In Response to Sandy

"Jenny's apartment was in the mandatory evacuation zone and she fled Manhattan about 12 hours before the severe flooding hit."

From the parent of a Wheaton alumna:

Jenny's apartment was in the mandatory evacuation zone and she fled Manhattan about 12 hours before the severe flooding hit. It was the parents of one of last year’s roommates who rescued her first. They drove down to Hoboken, New Jersey to pick her up and have her stay in their home for two days. Then, when Jenny had to return to the city for work, her class president and his three friends let her stay on their couch for a few days. This was not a long term solution so we all began calling anyone we remotely knew in Manhattan to see if someone could take Jenny. My only friend there was stranded in Florida and already had seven displaced persons living in her two bedroom apartment. My brother found a Wheaton football friend on a social networking site and called him. They had not spoken in 15 years but the man and his wife have graciously taken Jenny in for the last three days. I must say that in times like this the price of a Wheaton education is worth every penny.

This example is just one of the many ways that the Wheaton community has rallied around one another in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the East Coast on October 29th and 30th, 2012. The storm destroyed more than 300,000 housing units in New York alone, left 8.51 million people across 16 states without power, and caused an estimated $20 billion in property damage.

A month later, families are still trying to recover from the devastating storm, and the recovery will continue for years to come.

Dr. Jamie Aten of Wheaton’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute says that first and foremost, people need to remember that recovery takes place in community. “I would encourage those directly affected not to go through this alone.”

Dr. Aten is no stranger to disaster recovery. His family moved to Mississippi six days before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and he saw firsthand the important role that the local church played in reaching out to meet people’s needs. “Not just the local church but the world church,” he says. “We saw the larger church coming together to really address the needs that were left.”

Dr. Aten spent the next five years responding to a number of different disasters, including what has been termed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. He began teaching as a psychology professor at Wheaton’s Graduate School in 2010, bringing to the College community his interest in disaster relief and a vision for opportunities “to work with and equip local churches, domestically and globally.” Dr. Aten, together with Dr. David Boan, created the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton in 2011. HDI is the first faith-based academic disaster research center.

So how does HDI work?

“There’s a strong psychosocial care and support piece to what we do,” says Dr. Aten, “but at the same time, the way HDI is configured is that we also have faculty fellows from different departments all over campus who bring together their unique areas of expertise. We collaborate together and also work with our undergraduate and graduate students to help carry out our various projects.

“HDI is not a relief organization,” Dr. Aten explains. “We come alongside those who are doing the work on the ground to provide technical expertise, applied research, and training.”

A current project includes research by undergraduate geology, applied mathematics, and computer science students who are working with HDI creating an integrated online social network, GIS map, and mobile apps for pastors in Japan to meet their communication needs after the 2011 tsunami and in preparation of any future disaster. HDI is also working on projects in Uzbekistan, Haiti, Africa, India, New Zealand, Alabama, Montana, and Illinois (Dupage and Cook Counties). When Sandy hit the East Coast, Dr. Aten says they began focusing on how to meet the needs of people directly affected by the storm.

“In response to Hurricane Sandy, one of the things we were hearing from a lot of churches in the East was concern about the disaster’s spiritual and emotional care issues.” HDI brought together 15 psychology graduate students to develop a “‘Disaster Spiritual and Emotional Care Tip Sheet’ series that local clergy or lay leaders can use when working with survivors.”

“We have sought to demonstrate what the faith community brings in times of disaster. We’ve tried to help other organizations see that in the event of a disaster it’s often the local churches that are the very first ones on the ground ready to help; and when other groups have long left, it’s often still the local churches that continue to help provide for the unmet needs of a community.”

“Our goal is to make a difference in the lives of those directly affected by disasters by partnering with and strengthening local churches to be able to better prepare, respond and recover from disasters.” HDI has many resources available on their website for how people can meet the needs of those affected by a storm like Sandy.