5 minute readDisaster
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A Volunteer Story – Helping in the Wake of Sandy

Editor’s note: This post is written by Cassie Alexander, a Red Cross volunteer who is also a registered nurse. She recounts her experience during Sandy. The post is cross-posted with her permission. Photos are added from our Flickr set on Sandy response.

Sandy Storm Relief
The beginning of cleanup in East Atlantic Beach, Long Island, NY, a few days after Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Carol Parkhurst/American Red Cross.

Like most of the US I watched in horror when Hurricane Sandy made landfall. I’m not a news junkie by nature, but with the presidential election nearing the news was always on at the gym, so the destruction was hard to miss.

My nursing school alumni board put a notice up that the Red Cross needed registered nurses very badly and by Thursday night I was signed up. I went to an orientation class that night, and then one on Saturday and by the following Wednesday – less than a week later — I was on a plane.

I spent much of the intervening time being freaked out by how fast things were moving, and wondering if I’d made the right choice. My chapter lead was very sure that we’d go, so I raced from Ross to Marshalls trying to get clothing for a real winter and waterproof boots, and a money belt, wildly preparing to be sent somewhere – where, they didn’t know.

No one could tell us what to pack, because no one knew where we were going. It made the situation crazily stressful. I cried some one night, scared about what I’d signed myself up for – and my husband admitted that he’d cried some in the shower, worried about me too. After one and a half days of classes I had no real grasp on what I’d be doing other than “nursing stuff” and helping people. But not knowing where or when or to who made it hard to stay sane.

The only thing that kept me focused on going was the fact that our two class instructors both teared up on different occasions, remembering times they made a difference while they’d been deployed last year, running shelters for wildfire evacuees. I didn’t know for sure what I was getting into, but their honest emotions made me want to be a part of it.

In retrospect, the lack of preparation makes sense. They can’t possibly prepare you for how it’s going to be, so it’s almost better not to try. You get to the shelter, you sink or you swim. You either like working harder than you’ve ever worked before, for people who desperately need help even as they might belligerently hate you for providing it, can tolerate sleeping on cots, deal with freezing temperatures, questionable portapotties, and find endless paperwork meditative…or you don’t. If you can’t swim, then it’s an endless two weeks of torture. If you can, then you find out that your well of compassion for the rest of humanity runs thirty times deeper than you ever thought it did.

They wound up sending me and five new stranger-friends to the Monmouth Park Shelter in New Jersey. The state of New Jersey built a tent city to house all the linemen they would need to bring back power, and they’d donated several tents for the shelterees. We spent our first night in the shelter with the clients, on cots with impossibly huge blowers pushing hot air in, and then I tried (somehow) to sleep in during the day so I could stay up and work at night. We were running health clinics for people displaced by the storm or the subsequent power outages and lack of heat – checking blood sugars, blood pressures, handing out Robitussin for the people who, over the course of changing three shelters already, had developed colds and coughs.

After that we moved into the Monmouth Park Raceway structure itself, which was a step up, with its four real walls and indoor plumbing.

Superstorm Sandy 2012, New JerseyGabrielle Dekle sits with her infant daughter in the Monmouth shelter, New Jersey. Photo by Gwen Eamer, Canadian Red Cross

Many (most?) of the people affected by the storm had other avenues to pursue – friends, family, neighbors. Our shelter was full of the people most affected by the storm, the homeless and helpless, elderly people who had no one left, young families with little local back-up.

Many of them are, due to mental health problems or societal abandonment, needy. So so needy. And who can blame them? Everything they own – and even homeless people own some things – is gone. Gone gone gone. They start to stockpile the free clothes that donors provide them, stacking black trashbags full of them around their cots, looking like hoarders short a few dead cats, but can you blame them? That’s all they’ve got now, all they own.

The first few days and nights were wild. They’d been going without health care for days, getting sicker, blood pressures and blood sugars rising, their untreated chronic conditions and mental health issues raging through their bodies like the second wave of the storm. People start crying when they realize you’re going to help them to get their prescription meds for free – they were waiting so long because they were too scared and proud to ask.

And when we made it through the physical issues, the mental ones remain. I hugged people. I tried to give them attention. Many clients are so needy that they’re like children, because no one’s treated them like someone deserving of human kindness in so very very long. People would come by the nursing station four and five times a night to ‘see if I need anything’, just to have an excuse to talk and be listened to again. I hear so many stories about people who were almost swept away, and many of them have dreams of drowning, waking up in the middle of the night with screams until you tell them, “you’re safe, you’re here, calm down.”

It broke your heart into so many pieces you wonder how you’ll ever put it back together again.

Hurricane Sandy 2012
Red Cross volunteer Sue O’Connell of Hershey, Pennsylvania shares a moment with James Snyder of Lindenhurst, New York. Photo by Jason Colston/American Red Cross

But slowly things got brighter. We were lucky to have it happen while we were there. The logjam of bureaucracy started to break up and people started getting the money they needed to stand on their own feet again. Instead of people coming into the shelter, we had fewer and fewer each day. I got to give my extra clothing that I wouldn’t get the chance to wear again in California to a client, and it was awesome to know that they were going to get to leave soon.

People at the shelter kept asking us where we were from and being a little mystified that we’d all come in from three thousand miles away at the drop of a hat to help them. I don’t have an awesome answer for that, honestly. I’m not a saint, and I don’t always do what needs doing.

It was just watching the TV while Sandy hit I knew that I didn’t want to be the person who sat idly by if there was some way I could help, even if helping was scary. And it wound up being the best thing I’ve ever done with myself.