The students, faculty and staff of University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL) were faced with a unique challenge as the start of the fall semester was delayed by a rare 500-year flood event. Many experienced damage to homes and vehicles firsthand, and all were affected in some way. In a time of great disruption, the UHCL community has come together to both recover and prepare for the future.
Prior to the storm’s landfall, when forecasts were still uncertain, the usual pre-semester buzz of activity at UHCL was the same as any other year. In Houston, storm season is normally a time to be prepared and observant but to still maintain business as usual as much as possible.
At a routinely scheduled Emergency Preparedness and Response training Friday, Aug. 25, students discussed Harvey’s approach. Assistant Director of Student Life Yolanda Barnes said, in hindsight, the meeting seems ironic.
“At the time, we didn’t know how severe it was going to be,” Barnes said.
Based on lessons learned in Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008, UHCL’s Emergency Plan was developed primarily to coordinate evacuations of UHCL students via buses in advance of a storm or other local disaster threat. However, local officials did not recommend mass evacuations in advance of Harvey’s landfall.
“[Harvey] wasn’t the storm we planned for,” said Dean of Students David Rachita.
In the days and weeks following Harvey, the UHCL community has collectively responded to the needs of its members.
“Everybody seems to be working together, which is really inspiring,” said UHCL Faculty Senate President Brian Stephens. “Faculty, staff, students, administrators working together as a collective, we have done a really good job.”
As part of the collaborative efforts to assist UHCL students, the Office of Student Life coordinated a donation drive for items such as clothing and toiletries, school supplies and non-perishable foods. A one-stop Harvey Assistance Center was established in the Garden Room for the first week of class. Counseling Services established twice daily support groups. A rideshare program and housing assistance programs were offered.
Stephens said most faculty expected low numbers the first week back, but overall attendance was good. He affirmed that the UHCL faculty stand ready to help UHCL students in any way.
“We are here for them; that’s why we do what we do,” Stephens said. “Anything to help them, and anything to help our staff because without them we couldn’t do our job.”
Faculty and staff were also affected by the storm.
“Based on information that I have received, I estimate that about 10 to 15 percent of the faculty and staff in Academic Affairs reported damage to their homes or vehicles,” said Interim Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost A. Glen Houston.
Rachita’s home was partially flooded in the storm.
“My garage flooded,” Rachita said. “I was surrounded by water for three days…sleeping in 15 minute shifts. I am an emotional wreck…just from my garage, from those three days of panic.”
President of the University Staff Association Colden Snow shared plans for a gift card donation drive. Snow said Human Resources and the Faculty Senate are participating, and students are also invited to participate in collecting gift cards of any kind, “just to bring any kind of joy or minor relief to faculty and staff who might be affected.”
In addition to the evolving collaborative recovery efforts that have occurred and are ongoing for the foreseeable future, all UHCL community members appear to be using Harvey to better prepare for the next storm.
For example, one aspect of careful pre-storm planning had an unexpected effect. Faculty and staff were asked to shut down computers before leaving campus. They were then unable to connect remotely to work from home while the university was closed.
Managing student’s expectations proved difficult. Some of UHCL’s international students come from countries that do not experience rainfall. Even though they are presented with the information at orientation, they do not understand what a hurricane can be like in Houston.
“I think we will continue to increase that information…try to make people more informed,” Rachita said.
Another lesson learned centers around communication.
“How do we get information out; how do we as faculty communicate with our students?” Stephens said. “Until you are faced with something, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen.”
UHCL is also working to improve response time to get resources to students by establishing the Hawk Emergency Fund, a grant-based assistance fund created as a response to Harvey.
“Our intention is when Harvey is finished, we are going to try to continue to raise funds so that grant can be available for other kinds of emergencies,” Rachita said. “That’s why we call it the Hawk Emergency fund; it’s not specific to Harvey.”
Rachita further elaborated that his concerns for UHCL students are not just academic in nature.
“We understand that their lives have been disrupted, and that while we are going to attempt to maintain normalcy and the integrity of the academic program, we are also compassionate and understanding to the issues that they are experiencing,” Rachita said. “I am seeing people’s entire lives turned upside down.”
His most heartfelt advice is to utilize all available counseling services. Rachita reinforced that everyone, not just those who experienced firsthand loss and damage from the flooding, can benefit from focusing on self-care. The stress of experiencing the storm and the unknown outcome takes its toll.
For more information on Counseling Services available to the UHCL community, visit www.uhcl.edu/counseling-services.
For more information on how to apply for, or contribute to, the Hawk Emergency Fund, visit www.uhcl.edu/harvey-resources-faqs.