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Anthony Monte along with soldiers from the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, New Jersey Army National Guard, assist displaced residents at an emergency shelter in Piscataway Township, N.J. (Master Sgt. Mark Olsen/U.S. Air Force)
Anthony Monte along with soldiers from the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, New Jersey Army National Guard, assist displaced residents at an emergency shelter in Piscataway Township, N.J. (Master Sgt. Mark Olsen/U.S. Air Force)

York graduate student runs shelter with mix of competence, empathy Add to ...

It was early Saturday morning when Tanya Gulliver got the call: Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the U.S. East Coast, thousands were being evacuated and the York University graduate student was needed in New Jersey.

Ms. Gulliver – who was in Louisiana doing research on both the sociological and environmental aspects of disasters – promptly flew halfway across the country to Philadelphia, drove to Rutgers University and took charge of a makeshift shelter.

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By Monday, she was running a mini-village out of a campus gymnasium. Besides providing a place for more than 300 evacuees to ride out the storm, the shelter offers food, medical attention and a point of contact for people to locate family members.

“I’m the go-to person for every question,” Ms. Gulliver said in a telephone interview. “It’s all go, go, go.”

While earning her PhD in environmental studies, the 44-year-old has worked with the Red Cross on previous disasters, running a shelter in Vermont during Hurricane Irene, which battered the northeastern U.S. in 2011, and taking part in the relief effort after Hurricane Isaac in Louisiana two months ago.

When she arrived in New Jersey, officials with the Department of Homeland Security had bussed 200 people from the Atlantic City area to the shelter. Ms. Gulliver set to work ensuring they were all registered and had filled out medical intake forms – a vital step to keep track of those hit by the disaster and determine their needs. She also made sure everyone was fed, with meals supplied by the state.

Since then, her tasks have varied widely. Among other things, she helped organize a dozen of the shelter’s 75 children into a “food patrol,” charged with keeping the shelter tidy and bringing meals to disabled evacuees. When a group of doctors arrived, she linked them up with people who needed medical care.

With a large number of Spanish-speaking people at the shelter, she had to arrange for translators. Among her many jobs Monday was to find a source of baby formula.

“Everybody who does disaster work works together,” she said, pointing to the multitude of different groups that have pitched in to keep the shelter going.

While the Red Cross provided breakfast Monday, the Salvation Army supplied hot dogs and hamburgers for lunch, spaghetti for dinner and coffee all day. Through state police, she was hoping to help one family at the shelter get their loved ones evacuated.

But for all the time taken up by these logistical tasks, Ms. Gulliver spoke most often of the more human side of her job Monday: helping those who need a hand getting around the shelter, for instance, or comforting those people worried about the condition of the homes they left behind in the path of the storm.

On Sunday night, Ms. Gulliver said she got just 90 minutes of sleep, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to her. Upbeat and articulate, she said first-hand experience dealing with storms has informed her research.

“I’ve taken courses in disaster response, but you can’t really visualize it until it rolls out – what roles people fill, how they work together,” she said.

The first step is to get the shelter up and running, and get the word out so people know there’s a place to go to ride out the storm, she said. Next comes the co-ordination of logistics, finding food and other supplies to meet their needs.

This work has also given Ms. Gulliver greater empathy: During Hurricane Isaac, her own home’s power was knocked out for six days and she returned to a nearly bare fridge.

“It’s made this a lot more personal,” she said. “When people tell me their stories, I can relate.”

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