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A Pearl Harbor Survivor with a Penchant for Disaster Relief

Pearl Harbor survivor volunteers to help Hurricane Sandy victims
It broke my heart that I could not be here to help New York after 9/11. It was the Red Cross emergency I most identified with.

Looking out over the setting sun on Beech Street in the Rockaways, Dorinda Nicholson estimated the distance from where she stood to the Hurricane Sandy disaster zone measured about the same as her childhood home to the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Nicholson, then a first grader at Sacred Hearts Convent School on Oahu, was asleep in bed with her dog, Hula Girl, when the Japanese planes came raining down on the naval base—about a mile from her parents house – and the oily black smoke ascended from battleship row. Seventy-one years later, Nicholson, a psychotherapist from Kansas City, walked the streets of many of the hardest hit neighborhoods on the New York coastline with with the other members of the Red Cross Integrated Care Team knocking on doors and looking for Hurricane Sandy survivors who still needed help and support.

“You never believe something like this is going to happen to you—it’s the same feeling I had during Pearl Harbor,” said Nicholson, carrying a clipboard and copies of the Red Cross’ booklet Moving Forward After a Disaster. “Every disaster has a different feel to it, but there’s always the shaking of that sense of control you thought you had over your life and then sorting things out and reprioritizing.

“It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here. I knew people needed to hear from someone who had that experience, too.”

In the five weeks since Sandy made landfall on October 29, the American Red Cross emergency relief workers have made more than 56,000 health and mental health visits, especially reaching out to the poor and indigent in Coney Island and the Rockaways, home to many retirees and one of the hardest hit areas of the storm.

On Thursday, Nicholson and her Red Cross partner, Esther Bedik, met with an elderly woman who wanted to bring her husband, a Leukemia patient, home from the hospital where he has been since the storm, but couldn’t due to the mold covering the lower floor of their house—and the respiratory problems it causes.

“This woman has no flood insurance and lives on a fixed income,” Bedik said. “She does have children, but there is always such a sentiment of gratitude from absolutely overwhelmed people who have lost everything when you offer them something basic they had forgotten they needed.”

It was the kind of help Nicholson saw in Pearl Harbor after the attack—when 1,000 Red Cross volunteers marshaled near the base set up medical tents to help the wounded—and the kind she knew she could give when she joined the Red Cross 12 years ago.

Born to a Hawaiian mother and a Caucasian father, Dorinda Makanaonalani Nicholson grew up watching the “China Clipper” planes land in the harbor and catching Samoan crabs with her friends. After the attack, she carried her newly acquired gas mask with her at all times and watched the U.S. Navy string barbed wire around Waikiki Beach—one of her favorite childhood places.

When she finished the Punahou School in Honolulu, Nicholson wanted something different and moved to her father’s mainland home in Missouri to attend college, eventually forgoing it for a job as a flight attendant. Following the birth of her four sons, Nicholson re-enrolled in the University of Missouri-Kansas City, earning two degrees in counseling and psychology, and began working at a local mental health care clinic.

The Red Cross came knocking for volunteers just months before 9/11. Nicholson, thinking she had something to contribute, signed up. But the attack—the second by a foreign enemy on U.S. soil—hit just as she was finishing the final proof of her second book about Pearl Harbor, the story of a Japanese bomber pilot and the Marine who befriended him at the 50th anniversary of the attacks in 1991.

“It broke my heart that I could not be here to help New York after 9/11,” Nicholson said. ‘It was the Red Cross emergency I most identified with.”

But since then, she has helped the Red Cross during several disasters in the Midwest, including the tornadoes that hit Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, and couldn’t say no after the Red Cross called her for deployment to New York. When she is not counseling patients, Nicholson and her husband, Larry, continue to work on books and DVDs about the attack that ultimately drew the United States into World War II, and travel across the country to lecture.

One of only 2,700 survivors left—the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded last year due to the dwindling numbers—Nicholson said she usually spends the anniversary in Hawaii, speaking or visiting the U.S.S. Arizona memorial to honor those lost. This year, she will be out-processing from her Hurricane Sandy mission and visiting the 9/11 Memorial, where she will look up the name of a former Punahou School’s daughter—a pastry chef in the Twin Towers— before boarding a plane home.

“Every Pearl Harbor day is a return to my memories of home, of the life I had before the attack,” Nicholson said. “I’m a little homesick—I feel I should be there. But I am doing the best I can to celebrate.”

Left photo: (by Jeramie Williams): Red Cross worker and Pearl Harbor survivor, Dorinda Nicholson, coordinates outreach with her fellow Integrated Care Team members in Queens.

Right photo: (by Dorinda Nicholson): Dorinda Nicholson, then a first-grader at the Sacred Heart School in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, carries her gas mask from school just months after the first modern attack on U.S. soil.