For three days, Hurricane Harvey’s fury was unleashed over Houston, dumping 50 inches of rainwater, flooding homes, submerging cars and turning highways into deadly waterways. People all across the world watched in horror as boats rescued people stranded on rooftops and porches calling out for help with children and pets in their arms.
The morning after the storm, the sun came out bright and warm as if the last three days were just a bad dream and now everything was just the same. However, nothing was the same. Thousands of people were in shelters, hundreds of cars were water-damaged, countless homes had flooded, and all the businesses had “closed” signs dangling in their windows. Signs of shock and despair were everywhere. I found it hard to shake the feeling off myself.
Then I saw a photo showing a long line of people in front of the George R. Brown Shelter with the caption, “What is this line for? food? shelter? clothes? No…this line is to volunteer!” And I knew right away that we were going to be okay.
Our Emergency Management Team at the University of Houston had been working day and night to assess the storm, alert people and harden the campus infrastructure. No one had time to focus on themselves. Staff members in campus residence halls and dining facilities had gone without rest for days. By now, students were themselves helping out in dining halls by cleaning tables and assisting servers. Our first responders had been fielding phone calls and monitoring the situation without blinking. They too were exhausted not only physically but also emotionally from the suffering they had witnessed.
As the sun came out, we all took a long, deep breath, knowing in our hearts that the road to recovery would be as daunting and draining, if not more.
It was clear that the storm took no mercy and spared no one. In my own office, every single person was impacted. My chief of staff was forced out of his home with his young family due to mandatory evacuations. My executive assistant was out of her home with her husband and two young children after her home got flooded. Another one escaped the flooding but saw a tree fall on her car. The transportation assistant was out of his own transportation, for flood water reached his garage and totaled his car along with his home.
Many of my cabinet members and members of the Emergency Management Team had the same stories of lost cars and lost homes. And yet, during the storm, no one shared their own pain. They were on duty working for the University from the Emergency Operations Center, or their phones and computers from home, while managing their own families and property losses on the side.
One of the senior team members took my call from the second floor of her home where she and her children had taken refuge as water soaked the floor below. I told her that I would be diverting students’ inquiries to someone else because she needed to take care of her family.” She replied politely yet firmly, “Please keep sending them to me. My computer is working and I would like to help students as much as I can.”
The morning after the storm was the first time we had time to check on one another. We did so but immediately got back to work, this time in the context of recovery and rebuilding. Overnight, the Emergency Management Team had turned into the Recovery Management Team focusing on three things: (1) accurate, timely, and compassionate communication; (2) taking care of our own—students, staff and faculty; (3) helping rebuild the city. While the Recovery Team was organizing institutional initiatives around these three goals, the SGA (Student Government Association) and Faculty Senate were busy putting up Facebook groups to let people connect with one another and help.
Within hours, people were offering their guest bedrooms, spare cars, ride shares, pet care, child care, laundry, storm clean-up and much more. Our students and staff, donning their red shirts, could be seen at many shelters and distribution locations. The mood was upbeat, optimistic, gracious and hopeful. Indeed, there were tears and sufferings, but for the time being, people had put them aside for the collective good of the community.
Even though the campus infrastructure weathered the storm reasonably well, we knew that our people did not. Classes and all campus activities were cancelled for another week. We had to postpone the first football game of the season even though it was to be played in San Antonio. Our players, having relocated to Austin during the storm, simply needed time to heal by hugging their families and helping their neighbors.
By now, we have seen more sunrises and with each one, there are more stories of suffering but also more stories of resilience. The city is trying to regain the sense of normalcy. There is traffic on roads, cars in parking lots and “open” signs flickering in shop windows. I am resolving to never complain about traffic or lack of parking, for I cannot forget how dreadful these deserted roads and parking lots made me feel.
Now, as we reopen the campus, we intend to do so with three core values in mind: support, flexibility and compassion. Yes, we can ensure some of these institutionally, but the ultimate test will be to see if we can execute them locally in every unit and department where it all eventually matters.
My hats off to my team that amazes me with its dedication and to the city of Houston that inspires me with its “can-do” spirit!