We Must Be Our Brother’s Keeper

As I left the Nassau Community College Shelter 33 days after Hurricane Sandy, I considered the three-hour deployment I had just completed. At first three hours seemed a short time. Upon leaving I realized the three hour limit had been demanding but merciful.

I was in deep con­tem­pla­tion, when I saw a petite woman with dark, curly hair loa­ding items into a van. I could not avert my gaze. She seemed so fami­liar. She resem­bled me. I thought, “No, don’t go there.” She returned my gaze intensely. A ques­tion escaped from me, “Do I know you?” In one word she clipped abruptly, “Yes.” I stepped for­ward, search­ing. In this uncanny moment I rea­lized that I could have been this woman or any one of the other peo­ple I had just encoun­tered in the shel­ter. I had been power­less also, impo­tent to make a dif­fer­ence ini­tially, and flooded. It seemed the same for all of us: “disaster” – not expected and defi­nitely not wanted.

Finally, I recognized her. She was the assistant to a shop­keeper in my home­town. Absurdly I asked, “Why are you here?” I have only seen her in the shop, when I ask her for help. She explains that she has spent the last 33 days in the shelter with her sister, having been forced from her home by the surging waves and the subsequent flooding. She was fatigued, without makeup, in work clothes, and seemed resentful. She said, “I have just been given a hotel room in town, and I am going there now. I have not worked in a month.”

With Hurricane Sandy’s arrival I had had my own struggles with “powerlessness”. I also had my clinical work which included some victims of Sandy and my volunteer efforts with nearly 2,000 students in a school district, not my own, seriously affected by the hurricane.

In the weeks that followed my encounter with the shopkeeper’s assistant I often thought of her while driving through my town, where I had witnessed downed trees, some resting on top of roofs, lawns, and sidewalks and others dangerously close to homes. They were gone, leaving some streets oddly naked of their former stately presence. I was relieved that she could move out of the shelter and return to work, though dissatisfied that she could not return to her home.

I start at the end of the time of my deployment, because the beginning was even more sobering. I was deployed by the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) to the Functional Needs Section of the shelter, where only three people remained after 33 days. These residents were people who required custodial care for their special needs. Of the three one had been sent to quarantine, because he had a virus. Contagion at the shelter was to be seriously avoided. The second person was sleeping under his covers, head and all. The third resident lived behind a divider that resembled a hospital room. She did not eat shelter food. Fortunately, her personal aides, who served her when she was not a hurricane victim, visited her at the shelter, as they would have at her apartment if Sandy had not taken it out. I met one of her aides who served as her legs and did her shopping. I got quite a lesson from this shelter resident on how she had adapted her eating to the shelter without budging from her cot. It was inspiring how she, a paraplegic, had managed to set herself up fairly comfortably, like some others I would meet. She had created her own living space and required others to serve her need for functioning legs. On the surface she was upbeat, talkative, and required that I be a sounding board, so long as she needed. When she dismissed me to obtain her privacy, I moved on to the aides who I suspected might need a sounding board as well.

I was not wrong. The course on Psychological First Aid can be found on line. It clearly instructs that first responders and the caregivers following them need to be cared for also. The two aides assigned to the Functional Needs Area had been on duty for 33 days and wanted to talk with me. I learned about their families, trials, tribulations and past month’s duty. They were paid workers not volunteers. They did many more than the three hours for which I was deployed. I would soon find out that any amount of hours working in a shelter could be challenging.

The Red Cross Director of the Mental Health Section of the shelter was a psychologist who traveled from a place off the US mainland to volunteer. I was struck by how many Red Cross Volunteer workers were from distant states. This does not minimize the importance of the several hundred volunteer professionals that serve in the Long Island Medical Reserve Corps. It does underscore the wide area from which people come to help other people in need.

This Director gave me permission to enter the larger shelter area, which included the Families Section. This consisted of the remainder of the gymnasium, which was very large and filled with cots. There was a television, rows of cots, and notable efforts made by some shelter residents to make a home for themselves during their stay.

I observed a woman practically folded over – head down, hands clasped in her lap, seated at the edge of her cot, small suitcase beside her. Crossing the boundary of her limited space felt like it would be an intrusion. I remained outside an imaginary border I had erected and crossed it with my voice, offering my first name and asking for hers. She looked up at me, unfolded, and said her name. Encouraged I asked if I could sit down on a chair that was nearby. She nodded.

I learned she had arrived at the shelter the night before after trying to adapt to the conditions of her friend’s flooded home in which she rented space after her divorce was finalized. Both women moved to the home of a neighbor who was not flooded and not powerless. They all worked to help restore the damaged home, including fighting the ruthless growth mold. Being prone to allergies the mold was especially toxic for her.

She was diag­nosed with aller­gic bron­chitis and forced to aban­don her friend. She moved into an apart­ment with her daugh­ter which was ren­ted by her daughter’s part­ner who was on bad terms with his land­lord. The land­lord refused occu­pancy for a third resi­dent. She reported having to hide during the day and crawl on the floor, so as not to be visible to any one peer­ing through the win­dows into the apart­ment. Unwilling to accept these con­di­tions after trying for a few days, she asked to be taken to the shel­ter. Reluc­tantly her daugh­ter agreed.

Now this woman sat on the cot explain­ing to me that she never ima­gined being in such cir­cum­stan­ces. She was incre­du­lous that she was tell­ing me of her plight. She was will­ing to speak of what had hap­pened in her life. She ela­bo­ra­ted a bit more on the cir­cum­stan­ces of her unan­ti­ci­pa­ted divorce, which was a trauma that pre­ce­ded the trauma of Hur­ri­cane Sandy. She spoke of her hopes to leave the shel­ter as soon as pos­si­ble. I had learned from the Director of the Mental Health Division of the Red Cross that FEMA and the Depart­ment of Social Services were expec­ted by Monday (36 days after Hur­ri­cane Sandy had arrived in NY) to find lodgings for the remaining shelter residents. When I asked if she wanted to facilitate this process with the FEMA and DSS representatives on site in the shelter, she eagerly agreed. Very quickly I found the location of both FEMA and DSS at the shelter and brought her to where she actually began the process of re-location.

I resumed my wandering through the Family Section and the rest of the gym. I met a mother with a whining, frustrated four year old who seemed forlorn in this new home far away from his flooded, lost home. Mother wanted him to take a nap, perhaps to give himself and her a break from the monotony and limited child friendly opportunities. The boy wanted to go downstairs to where a play area had been set up and where he might find other children. He was a member of a family – mother, grandmother, pre-teen daughter, himself – living in a four cot, somewhat barren family space. His grandmother and sister were away, taken by taxi to visit family outside the shelter. The day before they had visited the Children’s Museum not far from the College and the day before that had gone shopping. It became clear that families were adapting the best they could to their new circumstances, some waiting until the next change in their circumstances would be arranged. In the moments of my encounter with this mother, she was waiting. This was in contrast to the previous woman, the newcomer, whose expressed need resulted in her taking action to facilitate re-location.

My next experience showed me how it was possible to distinguish oneself and one’s living space. I was first attracted to a colorful space and then to a colorful woman. Both she and her living circumstances were attractive. She had manicured nails with bright colors and designs. She wore a tank top and tight jeans. She did not spare her face of cosmetics. Her site included a double cot covered by a colorful comforter, a beach umbrella, a VCR player, a shelf housing many videos, and stuffed animals perched around the bedside. As soon as I arrived at her site she was friendly and eager to share information about herself. She shared this two-cot bedstead with a partner who was “out”. She had had surgery just the week before which had been scheduled before Sandy’s arrival. She decided to recuperate at the shelter. She was managing pretty well on the painkiller, which she had just taken. She was a bit off balance but making the best of it. She was expecting to be re-located before long. She seemed to be a person who would benefit from services from DSS. I supported her expressed plans to make a home for herself where DSS would locate her.

When my three hours of deployment were concluding, I was thinking about what I was learning about shelter life. I was able to see that some people can make the most of the new circumstances in which they find themselves. The paraplegic woman and the woman recovering from surgery in the comfort of her two-cot home site showed this to me. The new arrival wanted the circumstances to be very temporary and was willing to do whatever was necessary to make alterations as quickly as possible. Yet others like the four person family could be very dependent on the “system”, perhaps because needs were multiple and might require some coordination of efforts.

One observation was very clear: the shelter is a very important place for people in distress. The Red Cross and the MRC volunteers provide respect for and assistance to those who lives have been seriously upset. In the society in which we live, life is challenging. From my clinical practice I witness the hard work people do to improve the quality of their lives. Upon the arrival of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy life becomes even more challenging for those who are victimized. Wherever a person has arrived in his or her life at the time of crisis, it will take even more effort to adapt. We, who are not directly affected by the disaster or affected but not halted by the disaster, may be able to lend a helpful hand.

The petite woman with the dark curly hair could have been me. Nature does not play favorites. Predicting the future is not a sure thing. When disaster arrives, no matter what side we find ourselves on when help is needed – giver or receiver – I am comforted that there are volunteers – good neighbors, a Red Cross, and a Medical Reserve Corps.

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