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'People don't know just how bad it can be', Wolfe said

Thursday, November 15, 2012

(Submitted Photo) Peggy Wolfe (right), of Worthington, and Gail McGovern working at the American Red Cross Headquarters.
WORTHINGTON -- When Peggy Wolfe drove into Hopatcong, New Jersey to serve as a nurse in an emergency shelter set up by the American Red Cross, she saw trees on top of houses, tangled power lines in every direction, and lines of people.

"The lines of people waiting to get gas were as long as three miles," said Wolfe. "I saw people standing in line to get propane too. That line was about 100 feet long."

There were lines of people waiting for blankets, kits of emergency essentials, and water.

There were lines waiting for food too, but she said, "I didn't see the food lines as much because I was working the night shift."

With no electricity, grocery stores were closed and Wolfe said a lot of food was wasted and had to be thrown away.

Lack of electrical power caused a number of serious problems -- it would be two weeks after Hurricane Sandy blew through before power was restored and the community was able to start getting back to normal.

Wolfe said after Gov. Chris Christie imposed a type of gas rationing, the lines got a little better but in the first days after the storm, tempers were rising at gas stations.

"In New Jersey, you can't pump your own gas," said Wolfe. "It's just like the old Don Wilson days."

Don Wilson ran a service station in Worthington years ago.

"And there was always a police officer at every gas station, especially during the first few days," Wolfe said.

"People don't know just how bad it can be."

Wolfe described the community of Hopatcong as a pretty place on a manmade lake in hilly country with a community similar to the small towns in Greene County.

The storm left the residents of Hopatcong without power, without heat and without running water. With life totally disrupted, some residents managed to stay in their homes, others stayed full-time in the shelter and many more visited the shelter frequently to take advantage of the warmth, snacks and hot meals from a working kitchen, running water, and health services.

"The ones who did stay in their homes would come in to charge their cell phones, get some good food and take showers," said Wolfe.

Some who didn't come in right away, came in days later because with each passing day without services, it got harder to make it through.

Wolfe said one man came in on the ninth day with a severe case of bronchitis. A tree near his home leaned away from the structure and looked like it would fall the other way, if it ever fell. But with Sandy's powerful wind, it came down on top of his house. He was able to stay there for a while, until he got sick.

"We sent him to the hospital right away. He was treated in the emergency room then released," said Wolfe. "After he got out of the hospital, he came straight back to the shelter, walked in, and said 'Tell me what I can do to help.' "

A tree crushed the house of another man who tried to survive at home with a wood-burning stove. But when the tree fell, it damaged the flue. His emergency heating system still worked but the damage caused smoke to seep back into the home.

"He stayed at home for eight days, then he gave in," said Wolfe. "When he came into the shelter, he was covered in soot. We called him 'Smoky.' "

Even the shelter, located in Hopatcong High School, had problems keeping their systems running. One night the generators repeatedly quit working and they spent hours in complete darkness on a 24-degree night.

In the health services clinic where Wolfe worked with another nurse, they were on duty to assist clients with all sorts of medical and health problems including some on dialysis and some who brought breathing treatment and other medical equipment from home, needing regular treatments on schedule.

The shelter also became a refuge for several people who suffered from mental illness and with lives so severely disrupted, other mental health issues also surfaced.

"We asked for an increase in staff to help," said Wolfe. "The Red Cross recruits mental health professionals to serve on mental health teams as well as professionals for the health services teams."

There was also a police presence assigned to all of the shelters.

"There was a policeman on duty at the shelter all the time and there were no skirmishes at our shelter," said Wolfe explaining that gave her a chance to meet and talk with local officers.

She said where we recognize a serious problem with methamphetamine here, the problem there is heroin. Problems with addictions can potentially cause many other problems in a disaster area when people are unable to get hold of a substance like heroin, or methadone if they are in a treatment program.

"In our shelter, if there were people using drugs, or having problems while doing without, I wasn't aware of it," said Wolfe.

Wolfe has served in disaster areas before. She was deployed as a shelter nurse after Hurricane Katrina. In that case, it was three weeks after the storm and the shelter where she worked was housed in a Lutheran Church with an already-operating health clinic and pharmacy, a cafeteria and even a pet shelter.

Her deployment to New Jersey was right after the storm hit and things were different. As a result of what she observed and experienced there, she's going to be stepping up her own disaster preparations.

"I am partially prepared, but I'm going to take some more steps." said Wolfe.

She has camping equipment, hurricane lamps, candles, cans of sterno fuel, matches, flashlights and batteries which she said she was now going to move into her basement for better protection in case of a tornado.

She also keeps some supplies in her car including a mylar blanket, and she maintains a supply of water and a stock of dry food including nuts and sources of protein that can be consumed without cooking.

Wolfe said we don't think about how difficult it can be to live two weeks or more without power, fuel, internet, heat or air-conditioning, open grocery stores, or running water.

"Having jugs of water filled is not a bad idea."

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