IRR students head east for hurricane cleanup UPDATE

Friday, Nov. 2, 11:00 p.m. CDT

The Union College disaster response team arrived back on campus tonight after driving straight through from New Jersey. While they were initially invited to the East Coast to be a part of the search and rescue operation in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the ten international rescue and relief students quickly learned that disaster response is about being ready for anything.

“You have to be very flexible to what the people need,” said Dan Meachum, a senior IRR major who plans to join a rescue service after graduation. Although trained as a paramedic, he had never responded to a disaster situation before. “Their needs were different than what we initially expected, but the people were very devastated by the storm.”

The search and rescue phase of the response had come to a close by the time the team arrived in New Jersey, so they spent a day helping families along the shore in Toms River clean up the mess. “They had a lot of water damage in their houses,” said Meachem.

Even though the students on the team had received extensive preparation for disaster situations, they discovered classroom experience and technical training can never replace working with real people in real life. “Most people knew the insurance company would be able to help them,” said Meachum. “But a lot of the items they lost went way beyond monetary value—personal or handmade items. They didn’t care about the dollar amount, they cared about the item. That was something I never really understood until I saw it for myself.”

“As we were cleaning up, I found a lot of personal items in the debris,” said Sarah Steahly, a senior who plans to attend dental school and eventually work overseas. “I found a two year old’s birthday card dated October 2012. Someone just had a birthday and it was just washed away. I found little kid’s art projects strewn about the yard, family pictures, all kinds of things. You can buy a lot of things, but you can’t buy things like that. That really hit me emotionally, but I’m sure for the person that actually lost it, it was much harder.”

Both students felt the long hours spend traveling was worth the experience. “I think we have a very dynamic classroom experience,” said Meachum. “But going out and actually responding to a disaster solidified the education that we’ve had thus far. I’m getting ready to graduate in the spring, and I’m very thankful to be selected to go on this mission. I feel like my classroom time has made a lot more sense as a result of this trip.”

Union College allows IRR students to miss up to five days of school to respond to disasters, so the team was not able to stay on the East Coast for long. “In the long run,” said Steahly, “I would have spent even more time in the van for just that one day.”

Thursday, Nov. 1, 3:30 p.m. CDT

The Union College IRR team spent the afternoon in Toms River, N.J., working along side high school students and staff volunteers from Heritage Academy in Tennessee to help residents clean up after the storm.

“We are going house to house and helping residents however we can,” said Brian Hauff, one the Union IRR instructors. “There aren’t really any other agencies working here, and the people are very appreciative.”

Hauff said they concentrated on helping damaged neighborhoods right along the shoreline. “We’ve cut a up a lot of big trees—big enough that people wouldn’t be able to move them without help,” he explained.

But water has taken its toll on the community as well. “You can see the water line three to four feet high on these houses,” Hauff said. “We’ve helped a lot of people move damaged furniture to the curb and clean up yard debris. One man recognized items in his yard from a neighbor three houses away.”

The team spent last night at a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Warminster, Pa., then helped the church members clean up down trees in the yard before arrivng at Toms River in the late morning.

Thursday, Nov. 1, 10:30 a.m. CDT

The Union College disaster response team started Thursday in Warminster, Pa., a small town about 20 miles east of Trenton, N.J., where they are using chainsaws to help residents clear trees and branches toppled by Hurricane Sandy. “Later today, the team will travel to Toms Creek, N.J., to assist with general cleanup,” said Rick Young, director of the international rescue and relief program. Toms River is a hard-hit coastal community about 50 miles south of New York City.

The team arrived at Blue Mountain Academy in Hamburg, Pa., late Tuesday night, On Wednesday, they were asked to report to Atlantic City, N.J., and then further up the New Jersey coast, but found search and rescue and even shelter operations were being closed down.

The group will continue to help with general cleanup and head back to Lincoln sometime this weekend.

Monday, Oct. 29, 10:00 p.m. CDT

A team of trained disaster responders from Union College’s International Rescue and Relief program will leave Lincoln early Tuesday morning bound for a staging area in Pennsylvania, where they will help East Coast residents deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Led by instructors Brian Hauff and Aaron Kent, the team of 10 students has been instructed to pack for light search and rescue and swift water rescue operations.  The group plans to arrive at Blue Mountain Academy in Hamburg, Pa., late Tuesday and prepare for immediate deployment.

Union’s IRR team will again work in conjunction with ACTS World Relief, a Tennessee-based disaster relief organization. Union has partnered with ACTS in several past disasters including the tornado outbreak in Alabama in April 2011 and the Haiti earthquake in January 2010. Even though this is the first real-life disaster response for the students on the team, they understand they may be asked to do just about anything.  “I’d really like to know that we accomplish something that otherwise wouldn’t have been done,” said Carl Ladd, a senior IRR major from Lincoln, also a rescue instructor. “And I really hope we can do an actual rescue.”

The trip is a homecoming for Tylar Bissell, a junior from Hershey, Pa. Bissell graduated from Blue Mountain Academy and his family lives nearby. “I grew up in the area and know the people and culture,” he said. “I think it will be a good experience.”

Union College’s International Rescue and Relief baccalaureate degree program is  designed for adventurous students who want to work in public safety or serve around the world through humanitarian relief. Certified as emergency medical technicians during their first year, each student must also complete training in wilderness survival, search and rescue, swift water rescue, high angle rescue and other disaster response skills.

To help out, donate through the Rockpile Alumni Community. Simply designate your gift for, "IRR Disaster Response."

Hauff, Kent, Bissell and Ladd will be joined by Kalie Saunders, Matthew Russell, Dan Meachum, Sean Kirk, Sarah Steahly, Kelsey Thompson, Jayci Morgan and Tony Cameron. The team plans to return to Lincoln on Sunday, Nov. 4.