RIPTON — Like many Addison County residents, Ceredwyn Alexander spent some tense moments in front of her television during the past few weeks tracking the potential path of “super storm” Sandy and wondering if it would do to Vermont what Tropical Storm Irene did to the state last year.
Fortunately, Sandy spared much of Vermont from her wrath. But the same could not be said for coastal, densely populated sections of New York and New Jersey, where Sandy unleashed a wet, gusty fury that killed 20 people and swept away countless homes under crashing waves and incessant rain.
Alexander’s sense of relief for Vermont quickly turned to empathy for those to the south who were not so fortunate. That’s when Alexander, an EMT and member of the Ripton Volunteer Fire Department, decided she wanted to lend a helping hand to folks in the Garden State, many of whom had either lost everything or had been forced out of their homes by a lack of electricity and heat.
“I was just floored by the scale of it,” Alexander, who has volunteered in places like Haiti, said of the images she saw of damage caused by Sandy.
Fortunately, Alexander would not have to make the trek to the Garden State alone. She called her longtime friend, Tatiana Falk, a registered nurse living in Oneonta, N.Y. Falk quickly agreed to accompany Alexander on her humanitarian road trip. And the two women got some valuable assistance to get them on their way. Alexander set up a “micro giving” site online, which she hoped would net her a little gas money.
She did considerably better than that.
“A lot of people I didn’t even know gave me small amounts,” Alexander said. To the extent that she not only received enough to pay for round-trip gas, she was also able to purchase $300 in supplies — such as blankets, batteries, hand-warmers and non-perishable food — for storm victims.
She and Falk called ahead to the American Red Cross headquarters in New Jersey and were told that, yes, their services were sorely needed. After a safe but eye-opening drive, the pair checked into the Red Cross assignment center in Fairfield, N.J., last Tuesday, Nov. 6. Their task: provide much-needed relief to health care workers at the Red Cross shelter in Piscataway. It’s a location very near to where Sandy did some of its worst damage.
“Nurses had been working at this shelter since it opened,” Alexander said.
The two friends were immediately put to work, with Falk taking a 12-hour day shift and Alexander a 12-hour night shift. And there was rarely a dull moment, as the shelter consistently maintained a population of more than 100 people during the duo’s five days there.
Some of the shelter visitors needed medical attention; others just needed a sympathetic ear to listen to stories of great suffering and loss.
“Some people had lost everything; their houses had floated away,” Alexander said.
Many of the temporary residents were elderly people who could simply not make a go of it in homes without heat and power. Alexander noted New Jersey residents are not as well equipped to deal with neighborhood destruction as Vermonters.
“In Vermont, just about everyone has a chainsaw,” Alexander said of how roads can get quickly cleared. “When a tree falls in your street (in New Jersey), you need a road crew.”
The women heard many harrowing stories during their time at the shelter.
“We heard a few accounts of people being rescued from four feet of icy water,” Alexander said.
Indeed, Alexander found that most of the shelter visitors’ physical wounds were superficial and needed only rudimentary bandaging. The more serious wounds lay beneath — in their hearts and minds.
“At night, I found myself sitting and talking to people, doing some psychological first aid,” Alexander said. “I have an ear; I can be empathetic.”
Alexander, a writer, has made some entries about the trip on her family’s blog, http://scalingthepeak.blogspot.com.
“Some of the residents are coming out of their shock into anger,” she writes in one entry. “Lots of bitter words about how much help they think they deserve versus how much help is actually available. There are still people trickling into the shelters because they still can’t return to their homes and they either can no longer afford hotels or there’s just no rooms to be had.”
She noted how some people reacted to their unfamiliar predicament and surroundings.
“Someone once said that adventure was long periods of boredom interspersed with terror,” Alexander writes. “That’s what disasters feel like to me. Strange to say, but for many of the residents, lack of activity is their worst enemy. With the disruption of their normal routines and day-to-day life, people are left at loose ends. They are also left without the trappings of their lives that make them feel like themselves.
“Although residents here are technically homeless, very few of them are homeless,” she added. “Mostly, they are people experiencing the astounding bad luck of being in Sandy’s path. I know many fear homelessness becoming a normal thing in their lives.”
Falk and Alexander provided some invaluable relief time for nurses at the Piscataway shelter. They checked out this past Saturday morning, Nov. 10, and arrived safely back in Vermont that evening. Alexander will long remember the scenes of devastation and despair, but an overriding image will remain with her small role in a state’s recovery from Sandy.
“The most powerful thing I saw was the way people take care of each other; that always amazes me,” Alexander said. “It makes me feel better about human beings in general.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]