No Seinfeldian glee at the temporary storm shelter at John Jay

John Jay College of Criminal Justice. (Via New York National Guard)
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Happily, some New Yorkers had the luxury of feeling that Hurricane Irene, which turned out to be a tropical storm, was much ado about not much. They dismissed the whole thing, according to the New York Times, with “Seinfeldian glee.”

But the event was less easily dismissible for some of the New York’s sick, elderly, very poor, homeless and disabled residents, and for those who were involved, as I was, in the disaster-response effort.

A little background: Eight days after the attacks of Sept. 11, my wife, out of the blue, was diagnosed with Stage IV terminal cancer. A few months later I enrolled in school, John Jay College, to become an EMT-B. I completed 200 hours of training, passed a state and national exam to become certified and went to work riding on an ambulance with paramedics responding to 911 calls. While working, I took a course to become an EMT-I, Intermediate, which teaches you how to put someone on an IV, work with needles and medications, interpret EKG heat rhythms, intubate patients. I’ve also completed workshops in which I worked with human cadavers, had haz-mat and OSHA training, took continuing-education classes like “Situational Awareness in Emergency Operations” and “Multiple Gunshot Wounds: Care of the Street Warrior,” passed the arduous "Work Capacity Test” for New York State Wildland Firefighter certification and at home injected my wife with morphine and cared for her during her illness, hospitalizations, and during home hospice. I stopped it all when she passed away.

Last Thursday at 5 p.m., I got a robo-call from the city Office of Emergency Management asking me to volunteer to help with hurricane shelter and evacuation centers.

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I don’t actually know how they got my number or why they called me, beyond that I’m on some list or database somewhere for something. But I figured I could be useful, and also that it would give me a good look at the city’s response to the hurricane, which would maybe make for a good story afterward.

I pressed 1 for “yes, I am available.”

I packed a backpack with basic first-aid material and some gear (seatbelt cutter, auto-window punch, flashlight), got together all my medic-related IDs and waited.

I called the 718 number that called me and was told the mailbox was full or not accepting messages. I called 311 repeatedly and they had absolutely no information about where I should report, what agency was coordinating the response efforts, or who I should call. I asked different operators, and asked to speak to supervisors. No luck.

I finally got a second robo-call, and was told to report to City College in Harlem on 137th Street at 10 a.m. for a 12-hour shift.

The city was using the gym as a shelter. I showed up and sat outside with about 14 other people who had been called. It turned out they were all city teachers, except for two who were volunteers for NYC CERT. Trucks were being unloaded and boxes and pallets were being stacked in the gym by City College custodial and maintenance staff. I started helping the workers unload and stack the boxes.

One teacher, I’ll call her Sadie, later said: “We don’t unload boxes.” But she was a good person who bought everyone ices late at night, gave her own socks to a pregnant woman who showed up barefoot, was prepared to spend the night at the shelter and said she was going to call Mike and other administrative movers and shakers she referred to on a first-name basis to make sure I got paid when it was all over.

We stood around for a long while with nothing to do, because no one was in charge. The City College athletic director came in. She wanted to make sure her floor was OK. She got people to come in and cover the volleyball court and told us the roof was leaking in a number of different places and that if the rain got bad so might the leaks. (This was in a hurricane shelter.)

There was a teacher who was head of science research at Stuyvesant. He and I went up to the roof to check it out. People were still working up there. There were numerous construction projects in progress with large amounts of material all over the place—the stuff that you would want secured or lashed down if you thought a hurricane was coming. We asked two workers whether they were going to be taking care of that. They said they didn’t know; their supervisor was out and would be back later.

Eventually, the head of security came in and addressed us a group. He found the two who were part of CERT and said that they would be in charge. They got special vests. Sadie was designated as the team’s public information officer. (“Do not allow media to enter unless directed by the Public Information Officer”: 6.7.1 in the Hurricane Shelter Field Guide, part of the section entitled “TIPS FOR DEALING WITH MEDIA INSIDE THE SHELTER.”)

Stuyvesant, a bit of a wise guy, pointed to me and screamed out, “He is the media.” He said he doesn’t trust the media. He was made our head of communications, even though he didn’t know how to put together, charge or operate any of the brand new radios he and I were taking out of their packages, putting together and charging.

Someone at City College security eventually found out there was a D.V.D. all the volunteers were supposed to watch on how to set up and run a hurricane shelter. My temporary colleagues and I gathered around to watch it, but one of the CERT guys said I should go with him and security to lug supplies on a rolling cart from another building to the gym-shelter.

We set up tables all around the perimeter and upstairs, making an ad hoc intake shelter, kennel, food-distribution center, medical-treatment area and command center. There were maybe six huge duffel bags filled with medical supplies, equipment and medicine. I said I had E.M.T. training, so I volunteered to handle the medical area. I unpacked all the essential items and set them up on and around the table, and made sure I had an idea where they were: wound dressings, neck collars, bandages, glucose, eye flush, antihistamines, acetaminophen, sterilization liquids, protective gloves, blood pressure cuff, stethoscope.

The CERT guy who’d drafted me to move equipment left at 2 p.m. Two teachers, one of whom had been working with the blind for 30 years and has a Braille-symbol necklace and another younger E.S.L. teacher who speaks five languages and lives in Williamsburg, were particularly caring and hard-working and got things done. I treated one volunteer who cut her finger setting up the cots.

For a few hours, we sat there with nothing to do, meeting with various administrators who came in and also didn’t know what was going on or where we were supposed to go the next day, when the storm was supposed to hit with full force. A police officer came in at one point, stayed for a minute and left. The volunteers started leaving.

Around 8 p.m. another CERT volunteer came in, and it was his show. He was big on authority and instructed the remaining CERT person, a woman, to pack up all the equipment and medicine that I had carefully arranged and put in order and stuff it all back into the duffel bag. The Stuyvesant teacher asked me why I thought they were doing it, sort of mockingly. No matter what I said, CERT wouldn’t listen. He told me that under no conditions should I “self-deploy” the next day. I should do nothing unless I got another robo-call. I left at around 9:30 p.m.

On Saturday I got another robo-call directing me to report to the shelter nearest my house at 3 p.m. The call also informed me that I would be getting paid.

I live a block away from Baruch college, which is on Lexington Avenue in the 20s. I showed up there, but I was told that people with medical needs would not be taken there, but instead either to Hunter or John Jay. I got in a cab and went across town to John Jay, on 59th Street and Tenth Avenue.

John Jay had the ground floor set up as a command center and the fourth floor set up as an evacuation shelter. This was a full-blown operation. Three people in red vests seemed to be in charge: One woman who told me later that she’s a lawyer, one middle-aged white man named Matt and an Asian man named Daniel. (I only learned their names as I was leaving, 16 hours later.)

There were hundreds of evacuees there, and assorted workers and volunteers: red-vesters with bullhorns, a doctor wearing a white lab coat, medical personnel in different-colored scrubs, military men in green B.D.U.s (Battle Dress Uniform) and desert camouflage, and one soldier in the lobby who was wearing some sort of flak jacket.

I signed in, was handed a red vest, and started working, carrying boxes, climbing up on the bleachers to stack items, moving cots, doing whatever the red vests in charge told me to.

Matt announced, “I need five men who have experience lifting patients with medical problems.”

I told him I’d worked as medic and that I could do it.

There were many elderly residents and disabled people from nursing homes, people who couldn’t talk or understand and people with psychiatric problems and on anti-psychotics. They were people who couldn’t care for themselves properly.

Matt said: “I need four men who have experience lifting people who have medical problems.” No volunteers. “I need four men who can lift.”

Eventually it was left to me and two muscular men who were doing everything while wearing their backpacks and didn’t seem to speak English. I’d heard other workers telling them earlier that they could put their packs down with the others’, and that their stuff would be OK. But they declined.

They were good lifters, it turned out. Their technique was excellent and they were obviously used to doing this. I later asked and found out they were French-speaking Canadian firefighters in town for the World Fire and Police Games, a sort of first-responder Olympics.

At a table in the middle of the shelter were a table full of athletic-looking women in sports jerseys preparing hot M.R.E.s and handing out water, and keeping good, careful records of what they were doing. Somebody said they were a soccer team. I later asked them who they were: Canadian police officers, also in New York for the Games.

There was also a contingent of nurses, medical assistants and a doctor, Dr. Long, from a clinic affiliated with Harlem Hospital. At one point there was a call that an ambulance was arriving with patients. They were pulling up on the side of the building, by the loading dock. I went down to help. A paramedic had two patients, one of whom Dr. Long was uncomfortable taking because of the patient’s status. She diverted that patient to the hospital and accepted the other one. But the shelter had no stretcher to transport him off the ambulance, through the loading-dock area and up to the shelter. He was stuck there. Then another ambulance showed up, then another, then there were ambulances two and three deep trying to pass.

At the behest of the E.M.T.s, I stayed in the back of an ambulance with the rejected patient from that first ambulance while they brought another one up to the shelter.

I suggested to the medic and Dr. Long that I go across the street to Roosevelt Hospital to see if I could borrow a stretcher or some sort of gurney. I went to the E.R. and explained the situation to the charge nurse. The charge nurse said I had to talk to the operations manager, and that she would page her. I waited for a while. The manager came. I tried to ask her ten different ways if there was anything she could do, or any way she or the hospital could help out. I used key words: “emergency,” “Dr. Long,” “medic.” I showed ID, explained who I was and what was going on. She was nice, but couldn’t do anything.

I was back there an hour later.

A number of people at the shelter were diabetic and had to be checked and there was only one glucometer. I asked the nurse using the glucometer if it would it help if there was another one and she said that yes, of course it would. So I was back in Roosevelt E.R. asking the operations manager whether she could possibly spare one.

After a while, she checked and told me that no, I couldn’t borrow a glucometer because all of theirs were built into units. I asked whether I could take one from one of the Roosevelt ambulances. She said she would try that, and then another administrator got involved, and he tried to open an ambulance door, but it was locked. He made some phone calls but couldn’t get in touch with anyone. I left my cell-phone number, asked him to please call me when he heard anything. Back in the shelter, maybe 30 minutes later, he called to tell me that no glucometer was available.

Maybe an hour later, a Roosevelt administrator, Eileen Yost, showed up to speak with Dr. Long, asking what she could do to help. When she was walking away, I went up to her and introduced myself, told her what I had been doing and what had been going on and that what we really needed was a glucometer. She gave me her cell phone number.

Eventually we got our glucometer. I took it from the hospital to the shelter under my raincoat. Dr. Long saw me pull it out from under my coat and asked whether I stole it. I had to explain that the very nice Roosevelt administrator had found one for us.

Susan Dietz, the chief nurse and vice president of patient care at Roosevent, had very kindly and patiently showed me how to use the glucometer, which was a fancy new model unfamiliar to the nurses at the shelter. This was after one of her colleagues, responding to my requests, had tried to call security to have me thrown out.

I wound up going in and out of Roosevelt a lot. At one point Dietz asked me for charts. Patients had been brought over from our shelter with no medical histories. The nurses needed charts.

I happened to know where they were. Earlier in the night, outside John Jay in piles on the street, on a busy avenue in the driving rain, there were maybe 50 or 60 plastic bags, each one containing the entire medical history of a patient who had been brought in by ambulance. I’d helped load a cart to lug them into the lobby of John Jay, where they were still sitting.

Dietz gave me a list of names of patients whose records were missing. I went back to John Jay and, on my knees, went through the pile of bags looking for names. When I found one, I took it over to the hospital.

I spent part of the time helping Dr. Long with difficult patients. One, a diabetic with a pacemaker, resisted all attempts to examine him and fell to the floor, shouting, “No more questions!” I calmed him, and helped get his vitals.

While we were waiting for an ambulance to come, I stood in front of him to keep him from fighting with doctors, nurses, security personnel or anyone else. He eventually urinated on himself and on the floor.

When the ambulance arrived for him, I ripped out the page in my pad that had his vitals written on it and gave it to the medics, who took him away. I told John Jay security they needed to get a custodian. A Dr. White, who was with him before I went over to help, gave me an emphatic thank-you.

We had a two-day-old baby in our shelter. I lugged his mother’s cot, his father’s cot and all the baby’s belongings in his makeshift crib over to a corner, away from the busy part of the shelter where he’d been put.

The person we had to swap him with was, the doctors thought, schizophrenic. I talked to him for a bit, until he said he was OK with the move.

The father struggled for a long while trying to assemble the new crib. I went over to try to help and got lucky, somehow banging it open and locking it in place.

At 5 a.m. nurses were wandering around looking for baby formula. The mother was asking for Similac to feed the child.

I went outside to go buy Similac at a store. I asked an officer in a police car that was sitting outside John Jay all night whether he could use his radio or mobility in the car to dig up some baby formula. He told me to go up to the corner and try Duane Reade, and if they’re closed, that’s it.

“They don’t tell us nothing,” he said.

Duane Reade was closed. I went back to Roosevelt Hospital E.R. They came through yet again. I got four containers of Similac and two nipples and ran it back to the shelter. The mom was grateful.

The military guys start calling me Doc. I found and delivered blankets to the classroom they were bunking in. They started coming to me and asking me questions, like whether I had the latest census report, because somebody said I would be the person who knows. (I didn’t, but I knew the person who knew.)

Mostly at that point I just circulated, essentially doing rounds. An old Russian woman was really thirsty, so we had to play charades for a minute or so to figure out what she wanted. There was a separate bunch of people from a nursing home who only spoke Russian. They came with a Russian-speaking nurse from their facility, who worked hard that night because she was the only one who could translate.

Eventually I called the number on a handout that said “Interpretation Service Available.” The lady who responded asked me five times for my agency ID number. Five times I explained that I was a temporary worker and had no idea. She asked the name of the agency. I told her to try the city's O.E.M. or John Jay. Finally, to her credit, she gave me an agency ID number and transferred me to a Russian speaker, who told me that bolit means pain, voda means water and privet means hi.

A young shelter resident was taken away by police, presumably arrested. An elderly woman stayed up all night, screaming, "Fuck you."

I signed out at 7 a.m., after a 16-hour shift, and walked for 45 minutes in pretty strong wind and heavy rain, passing a cluster of TV news organizations set up under an awning in Times Square. Finally I got a cab to pick me up and take me the rest of the way home.

On Sunday I was told to work either a 10 a.m. or a 10 p.m. shift at Norman Thomas High School, on East 33rd Street. I worked a 14-hour shift, from about 9 p.m. to 11:30 a.m. At that school there was a heavy National Guard and New York Guard presence. They were extremely impressive in every encounter I had with them there and at John Jay, in terms of work ethic, professionalism and ability.

At this shelter there was a large homeless population, and a lot of people on antipsychotics.

I pretty literally patched up the feet of one hard-looking homeless man before and after we got him in the shower. He had a large piece of skin hanging off the bottom of one of his feet, exposing raw, sensitive skin, and his feet were covered with open sores. I got them cleaned and irrigated, rubbed in antibiotic and wrapped them in bandages.

I found a Chinese woman staying there with two little children. I handed energy bars to the kids (food I brought with me) and they each grabbed my offering with crazy enthusiasm and tore into it immediately.

I made small-talk with a homeless man I was helping with something, chatting about how "they" had really hyped the storm, saying it was going to be some major disaster. He was confused for a second, then taken aback. He said that actually it was a huge disaster for him. It had turned his life upside down. His only clothes were soaking wet and his only sneakers were waterlogged and dirty.

Other residents told me that the police kicked everyone out of Penn Station and Grand Central, ejected them from the subway system and then posted guards on the stairs to make sure no one entered.

We had turned from a rescue operation for evacuees into a shelter for people who were going back to the streets, or to real shelters. They wanted to stay. And now we were about to have to tell them they had to go.

I can’t do that kind of work. I went to one of the people who was supervising the operation. I had told her earlier that my work was pretty much done, but she said she didn’t feel comfortable if there were still residents in the building and there was no medic. I explained to her now what was going on. She said she understood.

Before I left, I went up on every floor to check in each of the residents, to ask what they needed and explain what was going to happen to them. The students were going to need their school back, I said.

The overwhelming majority of them accepted what I said with perfect, almost shocking grace. The homeless man with the ruined sneakers, after I woke him up for a second, last time to talk to him, catalogued his problems and then said, “But I can’t complain.”

I remembered hearing about a stash of clothes in some hidden room that could be used in special cases. I got permission from a director and then took the homeless man with me to go find it. As we left, I asked a National Guard to watch his possessions while we were away. The soldier immediately took up watch over his odds and ends.

We found this room, and inside we found a bag with a perfect pair of very good, practically new sneakers and a change of clothes. It all fit him, more or less. He was amazed. I was amazed. He thanked me several times. He looked down at one point when we were walking back and said, still practically disbelieving, “They even match my outfit.”

He talked about God, his children and his wife whom he hasn’t seen in five years, his struggle with negativity. He was seriously testifying and finding grace because of these sneakers.

I told the director about the successful mission to the secret clothes-room, and told her I was signing out. One of her co-workers, who’d been listening, said she wanted to cry hearing the story, and then asked me what agency I was with. I told her I was a journalist and she burst out laughing.

I left the building and was blinded by the brightness. It was beautiful out.

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