The call came in Friday night, four days after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc over New Jersey and the east coast. John Pulomena, the Middlesex County administrator, was on the line seeking a place to house vulnerable people with medical conditions from the area who had been displaced by the storm. A hospital stay wasn’t necessary – and they were overcrowded already – but the patients would need more care than a regular shelter could provide.
The Physical Education Center was the perfect location and College President Joann La Perla-Morales didn’t hesitate to approve.
And so began 12 days of disruption and inconvenience, but also a spot-on example of caring and community service. Over the weekend, crews from Facilities went to work. They moved the bleachers, the wrestling mat and other equipment. Two generators – one from the County and one from the College – were installed to provide backup electricity if needed. MCC workers lowered a protective covering over the gym floor, and assisted the Centers for Disease Control with delivery of hundreds of crates of supplies and cots. The Department of Information Technology installed phone lines and provided data access. One classroom was turned into a pharmacy. Washers and dryers normally used for athletic team uniforms were pressed into service to clean clothes and linens for the patients, and the College food service vendor began serving meals. Campus Police handled security, along with backup from the County Sheriff’s Office. Practice for the basketball teams was moved to Edison High School. Classes were relocated to other buildings and a volleyball course suddenly became an outdoor tennis class. Recreation programs were put on hold.
The gym was turned over to the United States Department of Public Health Services, a military, uniformed service consisting of officers assigned to various agencies such Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Center for Disease Control.
During a crisis, they respond.
And respond they did. While there were fewer patients than expected – a total of 115 over the eight days of occupancy, with a high of 74 at one time – the medical issues they faced were more critical than predicted.
Public Health Services personnel worked 12-hour shifts, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. – with a smaller group working the reverse hours. Most would travel to Fort Dix to sleep, but a few spent the nights on cots in the locker rooms. The patients, however, lived in the gym.
They watched TV, played board games with volunteers, and were cared for by Public Health nurses and College volunteers. It was not luxurious living, but it was warm, comfortable and safe.
By the following Wednesday, November 14, their number had dwindled to just two patients; everyone else had been discharged. Many were transported home by members of the Middlesex County clergy.
Just as the operation was winding down, a Nor’easter dumped 3 inches of snow on the campus, complicating efforts to move patients. A power outage in New Brunswick closed the College’s center there for two days.
While the storm was awful and the relief effort was serious, there were a few lighthearted moments during the week. Many of the officers were from out of state – southern accents prevailed. As two women were being discharged, one of the officers wrote out their destination: “Ash Berry Park, NJ.” It took a little head scratching before the correct location was discerned: Asbury Park.
“Sorry,” she said with a laugh, and a drawl. “I’m not from around here.”
Sandy caused significant affliction in Middlesex County, but the College sustained minimal damage. Thirty trees came down (one on East Hall) and the College lost power for several days, but was fortunate compared to other parts of the region. MCC closed for the week, partly because the traffic lights on Woodbridge Avenue were not working.
However, at least four employees had significant – possibly catastrophic – damage to their homes, and a number of students had significant damage as well.
Volunteers Provide Comfort and Care to Sandy Victims
More than 70 volunteers from the College community helped patients staying in the Physical Education Center after being displaced by Hurricane Sandy.
College volunteers included students from Democracy House, the service-learning program; students from the radiography program; students and faculty from the nursing program; as well as other students and alumni. A number of clergy visited the patients and transported them back home as they were discharged.
Volunteers distributed meals and visited with the patients, trying to keep their spirits up. The student nurses also helped with showering and other activities of daily living, personal needs, and taking blood pressure.
Nancy Berger, director of the nursing program, said the week of volunteering provided a chance to help the community as well as for student nurses to be exposed to caring for people during a disaster.
“Our nursing program understands the necessity for community involvement,” she said. “When Hurricane Sandy hit, a number of students had asked about volunteering. This is a great opportunity because it allows them to see that nursing takes place in all environments. More and more, health care is happening in the community – not just hospitals or clinics. This was the chance for our students to see that trend happening and to participate in it. It was also an opportunity to give back to the community.”
Student nurse Raychelle Grooms said her service was fulfilling.
“This was an opportunity to help the community and also to learn more about the nursing field,” she said.
A student from Democracy House was also proud of the work of her organization.
“It was an honor and my pleasure to help out,” said Rebecca Lynn Gonzalez. “I hope they are all ok and getting on with their lives. By working hard and together, we can make a big difference to help the world.”
College President Joann La Perla-Morales thanked all the volunteers for their service.
“I hope you feel a sense of pride in your work,” she said. “You made a real difference in helping New Jersey recover from that terrible storm.”