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Searching for a sense of normalcy

Mary Anne Nagy

Mary Anne Nagy lives in Eatontown, New Jersey, and is the Vice President of Student Affairs at Monmouth University. The University became a temporary relief shelter for Monmouth County residents during the storm. MaryAnn organized food preparation for the shelter, and she also provided support to the remaining students on campus who were unable to evacuate. In her narrative, she discusses the preparation of the shelter, the challenges she faced in keeping the shelter stocked, and the plans she put into place to keep students safe during the storm.


When did you first hear that there would be a shelter at Monmouth University?

Interestingly, the Friday before [the storm] the president of the University called me into his office because he had been contacted by the county and the state about the university potentially being a shelter site. One of the areas I oversee in my role as Vice President is crisis management. I also oversee the food service operation for the campus, as well as counseling and health services, so the President shared with me that this was a possibility. It hadn’t been finalized but we talked about what that might mean in terms of my role and how that would affect what we were doing because we also needed to keep our students safe. So I learned three days before the storm.

Have you been involved in hurricane preparation before?

About a year or so before [Hurricane Sandy], in late August, there was a storm by the name of Irene, that was projected to create some difficultly here and we prepared for that. A lot of the plans that we were going to put into effect we didn’t need to fully operationalize because Irene didn’t really affect the area as much as they thought it would. But in my view it was great preparation for Sandy because a lot of the things that we implemented for Sandy we had already thought about doing and in some cases put into effect for Hurricane Irene the year before.

What was your part in the creation of the shelter?

My role was pretty much to help figure out how, operationally, we would be doing some things on the food service side. Not necessarily working with our food service to feed those that were being sheltered there but how might we be able to help feed the staff that was working there. Initially I think we all thought, ok Sunday it’s starting to look a little darker and winds picking up, Monday is going to be a lot of rain, and we are going to have a lot of wind and we’ll lose power but, by Tuesday or Wednesday everything should be back to normal.

So the initial thought was, ok we’re still going to have to operate our residential dining facility which is the only place really on this campus that has a generator large enough to heat, light, cool, and cook everything.

As it became clear that the storm was going to be a lot more of a challenge than what people expected, then it was how many people can you feed? Can you feed the public health people, can you feed the medical staff, can you feed the sheriff’s officers?

Each entrance to this campus was closed off and at several of those entrances there were National Guard people. So there were RV trucks with military officers in uniform, that were basically guarding the main entrances to the campus because we needed to make sure that only people who were authorized to be here were here. And so can you feed them? We probably fed three, four, five hundred people including my own students a day. For every meal. We operated from eight, nine o’clock in the morning all the way until 7, 8 o’clock at night. The longer people were there, the harder the situation was. I mean these were people who left a house or an apartment and had [only] a garbage bag full of clothes, just whatever they could stuff in it, so that was the residents of the shelter. The people who were working to take care of them, they were really in a stressful environment for a very long time and so them being able to leave that environment, go over to our residential dining facility to have a meal, to check in with their own family, to make sure they were ok, it really almost became a respite for them and so that was one of my primary roles.

But also as the Vice President for student life, I have 2,000 students that live with me here on campus or at the oceanfront. I also have 1,000 students that live in houses that are contiguous apartments. I had student that we had to evacuate from the oceanfront. I sent most of my students home on that Friday knowing that we were going to be closed that Monday [and] Tuesday. We said to students if you can get home, go home. If it’s safe for you to go home. Don’t go home if you are going home to Long Beach Island or Atlantic City or the north shore of Long Island. Stay with us, we’ll take care of you. So at the same time that we are trying to take care of the people in the shelter, we still had probably two hundred more students that we had to shelter here and take care of, and feed, and make sure they were ok. We fed frankly anyone who walked in the door and we really didn’t think about who we are feeding or say well no you don’t belong with this group, we tried to control it and get some sense of how many were our students, how many were National Guard, how many were whatever, but we didn’t turn anybody away.

Were there any complications or issues in the shelter?

There seemed to be some initial confusion about who was coming and where they were coming from. Apparently there was a group that they were evacuated from Atlantic City, they were supposed to go more towards the New Brunswick area and they were on a bus. They bounced out towards Trenton and then they were finally sent back to the shelter here. I think the issue was that it was a county shelter. That group finally landed here and there was actually a fairly large group that came from the Atlantic City area. There were processes that they had set up for people who came to the shelter. Basically a registration, check in process so they knew who was there, where they were from, and it was I think very well organized in general.

When you have 1200 people in a facility for that many days, you have got to clean it. You have bathrooms that need to be clean. There are people who have severe medical situations. We even took over the sports medicine area and it basically became an infirmary for the shelter residents who needed things like there were residents who needed to be on oxygen, who needed some sort of medical device that had to be plugged into a wall. We had to get extra power to make sure that if, for example, they had to have a breathing machine to help them breath that we had that.

Frankly, there were a number of residents in the shelter that struggled with alcohol or drug addiction and they were having withdrawal. Some needed to be sent to the hospital and some needed methadone to help that. There was a medical core of people that were also there that would help care for folks. It was like running a little army hospital. The National Guard was also there and sort of set up a field hospital. There were babies, there were children that needed formula and diapers.

There was a little bit of a challenge [with] some mechanical things. The entire facility does not have a generator so we had to make sure we got some extra power. The toilets in our multi-purpose activity center were automatic flush toilets so it needs power so our staff had to figure out how, from an engineering perspective, they could bypass it. I think that the place was kept neat, clean, and orderly and that people were treated with dignity and respect because it was probably one of the darker moments in their lives so you want to make sure that the level of interaction all of your staff had, whether it was with the sheriff officers or it was with our custodial staff, was fabulous. I’m sure they went outside the lines of their job description.

I mean there were some residents who I think probably had some mental health challenges, alcohol and drug challenges, that were exacerbated by a really horrible experience like having to leave your home, not knowing if it’s there or not there and I think for some residents it was tough for them and that was hard to see.

The shelter residents were not able to just walk around campus because also remember there was a period of time where we didn’t have power as well we had trees that were down. We were very fortunate that we didn’t have a lot of damage to campus but we had a lot of trees downs and some things like that so there were some restriction about where they could go within or around the campus. Initially, people were pretty good about understanding that but they grew frustrated with it. I think they grew frustrated because the longer they were there, the more they started to see and hear about what the devastation was, they knew that there house was gone, they knew that whatever they had was in the things that they brought with them and that’s it. They knew that they were getting pretty anxious about where am I going now, what is my next step.

You can hang out for a day or two but then you get a little stir crazy. You don’t know what’s going on in your own house, you don’t know how long you’re going to be there, and the kids started to get a little crazy.

After the storm hit, was there anything that needed to be done in the shelter?

If you could get onto the campus, the President asked all his Vice Presidents to come to campus because we had a meeting every day, every morning at 9 or 9:30 to get a briefing and update about what happened the night before, what was happening that day, what kind of sense were we getting in terms of when power could be fully restored, how many residents were in the shelter. Then we re-gathered at 3:00 to have another briefing and every day we put together an email that we sent out to all of our students and all of our faculty, staff, and administration giving them an update about what was happening on campus and what was happening in the area surrounding us. So many people said they lived for that email. Like they weren’t getting a lot of information because again, they may have had limited power themselves, but it was a way for them to look forward every day about the same time getting some sort of a communication that the campus is fine. So the first day, the campus survived, we are a shelter, we hope you survived, this is what is happening, the second day and the third day and we did that all the way until the people were returned back November 7th.

After the initial shelter closed, was everyone evacuated from there or was there a secondary shelter?

There was at the very end less than two hundred that remained. As things started to improve and people learned that their house was ok, or they had some damage but they could live in it, or it was lost but they could go, they gradually started to move out, go home, face the fact that it was gone and they had arrangements with family and friends. We needed to get back to our normal operations and the state had set up another shelter over at the Monmouth Park Racetrack so a group of probably 200 or so maybe 250 residents from here, were transferred over there.

You said that your other responsibility was to help shelter the student still at the university, how did you keep track of what students were still on campus and which ones left?

Well, as I said, we have 2,000 students that live with us, about 1,600 live on campus, another 400 live along the oceanfront so my residential life staff people gathered everyone on that Friday before the storm. We made the decision that we would completely evacuate Peer Village and the Diplomat Apartments no later than noontime on Sunday. So if you lived in those two facilities you either went home, you went to the home of friends, or you were relocated back here to the main campus by noontime on Sunday. And then we went through all of our building to find out who was going home, who was staying because they couldn’t get home, and who we then needed to house from the oceanfront and we had all of that data ready to go by Sunday afternoon. All of my res life staff were required on campus by a certain time until we could tell the police exactly who was living here and who was authorized to live here because God forbid anything happen here on campus, we need to know whose here so we can take care of it.

So once the students chose to stay on campus were they not allowed to leave for a certain amount of time?

We knew that the storm was going to hit probably early Monday morning through the next day so basically we asked to do what we call shelter in place which is to [stay] in the building that you’re in so we asked students to shelter in place for that period of time. We made sure we also had bottled water [and] glow sticks. We have thousands of them and we made sure that wherever we had students that were living in buildings that we had those deployed there. We made sure that they had enough food from the dining hall to stay in that building for two days cause you didn’t want the students running around to the dining hall to get some food [during the storm.] People pretty much hunkered down all day on that Monday and then we lost power on campus sometime Monday afternoon around the time the rest of the area lost power.

Were there any complications with trying to get the students to stay in place or follow the plans?

No, I would say that a good number of students went home. The one good thing was we knew several days in advance that the storm was going to hit and was probably going to be bad enough that if you could go home, go home cause if you got to be without power, you might as well be home with your family. We were only dealing with a couple hundred students that couldn’t get away, didn’t have any place to go, or going home was not going to be good for them for they were right in the midst of where it was going to hit so it helped to only have to manage several hundred instead of several thousand. I think students were very good about cooperating with us particularly when they know these kinds of issues where it’s sort of out of your control. When you have a blizzard and there’s twelve, fourteen inched of snow, student are pretty good about working with us. The students were terrific.

Could you elaborate on the damage the campus sustained?

Yeah we had obviously lost power, we had a couple of windows or doors that sustained damage because of wind in terms of broken or cracked glass. We had a lot of trees that were down but that was pretty much it. I think because we had three days, we a lot of time on campus. Our facilities management people literally went around and gathered all the benches and stuff together and set in such a way that it was not going to be moved. Like all our garbage cans from outside that get picked up in the wind can fly and hurt someone and go through a window. They can hit you, they can hit a car, or whatever it was. We really did a lot of work over those three days to make sure we were ready. We sand bagged places we know normally get flooded. We made sure that the places were where we had generators. So that was a little bit of a challenge.

What was the morale of the students when they came back?

The students were very grateful to come back to campus after ten or twelve days of being home with no power and it’s nice to have a couple of days off but you want to get back. We all were searching to get back to some sense of normalcy. It’s probably a new normal for many people but the getting up every day and going to class and going to do your workout and going out with your friend, people were ready to get back to some sense of normalcy. I had student, faculty, and staff who also lost their homes, who also were devastated by this so we housed them. We did a huge fundraiser here on campus and we were able to give checks to every faculty, staff, student, and administrators that lost something and you didn’t have to prove it, you just fill out a form. We had people who gave us money, trustees and others that helped support this so everybody got some things. It was a lot of coming together but I think students were happy to get back a normal experience.

What do you think New Jersey can do differently when the next storm happens? What do you think we have learned from Sandy or can be learned?

I think that as a state we have to think about, should people be able to live on the oceanfront? The way they live on the oceanfront now, there is a lot of discussion of should you be building dunes to protect places? Some people don’t want the dunes because they want to be able to see the ocean from their house and they can’t from the dunes. Some people want to live on the oceanfront because it’s beautiful but does that persons desire to live on the oceanfront supersede what should be done to protect the rest of the communities and should the beaches just go back to just being a more natural state so that if you have a storm like that, you’re not having houses that are being wiped out. Do we need to do more with better infrastructure? A lot of the reason why you lost power the way you lost power was because so much of our power line are still above the ground. Some of your communities may not. In my area of town, all of our power is underground, all of our utilities are buried, but if you are in some of the towns where it’s still telephone poles and electrical wires, should we be trying to put all of that below the ground? So I think those are some of the things that we need to be thinking about.

Interviewed by Gina Palmisano
Assisted by Megan Moast
Edited by Gina Palmisano
West Long Branch, New Jersey
Recorded March 14, 2015