Alumni responding to Crisis: When Disaster Struck, BYU Nursing Alumni Answered the Call

The two historic storms slammed into the Southeast coast of United States within mere weeks of each other. The National Weather Service called Hurricane Harvey “unprecedented.”

According to CNN, Harvey dropped an estimated 27 trillion gallons of rain over the course of six days and left a third of Houston, Texas, flooded. Irma was the strongest hurricane to hit Florida in over a decade, dumping more than 10 inches of rain and leaving nearly three-quarters of the state in the dark. Because of the impacts of these storms, the 2017 hurricane season may be the most expensive in US history.

During these hard times of destruction and uncertainty, many people stepped in to help combat the devastating effects of the hurricanes. Among them were BYU College of Nursing alumni.

The Damage

“I was shocked by the impact [of the hurricanes],” says Paige Newman Dayhuff (BS ’16), who lives in the northern Houston area of Conroe. “Along some roads, every house was gutted, and the first floor was bare to the wood framing.”

Dayhuff saw firsthand much of the damage, particularly when officials released water from an upstream dam to prevent it from bursting. Officials told the Wall Street Journal that in Houston alone, at least 136,000 buildings were flooded during Harvey’s rampage.

“The freeways, both northbound and southbound from us, were blocked by water,” she says. “In some low-lying areas, the water had risen over fifteen feet and flooded the freeway entrances and exits. My home as never flooded, but houses about five minutes from us were.”

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Kimberly Coleby Ethington (BS ’99) of Tomboll, Texas, was working at the hospital when Hurricane Harvey first hit.

“I was up on the seventh floor of a NICU/nursery unit,” Ethington says. “We listened to the rain and wind all night. I was told to pack a bag just in case the roads would not be passable to make it back home.”

Ethington did manage to get home, but her neighborhood flooded soon after, preventing her from returning to the hospital for several days. Her coworkers at the hospital fared little better.

“Basically whoever was at the hospital Saturday morning stayed until the following Tuesday or Wednesday trapped at the hospital and flooded in,” she says. “Through the tornado warnings, all babies and parents were moved to one inside hallway and triage room. One floor of the hospital that had not been in use was made available during the storm and up to two weeks after for families of workers who had no place to go. We called it Hotel Harvey.”

Oncology nurse Joanne Grant Dortch’s (AS ’84) own place of work was hard hit as well. “Our clinic lost power for a week, and I was stranded at my house in Kingwood during that time due to flooding,” she says.

The Job

One of the main ways in which BYU nursing alumni responded to the hurricanes was continuing to work as nurses.

The Wednesday following Harvey’s initial landfall, the roads were clearer, and Ethington returned to the hospital to work the night shift as a recovery nurse. The hospital had also flown in several nurses from out of state to address the massive needs that Harvey created.

“I worked several nights in a row and some days on my floor until things got back to normal over the week,” Ethington says. “We did have one baby that could have been discharged earlier, but her parents’ home had been flooded, and we weren’t going to send a preemie to a hotel, so we let the family stay a few extra days rooming in.”

“When we were able to get out onto the roads and to another clinic that wasn’t affected by Harvey, we called all of our patients to check on them, do whatever we could to help, and get them back on their chemo schedules,” says Dortch. “These patients become our friends, and we love them. We were worried about their white cells, red cells, and platelets being low, we worried about pain, infection, having nowhere to live in some cases, and so many other things.”

The Cleanup

Following Harvey, many members in wards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rallied to assist in the cleanup. Dayhuff’s ward was one of them.

“Members of our congregation responded immediately to flooded houses, organizing groups to help with people’s homes in the area,” Dayhuff says. “We probably spent about three weeks cleaning out houses, with some people working for up to ten hours every day.”

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Tricia Bunderson (BS ’09)

She explained that members were divided into teams that would help gut homes and help the owners clean. They wore masks to prevent inhaling mold spores or other contaminants. They frequently would walk to the neighbors’ houses right after to offer assistance.

“Sheetrock, furniture, appliances, anything on the first level that had been in the water had to be discarded,” she says. “We piled the waste on the sides of the road. I was just in awe of the number of homes affected. It’s not like a fire, where one or two houses are burned, but whole neighborhoods that were destroyed. I had never been part of a natural disaster, and it was overwhelming to think of all the people affected.”

Throughout all these experiences, BYU nursing alumni proved that the Healer’s art could be practiced anywhere, be it in the hospital or a house ruined by flooding.

“For about three consecutive Sundays we had condensed church meetings, gathering for only an hour and dispersing to cleaning out homes right after,” Dayhuff says. “I loved gathering in our jeans and yellow Mormon Helping Hands shirts—there was just such a feeling of willingness to serve and anticipation for being able to help others.”

As a nurse, Dayhuff also served as a “handwashing enforcer” at the sites. She later worked sorting out deliveries of supplies at a donation zone in a converted steel manufacturing warehouse. She says she was overwhelmed by the charity and love displayed by people.

“We had truckloads of donations arriving hourly—food, hygiene supplies, bedding, so many clothes, cleaning supplies, baby products, books, toys. We had everything pouring in,” she says. “After a week of organizing, we opened the facility to those needing the supplies. The flood victims came through with shopping carts and were able to take what they needed according to the number of people in their family. Many of the people had lost everything. I felt so blessed to see their reaction when they received the donations. I wish those who had sent the donations could have seen the gratitude and humility on those people’s faces!”

“Today I got my chance to go help for a few hours,” says Tricia Terry Bunderson (BS ’09). “It was hot. It was smelly. The mold was already setting in. But I’ve never been so happy to get my hands dirty and help strangers who have lost so much.”

Bunderson’s family realizes that the amount of cleanup and rebuilding to be done is daunting, but they know that it takes one day at a time for the city to recover.

“I’ve seen grocery stores stocking shelves as fast as humanly possible, nurses working even though their own homes have been flooded, and oil workers pulling long shifts to get the plants up and running again. This teamwork really pulls at my heart. I am in awe of the hardworking, selfless, and brave people of Houston. We truly are #hoUStonstrong.”

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Sometimes circumstances prevented BYU alumni from being able to work in the cleanup, but their family members attended. The experiences taught them lessons about gratitude.

Amy Culter Benson (BS ’00) lives in Haslet, Texas, almost six hours’ drive time from where Harvey hit. Her husband, an LDS bishop, brought sixty members of their congregation to the cleanup efforts at the invitation of an Area Seventy. Benson had a nursing baby and was unable to go with the crews, but she prepared supplies, babysat kids, and packed lunches.

“They left before dawn on Saturday morning and drove five hours to Port Arthur. They tore down sheetrock, ripped out carpet, removed furniture, clothing, toys, and appliances,” Benson says. “Dave, my husband, felt the words to several LDS hymns they sang in sacrament meeting were especially powerful—‘Because I Have Been Given Much,’ ‘Come, Follow Me,’ and ‘Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel.’ It was a powerful experience to be part of a huge cleanup effort like that.”

Ethington found herself in a similar situation.

“As I worked the night shift those first few days when people started cleaning up, my teenagers during the day went out to serve,” she says “They helped families in the neighborhoods close by that we knew at first. The weeks after we joined Helping Hand crews to help muck out homes further away. It was a memorable experience for our family.”

Some of the College of Nursing’s other Helping Hands volunteers were Rachel Camille Stewart (BS ’00) and her family. Although the Stewarts’ home in Augusta, Georgia, is more than 100 miles from the coast, the Stewarts have already helped clean up after five hurricanes, sometimes spending as much as eight hours traveling to reach impacted areas. Like Benson, Stewart has usually stayed at home with the kids while her husband and two teenage sons have gone to work clearing debris and fallen trees.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma—just two weeks after Stewart’s husband was called to be a bishop—an Area Seventy asked for volunteers to serve in inundated Jacksonville, Florida, which experienced its worst flooding in almost 100 years.

Stewart says their story is not unique. For years, many of their LDS neighbors have also answered the call to help in areas across the Southeast.

“The blessings of laboring in the service of others brings such joy that the youth in our area jump at the chance to participate,” Stewart explains. “Even though the work is long and difficult, the people served are always so grateful for the cheerful service provided. Truly it is a blessing to be able to literally and figuratively lift the burdens of our brothers and sisters in need.”

Steven Tibbitts, Jonathan Schroeder, and Jeff L. Peery contributed to the research and writing of this article.

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