NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) — If the uniformed cadets milling about the local movie theaters and pizza joints didn’t make it obvious enough, a banner hanging from a downtown parking garage makes it crystal clear: New London is an official Coast Guard City.
The pride is on display everywhere in this former whaling town of 27,000 people that, among other things, is home to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and U.S. Coast Guard Station New London, which patrols the Long Island Sound.
Now, the town’s residents are rallying around their own as the partial government shutdown has left the Coast Guard — the only branch of the armed services that is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security rather than the Pentagon — out in the cold.
“The people have really just come together and said, ‘hey, it’s the Coast Guard’s time. They need our help,'” said Troy Castineria as he pushed his shopping cart around a pop-up food pantry filled with donated, free goods. He and his wife Lauren are former active duty members of the Coast Guard who work at the academy. Both have been furloughed.
“A lot of people have lost faith in humanity. But this right here goes to show that we are appreciated and there are people to help when the time comes,” he added, staring with amazement at the makeshift supermarket created by a coalition of local Coast Guard-related advocacy groups.
The free pantry is just one of several efforts big and small by area residents and businesses.
At the popular Slice Pizza Bar, a chalkboard sign proclaims “Proudly serving our USCG” and offers a 15 percent discount to Coast Guard families.
Castineria said the local utility in nearby Norwich has waived late fees for federal employees who are not being paid and can’t cover their bills. Separately, nurses at New London’s Lawrence and Memorial Hospital have been offering gift cards to needy families; a city activist plans to open her home on Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a drop-off location for donations; local restaurants and other businesses are offering discounts, and local banks are providing no-interest loans to supplement lost paychecks; and the city’s police department and the U.S. Navy submarine base in nearby Groton have collected donations.
Waller Walker of nearby Mystic arrived in New London on Thursday afternoon with a friend, driving two vehicles packed with groceries. The pair had reached out to a network of 400 people to raise money and get food donations after hearing about the collection site on the news.
“We want to support the Coast Guard,” she said. “They’re in our neighborhood and they do so much good.”
New London Mayor Michael Passero said the shutdown’s impact has been personal for his city, where the Coast Guard is among the city’s top employers, with a workforce approaching 1,000 people and a campus with more than 1,000 cadets.
It’s also been an opportunity for New London to live up to the city’s 2015 congressional designation as a Coast Guard City, a place where Coast Guard men, women and their families are made to feel welcome.
Besides the New London station and the academy, a top military college where the cadets are required to volunteer in New London’s schools and social service agencies, the city is home to the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center and the International Ice Patrol Operations Center.
The city is also awaiting construction of a Coast Guard museum, which is planned along the downtown waterfront and seen as a way to attract tourists to help revitalize a sleepy downtown that has struggled to keep storefronts filled.
Passero worries about what will happen to his city if this shutdown continues. He said New London is at the beginning of what he sees as an economic revitalization, given stepped-up hiring at Electric Boat and plans for off-shore wind generation development.
“The longer it drags on, the harder these impacts are going to be felt,” he said. “It’s going to start to drain public resources and it’s going to start to take away from our economic base at some point.”
Jessica Bello, whose husband has been in the Coast Guard for eight years, said her family is relying on the free food pantry and her extra shifts working as a bartender and cocktail waitress at nearby Foxwoods Resort Casino to help make ends meet.
“I was sent to the ER three days ago due to sciatica because of the extra hours and stress. I have no choice but to go back to work tomorrow injured or not because my bills don’t care if I’m injured,” the mother of two said.
In their quest to help, people have been sharing tips about restaurants offering free meals for federal employees, stores discounts and job postings, said Crystal Simmons, 35, who administers a Facebook group for New London Coast Guard families.
“It has been amazing to see people jumping into action,” she said. “We’re not sitting on our hands and saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ It’s jumping in, posting to find out who needs something, what can we do, who can we contact? It’s been really great to see people stepping up to fix what the government’s not.”
She said people have been cutting back on shopping and eating out, which she predicts will have a “huge trickle-down effect that people aren’t thinking about.”
Peter Farnan, manager of Mr. G’s restaurant, a popular eatery and bar for the academy’s cadets, enlisted personnel and instructors, estimated that business is down about 10 percent compared to this time last year.
“If this goes on for another two weeks … we’ll definitely be a little bit more anxious and concerned.” said Farnan, who has been offering 10 percent discounts to all Coast Guard employees affected by the shutdown. “We’ll start tightening our belts.”
The irony of the Coast Guard’s predicament wasn’t lost on retired Admiral Thad Allen, who toured the pop-up pantry on Thursday during a visit to the academy. He expressed his frustration at how the shutdown has been impacting people who often rescue others from natural disasters.
“We have people under duress right now that are still expected to do their duty. But it’s not mother nature that’s inflicted the wound. It’s our own government,” he said, adding how the leaders in Washington need to “carry out their constitutional duties to provide for the general welfare and common defense” or else morale and readiness will suffer.
He added: “It’s pretty rough to come in and do your job every day when you’re not sure what’s happening to your family.”