’m a hard worker, and I’ve never been late to work.”
“We’re reliable,” Frank Neri of Warwick chimed in. “They want reliable people and that’s us.”
Hassell added that the work at Burlingame Park gave him some much needed confidence in finding a job, and said he plans on working with the labor department to find another job now that the cleanup efforts have ended.
Harry Butler of West Warwick also said that he felt thankful for the eight months of work at Misquamicut, East Beach and the Charlestown Breachway after almost a year of unemployment. Butler, an Army veteran and the father of two adult children, said that Misquamicut was a “real mess” when the crew first arrived in March. Towering piles of sand needed to be removed by hand. The transformation since then has been significant, and Butler returned for his last day on Friday. As a former yacht technician with Brewer Yacht Yard in Cowesett, Butler said his year of unemployment was difficult, both in terms of income and health benefits, especially because his wife has had cancer.
Now that his work in Westerly and Charlestown has come to a close, Butler said he also plans to work with the labor department and temp agencies to find a full-time job.
Charlie Fogarty, director of the Department of Labor and Training, assured the workers that his agency would continue to offer services and advice. “This is really just the beginning,” he said.