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Kenai woman travels to Long Island to help Sandy Survivors

Aiding and abiding

Posted: November 28, 2012 - 10:54pm  |  Updated: November 29, 2012 - 12:40pm
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Photo courtesy of Cat Irvine This photo shows debris that resulted from the three-day storm. The site of the wreckage is about two miles from the shelter.
Photo courtesy of Cat Irvine This photo shows debris that resulted from the three-day storm. The site of the wreckage is about two miles from the shelter.

Work, eat and sleep.

For two weeks, that’s all the Alaska-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team did during its trip to Long Island, New York. The city and portions of the Northeast are still recovering from Superstorm Sandy.

Kenai resident and team member Cat Irvine helped Long Island residents throughout that time.

“We were at the shelter, and that’s the only place we were at,” she said. “Besides going out for dinner at a local diner one night, the team was hunkered down for two weeks.”

Irvine returned to Alaska on Saturday.

Irvine worked tirelessly with the medical assistance team aiding hundreds of New Yorkers displaced by Sandy. She found inspiration in aide workers from other states and in victims’ courage, she said. The team’s job is to leave an area better off than when it arrived. And while its assigned shelter’s population decreased many problems remained — residents continue to search for a final destination.

She departed Alaska on Nov. 12, a day behind her fellow team members. She works as a medic at Kaparuk oil field on the North Slope, and she departed as soon as possible.

Irvine’s oil field coworkers sparked her interest in joining the team. They traveled to New York following 9/11. Their stories gave Irvine an idea.

“When they returned, they talked to all of (the oil field’s employees) about their experiences,” she said, “and I became very intrigued in the idea of going out during critical events like Sandy and helping people; being part of the recovery.”

She joined the medical assistance team eight years ago. The trip to New York was her first major assignment. She also received training from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention during the 2010 H1N1 scare.

Federally sponsored and volunteer-based, the team has responded to numerous disasters since its organization in 1997. It is one of only two teams with cold weather response capabilities. Team members have been deployed to Ground Zero following 9/11, the Kosovo refugee process and Hurricane Katrina.

The team consists of medical professionals like doctors, nurse practitioners, paramedics and respiratory technicians. It includes maintenance and communications personnel, too.

“The composition of the team is set up in a way where we can be sent into an area and provide medical care without burdening local efforts,” said the Alaska team’s acting commander Mike Rodriguez. “After all, we’re there to help.”

Rodriguez decided his team would take over the night shift after meeting with Outside team leaders at the gymnasium of Nassau County Community College, where locals had established a shelter. The shelter served three surrounding communities in the aftermath of Sandy.

Irvine worked alongside medical professionals from Arizona, Colorado and Maryland, among other states.

Staffing two clinics, the 14-person Alaska team aided the general population and people with special needs, Irvine said. The storm made Nassau County’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities uninhabitable, she said.

The team fulfilled residents’ basic medical needs, like treating those who became ill and making sure medications were available. Upper respiratory problems affected the majority of the shelter’s population, Irvine said.

“There were a lot of people, and their cots were very close together,” she said. “Things would spread easily.”

Those residents lost everything, she said. Despite being placed in a foreign environment, they were extremely resilient. Most of them maintained positive attitudes.

“It was amazing that they had lost so much, and in the morning they would get up and get dressed, go to their jobs and would come back to the shelter at night,” she said. “And there was a lot of people crammed into a small space, and they adapted.”

“We had quite a few senior citizens there, and they adapted very well,” she said.

When the team first arrived, there were about 800 people using the shelter. About 300 displaced residents remained when the team departed. Many of those left simply needed a place to stay, Rodriguez said.

Irvine, who grew up in Palmer and moved back to the state 12 years ago, said she learned a lot during the trip. Most importantly, she learned more minds working on a common goal make success achievable.

“More people brought more knowledge to the table,” she said. “It was integral part of making the shelter successful.”

In opposition to that mindset is the lack of workers available to certify residents’ homes damaged by Sandy. Before they can return home, electricians must certify the homes as safe, and inspectors also have to check for mold.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Irvine said, “and I think they’re doing remarkably well with what’s available. With any critical situation like this it never moves as fast as people would like.”

This trip has prepared her for future assignments, she said.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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