Nurses Answering the Call

Hurricanes, floods and earthquakes are no match for heroic nurses

By Genevieve M. Clavreul, RN, Ph.D.Working Nurse Magazine

Nurses across the country have long been at the forefront of disaster response, whether the crisis is an earthquake, hurricane or tsunami, a flood or some manmade tragedy. When disaster strikes, nurses respond at the drop of a hat, often putting their own lives on hold to offer their services and compassion to those in need.

Tales of Heroism

In 2001, nurses answered the call when terrorists flew two hijacked Boeing 767s into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Some of the first nurses on the scene were sent to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which had been converted into a makeshift 40-bed emergency hospital. At first, nurses could do little more than pour bottled water over the eyes of rescue workers.

Even when more supplies did arrive courtesy of the American Red Cross, the nurses had to cope with limited resources and nurse-patient ratios of more than 5,000 to 1.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, volunteer nurses streamed into the Gulf Coast, many taking unpaid leave and using vacation hours to help survivors in some of the hardest-hit areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. In response to the devastation, the California Nurses Association (CNA) formed the Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN) to serve as a “clearinghouse” for RNs responding to disasters. The RNRN reports that some 300 nurses traveled to Gulf communities to offer aid and nursing assistance after Katrina.

Even nurses who were unable to make the trip found ways to help. One nurse answered phones at her local Red Cross. After watching television coverage of the disaster, another nurse volunteered to work in the temporary pediatric clinic that had been set up at the Houston Astrodome, treating and comforting children suffering from cuts, bruises, hunger, dehydration, disorientation and exhaustion.

Local nurses, too, put their personal needs on hold to provide much-needed assistance in the wake of Katrina. At the partially flooded Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, where as many as 2,000 people and 200 patients were trapped without power or running water in stifling heat, nurses struggled for days to provide continuity of care and then navigated darkened stairwells and manually operated Ambu bags to transport patients to the helipad for evacuation.

International Efforts

The disasters to which American nurses have responded have not been limited to the borders of our country. In 2010, U.S. civilian nurses joined their military colleagues aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima for Operation Continuing Promise 2010, a four-month humanitarian deployment. Nurses provided medical assistance to Haitians after Hurricane Tomas, treating a total of 4,054 patients onboard and ashore (as well as more than 1,200 veterinary patients). As part of that operation, nurses went on to participate in seven other missions in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people and leaving almost 30,000 injured. Medical and nursing teams from hospitals and nursing associations through the U.S. raised relief funds, donated food and clothing and assembled healthcare teams to aid in disaster relief.

One team saw more than 250 patients a day, many of whom had suffered injuries that became potentially life-threatening due to the harsh conditions and delays in obtaining treatment. In addition to treating physical injuries, the healthcare teams also assisted survivors with mental health issues like anxiety, insomnia and overwhelming grief in the wake of this horrific event.

An Ethical Obligation

When a crisis strikes, people look to nurses and other medically trained professionals for information and guidance as well as care, which makes it all the more important that we learn basic disaster preparedness skills.

An article in the Australian Nursing Journal estimates that each nurse who is helpless in the face of a disaster may leave 50 or more patients in the lurch. That’s why Joanne Langan, RN, Ph.D., CNE, coauthor of the 2004 book Preparing Nurses for Disaster Management, argues that every nurse has an ethical obligation to be prepared for disasters.

Responding to a disaster doesn’t have to mean jumping on a plane at a moment’s notice. Relief efforts often need volunteers to help organize and coordinate the first responders, a role in which a nurse’s training and experience can be invaluable. Of course, nurses can also get involved by donating food, clothing, medical supplies or money to aid the victims of the disaster.

Many hospitals have established on-site disaster response teams, but nurses should also consider joining an outside organization involved in relief efforts. It’s a great way to learn more about disaster response and find opportunities to help. Below are a few places to start:

I think what nurses bring to crisis response is best summed up by a remark made by Marirose Bernard, MN, APRN, CNA-BC, then a nurse supervisor at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. When a reporter asked why Bernard and her colleagues didn’t leave the devastated hospital, Bernard responded, “I would never have thought of that. We were there; we were there to take care of our patients. Because we’re nurses, and that’s what nurses do.”

So, to all my fellow nurses: Keep doing what you do and have a Happy Nurses Week!


A short while ago I was invited by some nurses from Houston, Texas to pay them a visit. Since my daughters and I had been discussing taking a short vacation for some time the invitation provided us with an opportunity to take a road trip to Texas. I let the nurses in Houston know that I’d be happy to pay them a visit and chat with them about their experiences with the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee. Which is why after just a few days in Houston, my daughters and I found us in Austin having lunch at the Sheraton Hotel and under the watchful eye of C.N.A./N.N.O.C. officials. We had personal business to attend to in Austin, and since the C.N.A./N.N.O.C. has planned a strategy session with HCA nurses to discuss “unionizing” I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for me to observe them in action, so to speak.

As I walked down the hallway between the conference rooms and the restaurant where my daughters waited for me, a C.NA. representative recognized me and quickly left the meeting room so he could follow me. And follow me he did, stopping short of the restaurant entrance where he then stood for 10 – 15 minutes, in plain sight, observing us as we ordered our meal and while he busily spoke to someone on his cell or text messaged. A little while later he motioned for someone to join him and appear to direct him to continue the vigil while he went back upstairs. After finishing our lunch we made plans to complete our errand and found it most amusing to see that we were still being “watched”; oh to have such power.

Which brings me to my point of hubris. Why the officials of the C.N.A./N.N.O.C. would think that I would plan to disrupt their activities or meetings is interesting – but of course they would think this is how people behave since they think nothing of disrupting a meeting, stalking or harassing those they perceive as “threats” or even raiding other unions – so of course they would believe this behavior to be the norm and thus everyone else would exhibit the same deplorable behavior. Which is why they made a point of observing and stalking my daughters and I while we were having our lunch and then made sure we were “observed” during our entire stay at the hotel. If they had only come up and introduced themselves perhaps they would have learned my intent and thus not wasted their time on looking the fool.

Nonetheless when I shared this experience with my fellow nurses from Texas and California everyone had a good laugh at the actions of the C.N.A. and commented on how this made for a memorable experience for this Texas road-trip. Of course one would think that the C.N.A./N.N.O.C. exercise in hubris would end there, but have no fear the day after my return I received an email from an N.N.O.C. nurse from Tennessee. Nurse Chapman chose to send me an email regarding a very popular article I wrote, “To Unionize or Not to Unionize, that is the Question?” Apparently he was under the impression that he was my editor or significant other because he attempted to “deconstruct” my article throwing around such words as nurses need strong union representation (just see what such strong unionization has wrought the nurses of Great Britain, Australia and Canada), research and studies have shown. . . without providing a single citation for his conclusions, and my favorite “I request that you change the title of your article. . ”. Of course my response to him was NO, I would not change the title of my article, as I like it very much the way it is now. I also reminded him that this article, as all my articles and blog postings reflect my opinion and experience and thus not subject to his approval. Of course he chose to ignore the underpinnings of all my articles which that my readers should always do their due diligence, which by the tone and context of his letter I think he preferred that nurses just remain as sheep and that they should follow his piped piper. “N.N.O.C.”.

Oh the hubris of the C.N.A. and their operatives to think that they can intimidate nurses so easily, and me in particular.