Mary Anderson, a life skills specialist at RHD’s Ocean County Residential Intensive Support Team, was nearly flooded out of her house by Hurricane Sandy. In tears she related to co-workers what awaited her at home, when she’d try to bail out her basement and save what she could, with the bay creeping up her driveway. But the first thing she did the day she returned to work was to purchase a space heater for one of her clients who’d regained electricity but didn’t have heat.
“Her neighborhood was in ruins, she’d lost so much that couldn’t be replaced – and she’s thinking about a space heater because it was going to be cold that night,” said Stacy Olsen, RHD Ocean County RIST director. “Her clients were still her first priority.”
RHD’s New Jersey programs were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. But in the face of disaster, RHD staff worked through difficult and sometimes perilous conditions to make sure their clients were cared for and received services with no interruption – even as their own homes and possessions were washed away.
“People really stepped up – and stepped up to a level I didn’t know existed,” Olsen said. “I always knew I had great staff, but they really went above and beyond.
“It was unbelievable. Nobody said: I can’t.”
RHD works to make sure programs have detailed disaster preparedness plans. And the staff in New Jersey was as prepared as possible as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the east coast in late October. When the superstorm hit on Oct. 29, they were ready.
“We had to evacuate some consumers, and we were able to move everybody,” Olsen said. “We were prepared with a week’s worth of food, meds, batteries, everything. We did last-minute rounds to make sure everybody was OK. It was the days following, when we were without power for weeks, when it got really challenging.”
Even as some of the staff lost their homes, everyone reported to work, coming through in emergency shifts. Because the schools were closed, staff brought their children to work – and RIST set up the conference room as a sort of day care center. Working without power, computers or email, staff communicated by cell phone when they could or simply left post-it notes for each other. Staffers who lived far enough away to reach perishable groceries like milk or produce – unavailable on the coast for long stretches after the storm – purchased groceries where they could and drove them in.
When the gas shortage threatened to cripple the staff’s ability to travel around the county to care for their clients, Peer Specialist Zakit Levine (who lost everything in the flood) and Administrative Assistant Tammi Burton took the initiative to meet at the office at 11pm and drive RHD cars to the gas stations because they knew the lines were shorter late at night.
“We created a distribution site for our consumers, staff moved in with each other, we just figured it out as we went,” Olsen said. “We’d just gotten power back a week after the hurricane when we got seven inches of snow and everybody lost power again. We were about down to our last matchstick. I just thought: OK, well, locusts are next, I suppose …”
Still staff made sure that every one of RHD’s clients had a coat and winter clothes, got their medications, were safe at all times, always had power and heat.
“The resilience of our consumers in the face of this was remarkable,” Olsen said. “We had one client who had candles and one who had matches, and they were just going: ‘We’re good.’ Everybody really worked together to get through it.”