The idea of attending college was once daunting for reasons of a shared reality: lifetime-loans, pedantic professors, and sleepless, study-filled days.
Today, as sunlight lacks traction in the sky for the fourth afternoon in a row, this transition to freshman year has become daunting for a different reason: we are in the center of Hurricane Harvey.
It felt like a battle to beat my roommate’s eyes to the window this morning; despite the sea developing around Houston, the ground on the UH campus has yet to flood, and the rain striking the pavement outside of our dorm has left only trails of water in its wake, like the aftermath of a sink with a leaky faucet. I turn to my phone seconds after acknowledging the still non-existent sunlight, realizing that I had been woken by yet another screeching emergency alarm – arriving nearly once an hour, accompanied by startling, sleep-disturbing shakes – which barreled from beneath each door, like punk music that no RA could prevent from playing:
Hurricane Warning: this area till 7:30 a.m. CDT.
The corridors – while still blaring warnings – were nearly empty. I pondered trekking through the dreary outdoors for breakfast as I glided past the 3rd floor common room, empty of its usual arrangement of furniture; the chairs were stacked to the wall, as if preparing for a tornado threat, a cousin of the preexisting chaos. I later found out that the distortion of decoration was in response to a flooded dorm down the street, that the pushed-aside furniture was removed with the purpose of clearing the carpet for temporary, makeshift housing for the displaced students. I passed boys pitching blankets out at the end of the hall, as if preparing for an overnight summer camp that their parents made them attend.
I checked my emails on the way downstairs. I’ve received more messages from professors than I have from family, each teacher attaching a phrase of sentiment: “your safety is our most important priority.” Some ask us to stop sending emails filled with class-related questions, when they, much like many, have their focus on coping with the widespread flooding. They tell us not to worry about completing the required history reading, or reviewing lecture notes from Wednesday’s Poly Sci class.
Despite this, I later dig up my textbook and skim over units detailing natural disasters, wondering if ours would one day go down in college history book, if students our age would peruse through pages of destruction, studying the University kids who survived the great, Hurricane Harvey, the monster that destroyed our surrounding city.
Downstairs at 9 a.m. — when the doors would usually be spitting out volumes of kids on the way to class — the lobby is vacant, except for some breakfast-bound stragglers focused in on a television that has maintained power – the low hum of a weather broadcast can be made out from the speakers: muttered, shuddering words about another highway closure, stranded pets, and cries for flat-bottom boats.
More people from the flooded school apartments down the street arrive slowly, appearing stressed but relieved. We have space for them; 6,000 out of 8,000 residents have retreated home. Both of my roommates have joined these numbers, and the remaining 2,000 on campus are rarely seen together, except when playing pool or karaoke – both existing in a singular lobby beneath the still-open dorm building.
I trek through a quiet campus to breakfast; only a thin layer of rain runs beneath my shoes, taunting the ocean that our city has become. Every window is streaked with precipitation, feeling permanent in fashion, like stuck-on wallpaper; the stoplights even continue to run for non-existent cars. The walkways, generally overwhelmed with students, are terrifyingly empty. Our community feels quarantined, or, rather, appears to be purged of people altogether. Cabin fever – even beyond the dormitories – has begun to set in, as our population continues to recede. Still, above all, we are the lucky ones.
We have not been flooded out.
The dining hall showcases drenched figures, crowned with hats, hoodies, and soaking hair.
While eating, eyes are fixated on phones, waiting for texts from relatives, storm updates, and pointless, irrelevant presidential tweets. On the other hand, our school’s president walks around the cafeteria eagerly, speaking with students about how else she can possibly help them. She is a light in the center of the chaos, attempting – and, in many ways, succeeding – to keep our spirit alive. As she passes through, an assortment of students fill up plates of food, some thanking those who stayed to feed us, many who eagerly pace between options have come to us from different, evacuated campuses – long before ours even announced classroom closure.
Still, as I ate, I selfishly wondered when classes would resume, when we would have a chance to define normalcy.
The first week without mom and dad has brought disaster; high spirits are difficult to maintain.
Everything is different from the daunting ideals that used to haunt our college futures. Now we are within a place promising security in a city that is drowning in disaster. Our school seems vacant.
Each locked building feels like an unwitty, undercasted episode of The Truman Show; each hour that goes by without sunlight, connection, or the safety blanket of being home feels like the sensation of losing track of everything. Ironically, so many of us are the only people who haven’t lost anything. We are the survived; cries of devastation don’t clutter our air. Our breath holds only silence, and the soft, slumbersome patter of rain — not the kind that promises puddle jumping or frog hunting, but the beyond- grown-up kind of chaos that no one plans for.
In all the preparation that college required, I did not plan for such a disaster to strike. Now Houston has become a battleground with Mother Nature that I have hardly had a chance to call home.
Today, friends who flew off to school in surrounding states messaged me about their successful travels; my twin sends word that the weather in Nebraska is beautiful. And, through canceled classes, I wait, book in hand, in an empty dorm, wondering when – if – our small sector of safety will be submerged beneath the hurricane that continues to make history.