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College of Nursing responds to Hurricane Matthew

October 24, 2016

When Hurricane Matthew brought high winds and devastating flooding to eastern North Carolina in early October, the region's residents were left stranded, with damaged property and homes, or worse. In response to the disaster, East Carolina University College of Nursing faculty, staff and students did what they do best — pull together.

A community in need
After the storm cleared, fourth-semester nursing student Jonathan Jeffries assessed the Greenville home he shares with his wife, Ruthanna, and helped a neighbor remove a fallen tree. Then he really got to work. As president of the senior nursing class, Jeffries knew he could mobilize help in response to flooding that was expected to worsen in the coming days.

"I sent the emails and within an hour I already had a significant list of names to be put on working parties," he said.

ECU College of Nursing Hurricane Matthew Response Team
ECU College of Nursing Hurricane Matthew Response Team

Even though many students had left Greenville for Fall Break by the time the storm hit, anyone who was here and could help, did. Collaborating with Brody and other ECU Health Sciences colleagues as well as the Red Cross and the City of Greenville, nursing students helped evacuate residents from Cypress Glen Retirement Community, filled sandbags to help protect student housing along the Tar River, assisted with evacuations of families along the northern banks of the river, volunteered at shelters for displaced families, and organized and contributed to multiple donation drives in the week after the storm.

Jeffries said that nursing students were especially suited to act because many of them had taken an American Red Cross disaster training module as part of a required community health class. They were able to immediately assist in shelters without having to first take the mandatory course.

"We already knew what had to be done or what was upcoming because we've had the training," he said. "We knew we were going to have to collect water and get it out to the shelters. We knew people were going to need food. You've got to have your basic needs met."

The students also assisted with College of Nursing faculty- and staff-led recovery efforts. As the Tar River approached major flood stage, nursing-affiliated volunteers contributed to the delivery of more than 800 hot, homemade meals to displaced residents. Faculty, staff and students also assisted in towns throughout the region, taking part in activities such as establishing a shelter in Ayden, evacuating homes in Grifton, working at shelters in Lumberton and Farmville, and donating countless goods and funds for those impacted by the event.

While nursing graduate students were certainly among those volunteering, they were also the ones working in the region's health care facilities in the storm's wake, said Dr. Robin Webb Corbett, chair of the department of advanced nursing practice and education. Many graduate students complete courses through distance education and are working professionals.

"These were the people who came to work on Saturday and worked throughout the disaster in hospitals or shelters," Webb Corbett said. "They had to stay on disaster call and couldn't take care of family and home."

Students' enthusiastic reaction to the storm was heartening, said Dr. Alta Andrews, director for community partnerships and practice.

"These students didn't take any closed doors. They were going to help no matter what," she said. "They get what it means to be a Pirate Nurse. It's thinking about others and your community."

A family rallies
Emails sent college-wide from College of Nursing Dean Sylvia Brown and administrators following Hurricane Matthew had one thing in common: a concern for general well-being for faculty, staff and students.

"We really are a family in the College of Nursing," Brown said. "We wanted everyone to know that this family was there to assist in any way possible."

This compassionate approach took many shapes after the storm. Faculty encouraged students through email to focus on home life (and not worry about school) during the university closure. It was made clear that there would be no tests or graded assignments the week that classes resumed. When they returned to campus, a daylong session for all undergraduate students started with an hour-long period focused on assessing students' storm recovery needs and pointing them to resources. Each session that day was recorded so students still stranded by floodwaters could access the material.

"We wanted to know that they were all okay and accounted for," said Dr. Annette Peery, associate dean for the undergraduate nursing program. "We knew that they have to have their own needs met before we can help them learn how to care for other people."

Counselors were made available, and a "disaster relief" table let students complete a form to notify administrators if they needed anything such as shelter, books, funds or food. The college even provided pizza for lunch the first day back.

"That debriefing session was the weight off our shoulders," Jordan Jackson, a third-semester nursing student from Goldsboro. "The mood was very concerned, every faculty member was like, 'What can we do to help?'"

Graduate faculty took a personal approach as well, emailing each of their students to point them to resources and accommodate their needs for extended deadlines or anything else they needed.

"We've tried to be flexible with due dates knowing these are working professionals who may still be responding to a disaster in their home or work environment," Corbett said.

This generous spirit continues today. Seniors who will graduate in December have donated their used  textbooks to students in need, the college has made disbursements from its Student Emergency Needs Fund, and nursing student organizations have raised money for a fellow student who lost all of her belongings in the flooding. Students, faculty and staff donated cleaning supplies at the college fall picnic to donate to area families recovering from the storm.

Reflecting on the impulse to help in a time of need, Jeffries summed up what is likely a common sentiment in the College of Nursing this semester.

"The way I think is you're going into a career field where it's your job to help people," he said, "so whenever I see people in need, I can't help but want to help them in some shape or way."