By Allen Siegel, OFS, MA, BCC
For years, New York’s Long Island residents have heard about the future dreaded storm that would devastate the barrier islands and bring devastating floods to the shorelines. On Oct 29, 2012, the day of reckoning came. Pushing 12 to 17 feet of water above normal tide, Hurricane Sandy exceeded this dire prediction.
At 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, as Sandy came ashore in New Jersey, I was arriving at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, NY. As I walked into the hospital, I met a few dozen refugees. They told frightening stories of water rising in their homes from a mere few inches to four feet in less than 15 minutes. Every refugee told of the same experience. With the lights out, their homes flooded, their cars floating alongside boats in the street, home phones and cell phones inoperable, many had come with nothing but the clothes on their back.
After spending time listening to their stories, I took a deep breath knowing that what was happening just a mile south of the hospital was going to impact us significantly. And it did. Soon our lobby and conference center were filled with people. Oxygen-dependent and dialysis-dependent patients arrived by the dozens as did refugees looking for phone access to call insurance or car rental companies. I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the details of devastation and the despair and concern of those arriving at our hospital. As the staff arrived, we quickly discovered that their homes and cars, too, were flooded with up to four feet of water. The disaster victims were the medical staff caregivers for the disaster victims.
As the hospital addressed immediate post-Sandy medical needs, I began to assess the spiritual resources available. I needed help. There were too many victims. The Pastoral Care Program staff includes one full time chaplain, one Catholic priest chaplain, two part time rabbis, and 69 volunteers. As a member of the hospital’s Emergency Management Committee, I established a Disaster Spiritual Care Registry comprising 22 community clergy, who were committed to assisting the hospital with spiritual care during times of disaster.
I began calling pastoral care volunteers to help. With the fiber-optic, Internet and cell phone services no longer functioning, it became apparent that neither the pastoral care volunteers nor community clergy could be reached. I began making myself available throughout the hospital. I moved to a 12-hour daily schedule and was able to meet about 200 patients every day.
Chaplain Fr. Anthony Osuagwu, a Catholic priest, was able to maintain his schedule and administer the sacraments to Catholic patients. Periodically, Catholic eucharistic ministers spontaneously arrived and distributed Communion.
Within 48 hours of the storm, there were more than 400 admitted patients, hundreds more coming through the ER daily, dozens of refugees in our lobby and more than 1,000 staff members directly affected by the storm. During this time, I had to contend with my own feelings of sadness for the victims, survivor guilt and concerns about my own emotional, spiritual and physical energy levels. Though I was also feeling energized and sleeping well, I knew, that I would suffer compassion fatigue if I kept going at the pace I was maintaining.
NACC certified Chaplain Allen Siegel OFS, USPHS chaplain
Kathe Witte, and DMAT WA-1 Chaplain Richard Lopez pose
for a photo. (Photo courtesy of Allen Siegel)
On day 6, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Disaster Medical Assistance Team based in Seattle, WA, (HHS DMAT WA-1) arrived to assist our hospital. DMAT Chaplain Richard Lopez and I met and devised a plan to split the chaplain coverage schedule into two 12-hour shifts. I would serve days and he would serve nights. Both the DMAT and Hospital Incident Command approved. This was very helpful because Chaplain Lopez would meet ER patients and many of our night staff who had not had the opportunity to share their experience and feelings.
As we moved into the second week post-Sandy, a few more pastoral care volunteers arrived, including Chaplain Alycia Gorman, a recent Catholic Health System CPE graduate. For many days, Chaplain Gorman was an invaluable help visiting and providing spiritual support to the ER staff and patients.
On day 10, the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) arrived with a mental health team that included Chaplain Kathy Witte. On Day 11, Chaplain Witte relieved me for four days so I could rest, reflect and care for my personal and family needs. By the end of the third week, the immediate needs had decreased and the DMAT and USPHS chaplain support was de-escalated. I, too, was able to decrease my weekly hours.
At the time of this writing, we are in the sixth week. With over 100,000 homes and 500,000 people affected in our region, everywhere you turn, the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual remnants of Sandy remain.
For many people who are unable to live in their homes or find the necessary resources to rebuild their homes, it will take a long time to heal. It is my observation that communities that have a strong sense of identity and leadership do the best at mobilizing necessary resources and services.
I am thankful for the two years of disaster training I undertook prior to this disaster. The New York State Office of Emergency Management Disaster Mental Health, FEMA, National Disaster Medical System, and other disaster training and preparedness were critical to my role in this disaster setting. I am even more thankful to Chaplains Witte, Lopez and Gorman, Father Anthony and the Pastoral Care Program volunteers who arrived to offer spiritual care and support during the first three weeks. I am most thankful for the spirit of God, which was most evident in all the generosity, compassion and volunteerism I witnessed and continue to witness as people, families and communities come together to rebuild shattered lives. The resilience and hope I witness in so many people invigorate me as has been true for so many others.
Allen Siegel is chaplain at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, NY.