On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made a landfall about 160 miles south of Houston. The storm traveled to Houston and stalled over the city for the next three days, pouring 50 inches of water on an anxious community. By August 27, city’s bayous broke their limits, water entered homes and roads turned into deadly waterways. No city could be prepared for such a downpour, and Houston fell victim to this natural calamity.
As Chancellor of the University of Houston, I was faced with decisions that impacted the well-being of more than 71,000 students and 10,000 staff. My Emergency Management Team worked around the clock, sent out alerts, warnings, and information preparing our apprehensive students, faculty and staff. I closed the University in time to allow people to secure supplies, harden homes and find shelter if they so chose. Houston was not evacuated, mandatory or voluntarily. Nearly 2,500 students living in campus dorms chose to stay with us. I joined my communications team in reaching out to students and staff using social media and email.
On August 27 at 10:30pm, I was glancing over my Facebook page when my eye caught a post by the Consul General of India-Houston, Dr. Anupam Ray, reposting an entry from Ravi Shankar and asking for help for stranded Indian students at the University of Houston. Understandably concerned, I immediately entered a comment to the post asking Ravi to call our police. I posted a similar message to Ravi on Twitter, which I use for official communications. I also called the University of Houston Police Chief Moore, who established contact with Ravi within 5 minutes. Ravi also reached out to me – and all of this within 10 minutes!
Ravi serves as president of GISO (Graduate Indian Student Organization) and was not staying with the students at the time. He involved Riken Pandya, an alumnus of the University of Houston, who was with the stranded students. The two of them exhibited extraordinary leadership in organizing students and handling all the logistics. Our Police Chief asked them the names and numbers of all stranded students and contacted them to identify the level of emergency.
I spoke with Ravi and Riken personally. Not all of them were University students. Despite media reports to the contrary, they were not living in university housing. They were tenants at a private apartment complex approximately 3 miles from the University.
Police Chief Moore reported back to me with additional information: (1) students were safe and dry on the second floor of the building. They had food and water but no electricity. (2) Streets were flooded and water was at the doorstep of some apartments on the first floor. And (3) students were scared (which was natural) but were in no imminent danger. With this information in hand, the police and the Coast Guard decided that a night-time water evacuation was not warranted. They put students on the list for morning evacuation and turned toward attending to calls from those who had life-threatening and medical emergencies.
Students remained in direct contact with the Consul General, the UH police chief, and myself for the remainder of their stay at the stranded property. I spoke with students personally at night and again in the morning. They were concerned but calm, worried but comforted.
Meanwhile, a Houston leader, Jiten Agrawal, also heeded Consul General Ray’s call. He established contact with students and arranged food and water delivery. At the time, Jiten was evacuating an American family with a child on a ventilator that was about to shut down because of a low battery. Jiten’s heart was big enough to handle both types of crises, attending to meeting the immediate needs of the Indian students while also saving an American family.
The morning of August 28 was a different story. Bayou water receded and roads approaching the apartment complex were cleared. Power was back in the apartment complex and a water rescue no longer seemed necessary.
In the morning, the stranded students were visited by Ravi and then by Consul General Ray. I made calls to Ravi, Riken, the Police Chief and then headed to the University of Houston campus to check on 2,500 students in the university housing. From there, I proceeded to the apartment complex where Indian students were stranded. It was 2:30 p.m. by now.
It was heartwarming to see the students sitting in a circle feasting on the hot meal sent by BAPS Swami Narayan Temple under the decoration of blinking Christmas lights. Since
I had not eaten anything, the aroma of vegetable biryani lifted my mood and made me long for India. In the spirit of true Indian hospitality, the students offered me food and one of them even said, “I can make you some fresh coffee.” Of course, I declined, for I was too overwhelmed to eat. Students were together, strong, comforted, cared for and in no panic.
I learned that 15 of the students had cars and could transport 60 students to a safer location immediately. While most wanted to relocate, with hot food in front and power back, they appeared to be in no hurry to do so. I had a police escort and offered to guide the cars using dry roads to the new location, but they needed more time to pack and get ready. Only one car was able to follow me.
I made a call to Dr. Durga Agarwal, a prominent Houston leader and also a regent of the University of Houston System for further assistance. Within 30 minutes, Dr. Agarwal, his son, daughter, neighbors and friends showed up with additional vans to transport students to other locations. They took many students home.
As I look at this in the rearview mirror, I am inspired by what happened on that one night. Consul General Ray set an example of how a well-functioning government takes care of its citizens by deploying resources from the local community. Ravi and Riken set good examples of how volunteer leadership organizes itself in times of crisis. UH Police and Coast Guard demonstrated how first responders manage multiple calls for help assessing each one in its own context and providing each what is needed. Indian Americans in Houston set a good example of generosity by opening their homes and hearts to strangers.
And finally, the stranded Indian students set an example of maturity way beyond their age and experience. Some had been in the USA for only two weeks. They took care of one another and, once safe, turned around to help others in shelters. They went door-to-door, called 911, transferred elderly to their apartment on the 2nd floor and helped the rescue of a cancer patient.
I, for one, am humbled beyond words. Hurricane Harvey is leaving us with many memories and this one will be sketched forever in my heart. Thank you everyone for a job well done!