For Joan Harper, sitting by and just observing the catastrophe of Hurricane Sandy was not an option. “As soon as I saw what this storm had done out East, I wanted to help,” she said. “I wanted to be there.”
And as an American Red Cross volunteer, Joan got her wish. “Even before the storm was over organizers were calling volunteers,” she said. “When my supervisor called to ask if I would go out East to help, I was very willing.”
Joan spent her entire career as a registered nurse. She worked at the Rhinelander Medical Clinic for more than 15 years. Then she worked for a company that performed drug studies, traveling the country to perform her duties. In 2007 she retired from nursing, but she missed the feeling she got helping people. “I really enjoy helping those in need,” she said. “To me, it’s very rewarding.”
Joan joined the Red Cross in 2008 as part of a disaster action team. She had her first experience a few years ago when an ice storm hit the area. “We set up a shelter in Lac du Flambeau,” she said. “Many people were without power and we provided food and a warm place to sleep.” She was also on the scene in the Town of Nashville when a wind storm knocked down many trees a couple of years ago. “We fed the volunteers who were helping with the clean-up,” she said.
Joan felt she had a pretty good idea of what to do as a Red Cross volunteer, never imagining her medical background would come in handy, although she has kept her RN license active since retiring. “The Red Cross has many areas where people can volunteer,” Joan said. “From the ice storm experience, I knew what to do as far as sheltering went. I was comfortable with helping in that respect.”
So when her supervisor called to ask if Joan would help with victims of Hurricane Sandy, Joan never thought her medical background would come in handy. She was wrong. “Right away, they told me I would probably end up in health services,” she said. “But I didn’t care. I just wanted to help.”
So on Nov. 1, Joan found herself on a plane heading for Philadelphia, where she would rent a car and travel to the East Coast. This would be her first time serving the Red Cross as a national volunteer. “This storm was so damaging and so widespread,” she said. “It affected people over a big area.”
Joan ended up in Ocean Port, NJ, in a school that was set up as a shelter. “Many of the people were sort of shell-shocked,” she said. “They were really trying to cope with what had happened.”
While Joan helped with getting people medicine when they needed it, or recording medical information, she heard lots of stories. “Some people were very open to talking about their experiences, while some didn’t want to talk at all,” she said.
When Joan got a chance to get away from her duties, she could see for herself the damage the storm had done. “There was so much sand that had been blown in shore by this storm,” she said. “There were lots of yards, driveways and even cars just buried in it.”
Buildings were also ripped apart and in many areas rubbish and debris were piled in huge heaps. “It really was mind-boggling to see it in person,” Joan said. “It was alarming to realize what Mother Nature is capable of doing.”
After a week at the school, the shelter was moved to the Monmouth County Race Track, which proved to be very interesting. Many other shelters in the area were closing too, so those that still needed a place to stay were moved to this facility. There were about 500 people who traveled to this race track. “They set up cots all over the place,” Joan said. “People would set up little areas for their families, but you could tell it was very unsettling for them. All they wanted to do was to go home.”
Joan was kept busy during her 12-hour shifts. “We never rested,” she said. “There was always something that had to be done.”
Joan recalls a small boy coming to her, asking for help with a friend. “He said his friend had a blister on her foot but she wouldn’t ask for help,” she said. “So I had the little boy point her out when we were eating and I asked her about her foot. She wanted a pair of slippers, so I got those for her. She was so thankful.”
Besides the Red Cross, entire communities that had not been as severely damaged also came with aid. “There were large donations of food and clothing,” said Joan. “People really pulled together.”
The Red Cross volunteers had separate quarters in tents where heaters kept the cold air out. Conditions were comfortable, but spartan. “We slept on cots and the food was OK, lots of carbs, like pasta,” she said.
Joan volunteered for a week at the race track, her days filled with helping people with their medications, doing mounds of paperwork and just listening to stories of horror and confusion. After a week at the track, it was time to go home, and that produced feelings of thanks and yet reluctance. “When you volunteer like this, you really develop a relationship with the people,” she said. “I was glad to be coming home, but I also knew there was a lot more to be done. That’s the part that hurts. But I’m ready to go again. I’m ready to volunteer wherever I’m needed.”