They also serve who sit and wait

Arundel couple cancel vacation, stand ready for their assignment

Terrorism Strikes America

September 16, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Hurry up and wait.

How many times in the past two days has Russell Hibler said or heard that phrase?

He leans back in a too-small folding chair in a narrow room at the American Red Cross of Central New Jersey in Princeton. He is supposed to be fly-fishing in Maine. Instead, he and his wife, Susanne Hibler, are sitting in New Jersey waiting to go to work.

On the day after the World Trade Center was attacked, the Hiblers, who are both psychologists, got a call from the Red Cross: Mental health professionals with disaster relief training are needed to help the survivors, families of victims -- and their rescuers.

Within hours, the Hiblers, who were scheduled to be on vacation, left their home in Crofton and drove to New Brunswick, N.J. "Wherever we are asked to go, we go," Russ Hibler says as he settles more comfortably in his chair.

Forty-eight hours later, they're still waiting for their assignment.

That's how it goes in disaster relief. You get the call. You race to the scene. You plunge into activity. Or not. "A typical response to a disaster -- and this isn't a typical disaster -- starts with immediate emergency assistance and then changes to a long-term approach," said Camy Trinidad, a Red Cross spokeswoman. "We're now moving into that second stage, which is ramping up our mental health efforts with teams of professionals going into places that serve as bedrooms to Wall Street.

"In the meantime, I am sitting in my office without a computer because the supplies were delayed." What she means is, she rushed here from South Jersey, and now she is waiting.

Still, things have gotten accomplished. So far, New Jersey Red Cross chapters have served 15,938 meals to disaster victims and relief workers; organized 1,717 local volunteers and sheltered 2,300 people. Now the second wave of help is trickling in: In the next few days, nearly 60 more mental health professionals will arrive from around the country. They will offer grief counseling, train local professionals in disaster relief techniques and help other relief workers.

But all that work is getting done in great bursts with breaks in between -- and that's typical, Russ says. "The first thing that happens after a disaster is confusion."

Experienced in emergencies

The Hiblers are used to it. Russ, extroverted with reddish hair and an Air Force background, is chief of psychology at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. Susanne, reserved and organized, works for the Defense Department. Both are steeped in disaster relief experience.

In 1994, Susanne worked in a Los Angeles shelter with earthquake survivors. And last year, when Joseph C. Palczynski took hostages in Baltimore County, the couple ran a hot line and organized community meetings to help residents and law enforcement officers communicate with each other and cope with stress.

The husband and wife know all too well that signing up to help in the first days after any crisis is like signing up for a gigantic military operation. "You just have to be available," Susanne says. "It is hard to predict the need, so sometimes the greatest good comes from just being ready to help."

As they sit and wait, the Red Cross office is bustling. Shelters at some sites are being taken down. Others are being set up. Someone is trying to find a translator -- and Japanese food -- for 30 stranded travelers. "My daughter is 9, and we are watching all this on TV and we want to do something. What can we do?" says a woman standing in the reception area.

Two hours after the second airplane crashed into the World Trade Center, the hot line here was up and running and the calls haven't stopped since. One woman hasn't heard from her fiance since Tuesday morning. Another wants to send money. The owner of a pizza parlor wants to bring lunch to the volunteers.

All around, there are stories of waiting. In homes across the country, thousands of people wait for news of a relative or friend. In lower Manhattan, rescue workers wait for survivors to be uncovered. In closed airports, volunteers wait for transport to the scene. In relief centers, Red Cross staff members wait for equipment to arrive.

The Hiblers arrived in New Brunswick on Wednesday night. At 8 the next morning, they reported for duty at the local office. They waited six hours, then were dispatched to another office in Millburn -- about an hour away.

Within moments they were on the road. As they travel, Russ tells long jokes and Susanne navigates. They met in kindergarten in Teaneck, N.J., not far from here. "That's one of the reasons we're so glad to be here -- to give back to the community," Susanne says.

Millburn, a community of about 20,000, is home to hundreds of Wall Street employees; almost everyone knows someone who died.

For six hours, the Red Cross team plans community meetings and individual counseling sessions, and begins to organize classes in disaster relief techniques for local mental health workers so that when they go home a support network will exist.

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