Weathering Superstorm Sandy

Power Outage Strikes Bethesda Homes

When LaToya Caster arrived for her afternoon shift at the Bethesda Lutheran Communities group home in Dumont, N.J., on Oct. 30, she was awed by the destruction around her. The previous night, Superstorm Sandy delivered massive flooding, whipping winds and torrential rain to much of New Jersey.

Homes were destroyed. Towns and cities were battered. Lives were lost.

In total, the storm accounted for more than 100 deaths and many more injuries. For days, and in some cases weeks, thousands of people were without power in their homes. Businesses and schools were closed, some permanently. Sandy also left its mark on Bethesda's three group homes in New Jersey,challenging staff to deliver skilled support under difficult circumstances.

Staff and the three men Bethesda supports at a home in Dumont were presented with significant challenges. The house’s electricity was quickly knocked-out and remained out for 10 days. The night after the storm, travel and lodging around the Dumont home was limited. Moving the men to another location, at that time, was not an option.

“We had to let the men stay overnight because it was too difficult to travel,” said Linda Brinkman, area director for New Jersey. “We couldn’t even be on the roads.”

The trying circumstances tested the mettle, preparation, and professionalism of Bethesda’s New Jersey staff assigned to keep the house safe for the men who live there: Gary Damato, 49; Saverio Lombardo, 56; and Leroy Henry, 49.

"Thanks to teamwork and industry-leading training, Bethesda’s staff was up to the challenge," Brinkman said.


DSP responds to challenge

According to Brinkman, staff performed admirably in the face of the disaster. Caster, 24, a direct support professional (DSP), embodied the sacrifice, caring, and commitment to excellence needed in emergency situations. Despite the wreckage and chaos that consumed much of the region, Caster went to work at Bethesda’s group home in Dumont. She was ready for anything.

The day after Sandy made landfall, Caster began her shift at 2 p.m., relieving two colleagues. Caster was notified that she would be working the next 16 hours alone, providing support for Lombardo, Damato and Henry.

Not a problem, Caster said. She could handle it. During the storm, staff talked to the men and helped them to understand why the home was without heat and power. But it was up to Caster to get them through the falling temperatures, limited light and prolonged time without power.

“I figured I was going to be there for the long-haul anyway, so I might as well get things in order,” Caster said. “Gary, Leroy and Saverio were out of their routine and it was cold.”

Since electricity had been out since the previous night, the unflappable Caster’s primary concern was safety and helping the men adjust to the confusing situation. Caster hustled to organize medications needed for the night. Since her only light source was a battery-powered lantern, Caster did not want to attempt preparing medicine in the dark. While juggling multiple tasks and doing work typically done by two, Caster kept a close eye on the men, especially Damato, who enjoys moving around the two-story home.

“He cannot be left alone,” Diane Damato, Gary Damato’s sister, said. “LaToya is great. I couldn’t ask for any better. To stay 16 hours with the storm blowing, she deserves a lot of credit. I know Gary is in good hands when LaToya is there.”

With the sun setting, Caster made sandwiches for the men; they ate in the waning moments of light. As the temperature in the house continued to fall, Caster helped the men into warmer clothes—sweat pants and sweatshirts, thick socks and jackets.

Although the home was cold and dark, Caster and the men made it through the night without a hitch. No issues. No injuries. No problems.

“The night went smoothly because of Caster, who carried tremendous responsibility,” said Silma Gordon, program manager for Bethesda’s New Jersey group homes.

“To stay for 16 hours alone was very unusual,” Gordon said. “I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed that, especially under those conditions. LaToya never flinched.”


New Jersey team pulls together

According to Brinkman, who prepared staff through numerous email updates leading up to Sandy, Caster and the rest of Bethesda’s New Jersey team handled the catastrophe with great composure, due, in large part, to training and preparation.

“We had just done Bethesda mandated emergency preparedness training in August,” Brinkman said. “We watched the video to get ready for winter storms, but the training benefited everyone during Superstorm Sandy. The staff did an awesome job.”

Bethesda operates three homes in New Jersey. In addition to Dumont, Bethesda has houses in Oakland and Pompton Lakes. The house in Pompton Lakes lost power for two days during the storm and sustained more than $1,500 in damage after a large tree limb crashed through the roof, fracturing a support beam over one of the bedrooms.

Though the Oakland house never lost power or had damage, it played a significant role in Bethesda getting through the aftermath of the storm.

After 36 hours without power at the Dumont home, Brinkman and Gordon made plans to relocate the men. During past natural disasters, like Hurricane Irene in August 2011, people supported by Bethesda in New Jersey either relocated to nearby hotels or the community shelter at St. Mary’s, a Roman Catholic parish near Pompton Lakes.

During Sandy, those options were unavailable. Hotels around the area were booked and the shelter was without power.

After consulting with Damato, Lombardo, Henry, and their families and guardians, the men moved into the Bethesda home in Oakland. The five-bedroom house is home to Shannon Bondesen, 36, Nora Kohlash, 33, Melba Ramirez, 45, and Sharon Wiehle, 52. Because of a room vacancy in each of the homes, there was enough room to accommodate the men for a temporary stay.

“It was divine intervention,” Brinkman said. “I can’t say it enough that we were truly blessed to be able to safely support all the people in our New Jersey homes.”


Making sacrifices to provide support

During the week the three men joined the four women in the Oakland home, Bethesda staff continued their commitment to excellence despite personal challenges.

Briana Clement-Bell, lead direct support professional (LDSP) at the Oakland house, logged a marathon-like schedule, working 32 straight hours with colleagues. Sabrina Hill, another DSP, had her home and car damaged by flooding. She still found a way to get to work. Others worked with flashlights and battery-powered lanterns. And some, including Program Manager Gordon, braved long lines for rationed gasoline so they could make it to work. The Bethesda staff took the challenges in stride.

“In the end, it’s really no different than any other day,” Clement-Bell said. “You just have to have a lot of patience. The biggest piece of this job is just caring enough, and having an appreciation for the people we support.”

Bethesda staff helped the new housemates adjust to their temporary quarters. Staff repeatedly assured the men and women they would soon return to their regular routines. In the end, Brinkman said, the group formed friendships.

“Once everybody settled in, they were interacting. I thought that was great,” said Ann Bondesen, Shannon Bondesen’s mother. “Shannon is very social in her own way. She and Leroy Henry got along great.”

After spending the week in Oakland, the men returned to their Dumont home and the women once again had their Oakland home to themselves.

“Their routine was broken, but the guys got back to normal quickly,” Caster said. “They got back to waking up and going to work, then coming home and getting to do the things they like to do.”

Weeks later, at a Christmas party, the faces of the Dumont men lit up when they saw the women from Oakland, recalled Brinkman. In light of the disaster, the result was a positive one: Everyone was safe, and new friendships were forged.


New video prepared staff

Bethesda’s successful response to Superstorm Sandy was due, in large part, to pro active staff measures and safety training developed by the Bethesda Institute, a division of Bethesda Lutheran Communities. One of Bethesda’s newest training videos, Natural Disaster Preparedness, offered valuable training for Bethesda staff in New Jersey.

According to Connie Horn, Bethesda education consultant, the most important factor during and after a natural disaster is making sure everyone is safe. After safety is ensured, it is essential to continue explaining to people supported what is going on around them, making sure their routines change as little as possible, she said.

“In a crisis, staff also experience stress and anxiousness,” Horn said. “But they must rise above it and channel confidence, repeatedly assuring and communicating with the people they are supporting. All efforts are directed at reducing anxiousness and bringing stress levels down.”






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