Mother Nature, the great equalizer, unleashed Hurricane Sandy with merciless impartiality. Those unlucky people who were driven from their homes, however grand or humble, all shared the sudden and serious problem of finding shelter and safety.
Many found refuge with family or friends, but for some, there was nowhere to turn. What then? We have come to expect our government, at all levels, to be the protector of last resort. Fairfield takes very seriously its commitment to provide shelter to any and all in the wake of a large-scale disaster.
In an Aug. 15 column ("Getting us through emergencies") -- http://tinyurl.com/fairfieldemergencies -- I reviewed Fairfield's emergency management system. Now, I'll give a firsthand account -- as a member of the Medical Reserve Corps -- of our town's performance sheltering victims of Hurricane Sandy.
A community shelter is not a spontaneous happening, but rather a thoroughly planned and rehearsed operation. There must be an appropriate location and equipment and supplies at the ready, but beyond that, the logistics are daunting: Monitoring the comings and goings of shelter users, arranging 24/7 staff coverage, providing places to sleep, supplying food and drink, administering medical and emotional support, and ensuring physical security.
By noon on Sunday, Oct. 28, with Sandy bearing down on the northeast coast, the shelter opened on the ground floor of Fairfield Ludlowe High School, having been quickly set up by your neighbors on the local Community Emergency Response Team and the medical team.
Over its five days of operation, about 290 people were housed and fed, the peak being 217 on Monday night. An additional 250 passed through to charge phones or grab a meal. Shelter was not restricted to humans -- about 40 pets checked in, including a hedgehog and two reptiles. About 80 volunteers took shifts staffing the shelter, including 35 from CERT, 20 from MRC, 15 tireless young people from Fairfield Police Explorers, and diligent school custodial and cafeteria staff. Two Fairfield police officers were on steady duty, and two uniformed National Guard soldiers arrived for general duty over the last two days. The Boy Scouts, the Key Club, and other individuals showed up to help pack things up at the end.
Here's how it worked.
A back door to the school cafeteria opened to the reception area. "Guests" (CERT's preferred term) were registered and interviewed briefly by CERT staff; those with real or potential medical concerns were referred to the medical team for further screening, the commonest medical challenges being electricity for portable oxygen or breathing devices, medications left at home or the daily needs of frail elderly guests. The Carolton Chronic & Convalescent Hospital graciously made beds available for people in need of more intensive attention.
Some came after being evacuated from the beach area; some came out of fear of flooding or falling trees; worried relatives or the police brought elderly people living alone; a few homeless people arrived who sensed they would be in danger outdoors. All were welcomed equally, and all were equally grateful to be warm and safe.
After registration, CERT staff escorted guests down the long hallway to one of the two cavernous gyms, where they were assigned to cots. Each cot came with a blanket and pillow, but many brought their own. The guests quickly rearranged the neat rows of cots to suit individual and family preferences, resulting in a free-form miniature village with winding walkways through the gym.
Unlikely friendships sprung up among people thrown together by their shared predicament. A well-turned-out young couple from the beach area chatted amiably with an older gentleman who happened to be homeless. Another family gave up their cots and pitched tents they brought along to make it more of an adventure for their kids.
A few TVs were set up to show movies and catch the news. Kids organized makeshift games in the gyms, or used the school's wi-fi (OK, so did the grownups). Even in between meals, guests gravitated to cafeteria tables to socialize, read, or play cards. On Halloween, the executive director of the World Artist Network, a local nonprofit group, set up a table for kids to draw or get their faces painted.
More than 30 individuals and businesses made donations of pizza, sandwiches, deserts, snacks and movies. Space does not permit me to name them all. In addition to local officials, the shelter also received visits from notables such as U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Congressman Jim Himes and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman. If we were a swing state, we might have gotten Obama or Romney to stop by.
There were some technical glitches. On Monday evening, the generator stopped sending power to the two gyms, rendering them dark and eventually cold. Mysterious alarms went off at odd times. Gracious guests, the endlessly patient responsiveness of shelter staff, and determined school staff got things settled.
There was an infirmary ready to go in the music room, but fortunately it ended up only as a place for MRC staff to sleep. On my overnight shift, I took a cot near a poster that read: "Let your efforts rise above your excuses." Not a bad takeaway message!
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.