Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurricanes at High Tide Under a Full Moon

Full moon on high tide, c. 2012 Susan E. Hance
Coastal dwellers know. High winds, high tide, full moon, bad news. Sadly the Northeast has experienced just that. The good news is: disaster can bring out the best in people.

I was asked how many hurricanes I've experienced. Not counting tropical storms, there are 18, best I can figure.

We drove the coast from Pensacola, FL to Mobile, AL one month after hurricane Camille and were astounded to see ships in the highway median and grand old homes that once faced the ocean reduced to toothpick size rubble. In 1996, Fran ripped the 197 foot steeple off our 126 year old church and left it lying in the street like the tip snapped off a string bean. And last year we came home to find a pine tree resting on the roof of our house over the piano. But in the end it's all just stuff, and we are alive and well.

One thing I've learned through all these storms is that people step up to the occasion. And not just because it's their job. The people who go into helping professions (hospital workers, emergency personnel, law enforcement, firefighters, meteorologists, etc.) go into those professions because they are nurturing people. Thank goodness. The image of the nurse holding and bagging a neonate, while they were placed in the ambulance, is an iconic example.

During the 16 years I worked in the hospital setting, I learned how they decide who will stay on duty and who will go home to tend to their own families. There was a list of two sets of staff: Team A and Team B and people volunteer. If the hurricane lasts a long time-which it did when Dennis went up the coast, turned and came back-Team A takes care of patients while Team B rests. Then they reverse. The teams are "locked down" in the hospital when the winds reach sufficient strength. It isn't safe to drive or go in and out of the hospital. Until then, people can slip away to prepare their own families, then return. Meanwhile the hospital rooms must be prepared, food that doesn't need cooking stocked up and bottled water brought in. Staff members get sleeping bags or cots and choose a spot on the floor in an office or conference room. There isn't a room for all of them to sleep in a bed. Patients who can be discharged are. The rest hunker down.

Once there is lock down, staff is isolated from their own spouses, elderly parents, children and pets. Their focus becomes keeping patients safe and as comfortable as possible.

When the  power goes out, the generators run only the red emergency outlets, used for breath support and other critical instruments. In hot weather, the temperature rises, while the humidity races to wilt everything. The windows are made to bow in high winds so they don't shatter. At the height of the storm they begin to pulse in and out. Patient beds are moved into the hallways, away from the windows and closer to available light in the evening. Patients are miserable: afraid for themselves and their families, uncomfortable in the heat, tired of sandwiches and fruit, and anxious about the storm's outcome.

Staff members meet the physical needs of the patients, while also trying to distract them: tell some stories, sing songs, offer a smile and a listening ear.

When the storm passes, those who are on duty just hope replacements can make it into the hospital. After endless hours of nurturing others, they want to go home to their families. During Hurricane Floyd, those who left the area could not get back in. Flood waters kept rising for days, as the flooded rivers drained toward the ocean.

Fortunately, the power company works on restoring power to the hospital first. That means power company employees have been on call all through the storm, ready to move at the first opportunity. They even come in from other states to assist; long caravans of power company trucks are seen moving into the storm area as residents evacuate.. All over town, people who serve others are in the same situation; standing ready.

Let's give thanks today for those who help others. Thank a medical worker, law enforcement member, firefighter, power company employee, military personnel, public official, or anyone else who has devoted his/her life to helping others every day. It's more than a job to them.

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