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Two years later: NYU College of Nursing looks back on Superstorm Sandy

New York City faced a truly frightening Halloween during the last days of October 2012.

A ferocious storm was merging with the polar jet stream and an arriving cold front, promising a perfect storm that would be worse than any in the region’s history. On Oct. 29, Superstorm Sandy slammed the city. Winds up to 80 mph sent the sea into a turbulent fury over the coastlines of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Jersey Shore, swallowing entire neighborhoods and filling tunnels and subways with angry water.

As the tides rose, a massive explosion lit the sky above the East River from a critical electrical transformer giving way before the storm surge as Lower Manhattan went dark.

The New York University College of Nursing’s staff, faculty and students have taken a reflective look back on this singular experience two years ago. Re-telling our stories becomes a form of self and collective debriefing that affirms our sense of community and the public trust earned by the nursing profession.

After the Superstorm

Brian Hornby

On Oct. 30, 2012, the morning after Sandy swept through New York City, many in the NYU community awoke feeling a mixture of anxiety and relief. The city was eerily quiet: electricity was still out below 42nd Street, hobbling communication and mobility. Beneath dead traffic signals, solitary cars and bicycles navigated waterlogged streets as portable radios brought scattered news of neighborhoods in ruins.

NYU and its Greenwich Village neighborhood had been spared the worst of Sandy’s devastation. More importantly, several of the university’s academic facilities still had electricity. Thanks to a microgrid with an on-campus electrical plant at its heart, NYU found itself home to some of Lower Manhattan’s only fully functional buildings.

Students were hastily moved into the Kimmel Student Center where they could stay warm, access computers and set up bedding. The situation, however, was not nearly as comfortable in many nearby NYU-owned residential properties, in which many tenants were known to be elderly, infirm and isolated. In approximately half a dozen such locations, totaling some 2,000 apartments, lighting, telephones and elevators were out of service and water service could not rise above six stories.

No one knew how long the power would remain out, and residents already in need of food, water, medication or emergency assistance faced a treacherous descent down as many as 30 flights of stairs — and an even more daunting climb up — in complete darkness to reach the outside world.

NYU leadership immediately began coordinating efforts to secure their safety. Administrators opened the university’s spacious Bobst Library to anyone in search of warmth, light, an electrical outlet or a connection to the outside world. A call went out for skilled assistance, quickly answered by volunteers from VNSNY and a large contingent of staff and students from the NYU College of Nursing.
“I was living at 1st Avenue and 23rd Street, but I went to stay with my sister in Greenwich Village so I could volunteer,” recalled NYUCN undergraduate student Vince Tran.

Under the direction of Alicia Hurley, NYU’s vice president for government affairs and community engagement, and in collaboration with NYUCN’s Dean Eileen Sullivan-Marx, PhD, RN, FAAN, a small group of university administrators organized and executed a multi-stage, person-to-person outreach operation through each vulnerable structure. They contacted building managers and doormen for help locating at-risk residents, gathered student volunteers from among those sheltering indoors and those who answered the NYUCN call to arms, and began dispatching small teams to work floor by floor, door by door to bring aid to those trapped in their residences.

Initial waves of generic volunteers were sent Nov. 1 to locate residents; deliver immediate relief supplies, such as meals packed by NYU’s dining services and bottles of water; offer a hand to hold; and conduct generic health status assessments. Subsequent waves included NYUCN volunteers, who followed up with in-depth health assessments and direct interventions.

Every volunteer team relayed information they gathered back to an ad-hoc command hub on the steps of the student center, where an NYU organizer collated their data and arranged for follow-up aid. Depending on the assessments that came in, they worked to fill prescriptions, sent in medical professionals, called for evacuations or connected residents with external service agencies for further care.

“I thought there would only be 10 of us, but it ended up being a really large turnout of more than 40 nursing students,” Tran said. “Tasks were delegated quickly. We met at 8 (a.m.) and by 9 we were out the door with bottles of water, bandages and food.”

Tran went to great lengths to secure medicine for one elderly woman in poor health.

“There were no lights, so students used university-provided flashlights to examine her pill bottles to determine which medications she needed,” Tran said. “The woman needed a blood thinner and it was dangerous for her to have missed doses.”

Her pharmacy was closed, and students scrambled to find one that was open and could fill her prescription. After a series of phone calls and an aborted mission on a borrowed bicycle, Tran found a pharmacy above 42nd Street that had power and could refill the prescription.

Another nursing student volunteer, Brian Hornby, recalled encountering varied conditions in local high rises and towers.

“Some of the elderly residents we visited were healthy and some were not, so responses ranged from ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to ‘Oh thank goodness you’re here! Please come in and help us,’” Hornby said.

“One person said, ‘I’m 86 years old and not taking any medications. I’m OK! In fact, I’m cooking dinner! Do you want some?’ But then there was an elderly gentleman who needed his oral chemotherapy medication. His wife was extremely distressed trying to care for her husband, who was growing very weak.”

In many cases, residents told students they had not seen or spoken to anyone in days. Simply spending time with them provided the care for which they were growing desperate.

Lessons learned

Looking back at that momentous week two years ago, NYUCN’s student volunteers put their grit, gumption and critical thinking to work.

Experience remains the best teacher.

Sandy allowed the students to exhibit and increase their compassion, professionalism and flexibility in difficult conditions.

They acted as shining examples of a nursing education in action, exemplars of the values to which all healthcare professionals aspire.

By | 2020-04-15T09:19:34-04:00 October 23rd, 2014|Categories: New York/New Jersey Metro, Regional|0 Comments

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