Vichy fire chaplain called upon to help after Superstorm Sandy

After working 12 to sometimes 15 hours each day for two weeks in storm-ravaged neighborhoods, an area fire chaplain came away with the knowledge that people, no matter their differences, can come together after devastation.

“Good does come out of disaster,” said Dave Clifton, who has been the Vichy Fire Department chaplain for one year. “The people I encountered are resilient. I was very impressed. They were sad, but they have a positive outlook on life.”

Clifton was among a group of about 19 chaplains from across the country who were called upon in November to help after Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast in late October 2012.

Clifton, who is a member of the Federation of Fire Chaplains and also served as a chaplain for one year at General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital at Fort Leonard Wood, was one of three chaplains in Missouri to assist for two weeks in November. The other two were from the St. Louis and Independence areas. He also was one of only about two fire chaplains in the group of 19.

Clifton remembers getting a call from the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the American Red Cross Nov. 13 and was asked to deploy in 48 hours.

“I personally was shocked to get called,” Clifton said. He left Nov. 15 and returned Nov. 29.

During the two weeks, he volunteered his services as chaplain and was given daily assignments from the Red Cross to complete from about 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or longer each day on Coney Island, Staten Island, Rockaway Beach and New Jersey.

Clifton said a team consisting of a chaplain, a social worker and a nurse would go door to door, meet the residents and see what their needs were as well as offer condolence calls for those who had family members who died in the storm. The residents were contacted first to make sure it was OK before the chaplains, social workers and nurses stopped by.

As chaplain, Clifton would provide spiritual counseling and ask about their spiritual needs as well as pray, if the residents wanted to.

Clifton, who described himself as a religious man and is a member of St. Patrick’s, said, “The presence of God was there and is working.”

Clifton said the residents he met were in disbelief, “but they’re happy to talk. Our job was to listen to their story. There were a lot of tears and a lot of hugs. Their main concern is what will happen after we leave.”

He recalled the story of an 80-year-old man who was caught in high water and had to pull himself along a fence to safety. Another man who Clifton spoke with had to seek refuge in the second story on his home after tidal waves from two different directions converged on his neighborhood.

Social workers would help to make sure victims’ need for power, food, clothing and supplies was met and the nurses would help ensure residents got their medicine or oxygen tanks. Clifton remembers one case in which a diabetic patient, who had his foot removed during surgery, lost his medication and by contacting a social worker and Red Cross nurse, the patient was able to get medication within an hour.

Clifton said he also drove food trucks and on Thanksgiving Day, he helped serve meals at a church.

In many neighborhoods, families of different nationalities live close together and because of language barriers, Clifton said it was his and others’ jobs to help communicate the residents’ needs to the Red Cross and other government agencies.

“This also brought neighborhoods together and in some cases, they now know their neighbors,” Clifton said. “And regardless of their nationality or language barrier, people are people and they were all working together.”

While Clifton was there to counsel the residents, he said in some cases, they ended up counseling him.

Superstorm Sandy was the first major disaster Clifton responded to in his lifetime. While he is a Vietnam War veteran, he said in the case of the storm, “This is home. These are people like you and me.”

Clifton said if he was asked to go back, he would. “This is an ongoing long-term event. It’s going to take months and months and maybe years,” Clifton said. “It was a life-changing event for me. It was a unique experience.”

Clifton also encouraged anybody who wants to contribute toward relief efforts to donate to the Red Cross or Catholic Charities and to make sure they designate their donation to Hurricane Sandy. People also can donate to their local churches.

As 2013 begins, the Red Cross continues to help people affected by Superstorm Sandy by providing food, emotional support and assistance almost 80 days after the storm made landfall.

Approximately 1,000 Red Cross workers are still on the ground supporting survivors as longer-term recovery efforts begin. In addition, as of Jan. 3, the Red Cross has distributed more than 6.7 million relief and cleanup items and has provided more than 9.6 million meals and snacks since the storm came ashore.