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Two Harbors women assist in Sandy recovery

When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, causing 253 fatalities and an estimated $70 billion in damage, two North Shore women were among the thousands of volunteers who flocked to the scene of one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history.

Patti Van Den Heuvel and Bonnie Peterson, both retired residents of Two Harbors, went to the disaster site to assist with recovery efforts through an American Red Cross volunteer program.

"People's fortitude, struggling against all odds, was quite a moving experience," Peterson said. "I can't say I've been part of that experience before. I've never lost a home due to a flood or hurricane. To see the spirit and struggle toward recovery was so rewarding."

While the hurricane made landfall on Oct. 29, the two women didn't head out until later in the recovery process. Van Den Heuvel, a Catholic chaplain, arrived in Newark, N.J., on Nov. 9 and offered emotional support to survivors for two weeks. Peterson arrived in New York City on Nov. 24 and spent three weeks delivering hot meals to residents of devastated neighborhoods.

"The shock was already over for people," said Van Den Heuvel, a member of the Red Cross' Spiritual Care Response Team. "We were going in once the reality started to set in."

This wasn't the first time Van Den Heuvel has worked on disaster recovery. She previously worked as a military chaplain, responding to airplane crashes. She also responded to the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake.

"As a chaplain it's tough," said Van Den Heuvel, who was teamed up with a Baptist chaplain during her stay. "It's just our job to be there with (survivors) and do what we can - play with the kids, get moms what they need, take care of the elderly, listen to them cry, help feed them."

While the experience wasn't new for Van Den Heuvel, it was Peterson's first time working on disaster recovery.

"People were in recovery by the time I got there," said Peterson, a Red Cross volunteer of 10 years. "That was a little easier for me on my first deployment."

Peterson is trained in driving an emergency response vehicle and food safety, so she found herself delivering meals in New York, serving upwards of 300 people a day.

"By the fifth week, FEMA had put people up in hotels, so they were staying in hotels at night and coming back to work on their homes during the day," she said. "We'd go in and use a loudspeaker to announce that we're here and have hot meals."

The residents were very receptive, Peterson said.

"We got so much gratitude from them," she said. "We were able to let them know that somebody was the thinking of them. We had people from all over, so we could let them know the whole country was thinking of them."

More than 9,000 Red Cross workers from all 50 states have been deployed to assist with Sandy recovery efforts, according to the organization. More than six million meals and snacks have been served and more than two million hygiene kits distributed.

The storm caused damage from islands in the Caribbean all the way to Canada. New York and New Jersey were hit the hardest, resulting in flooded streets and subways, power being knocked out for days and thousands of homes being destroyed.

Although rewarding, it was an emotional experience for the two women.

"The hardest thing is keeping professional boundaries," Van Den Heuvel said. "Everybody's affected. I had grown up out east; my parents got married in Atlantic City. To see it that way was tough."

Still, both women plan to be ready the next time duty calls.

"Now that I've seen that people get into recovery after a few weeks, I'd be more inclined to go out when it first happens," Peterson said. "I've seen that recovery does happen. I'd be able to deliver that message to people."