Nobody thought it was going to be like this.
“The sentiment was very much (that Hurricane) Irene wasn’t that bad, so Sandy won’t be either,” said Jacob Vanderbilt, a June graduate of Davis High School who’s now a freshman in college in New Jersey. “But it was bad.”
Vanderbilt rode out Hurricane Sandy with his friends in his dorm at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, watching a movie on a laptop.
“One of the kids across the hall even got to see the whole city light up and (then) lose power,” Vanderbilt said.
That night, Oct. 29, his school sent out an email asking for volunteers to show up in the morning. Vanderbilt and about 50 others came.
Volunteer coordinators divided the students and community members into small groups, aiming to have a Spanish translator in each group. Vanderbilt, who knows Spanish from his time at César Chávez Elementary School and subsequent Spanish classes, was placed as a translator for one such group.
The groups were sent to senior citizens’ homes to check on residents and to determine if anyone needed evacuation or medical attention. Vanderbilt’s group was driven in a Buffalo, a nickname for one of the vehicles left by the National Guard the night before, slowly moving past cars in the street and fallen trees to their assigned building. The truck also could cut through the flood waters that completely surrounded the nine-story senior residence.
The seniors, the vast majority of whom were Hispanic, were scared but safe, Vanderbilt said.
“We were alerted to one man who was in really bad shape,” he said. “His next-door neighbor told us that he was diabetic and he hadn’t left his room in several days.”
As the group entered the room, it became clear that the man needed emergency treatment, Vanderbilt said.
While Vanderbilt had help from bilingual residents in the community rooms, he was linguistically on his own with the man, who spoke only Spanish. The man was “trying to be courteous,” according to Vanderbilt, saying that he didn’t want to inconvenience the team.
“I tried to explain to him that we were there to help him; it wasn’t a matter of our comfort,” Vanderbilt said. “We were there to get him to safety, if that’s what he needed.”
The man eventually consented to being rescued, and EMTs were called. After making sure the man was with medical professionals, Vanderbilt and his group continued to check the building, but no further medical evacuations were necessary.
“We hitched a ride back on one of the Buffalos, and later that night I went back for another shift,” Vanderbilt said.
The freshman continued to volunteer for the rest of the week, showing up at Hoboken City Hall at 8 a.m. and leaving at 8 p.m., when the falling darkness and lack of power forced the work to stop. On Election Day, they had to leave, as their staging area became a polling place. On Nov. 7, the students were back in school.
“A full week later, I was back in classes, which was a pretty abrupt change,” Vanderbilt said.
Community service comes naturally to Vanderbilt, who was honored in June with Davis High School’s top citizenship award, the Gordon H. True Cup.
He said the experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy gave him perspective, as well as a greater appreciation for growing up in Davis and the Spanish Immersion program.
“I really appreciate (learning Spanish) now, having seen all the benefits that it provides,” Vanderbilt said. “(The fact) that I’m still able to reach back and use conversational Spanish is a tribute to the teachers and the school system that Davis has.”
— Reach Anna Sturla at firstname.lastname@example.org