In Imelda’s wake, students share their stories and frustrations
When Tropical Storm Imelda passed by the city on Sept. 18, Houston sighed in relief that the storm had missed the city. After all, Harvey was only just two years ago, and many Houstonians are still nervous when it comes to flooding.
Yet Houston forecasters warned we hadn’t seen the last of the storm. They were proven right the next day when the storm fell on the city with sudden fury.
Students said they felt pressured to go to classes, as Imelda descended on a week of midterms and important labs, and faculty weren’t all entirely understanding of the situation.
“The people saying the school said you won’t get penalized for not showing up don’t realize that information came way after we were stuck at school,” said computer science sophomore Daniel Águila.
When electrical engineering sophomore Stephanie Rendon made the trek to UH from the Aldine area and noticed how dark the clouds were over the northern Houston area.
“I told my friend UH should have canceled classes and that we should not be driving,” Rendon said.
Rendon said that she dismissed her own fears when she arrived on campus and found the rain relatively light, but other students didn’t feel safe driving and decided to stay home.
Students that came to campus ended up distracted from their classes when rain started to pour.
“The majority of students in my lab were more focused on looking out the windows at the worsening weather and thinking about how they will possibly be able to get home than actually performing the experiment,” said biochemistry sophomore Katherine Yaeger.
Some were overwhelmed with panic or anger when they realized the storm had come back.
“I left the library at 11:30 a.m. only to find it pouring and stressing the hell out because I wasn’t able to move my car from Zone E to a higher place,” said business junior Aaron Vasquez.
UH announced at 12:20 p.m. that campus would close with minimal services open, such as shuttles and certain food options.
“When I finally got the notice that the school was closed,” Vasquez said. “I struggled not to scream in rage.”
Vasquez was not alone in being overwhelmed by the school’s decision to close campus that late into the day.
“I don’t think UH realizes the panic they put their students in after they closed midday,” said psychology sophomore Amber Ayala.
Mayor Sylvester Turner warned Houstonians at around 10 a.m., especially those living on the north side, to not drive until the storm passes. Some students decided to brave the storm and not stay trapped at UH.
“The rain was still coming and flooding the streets around UH, and the water was not going to have a chance to recede until the rain stopped completely,” Ayala said.
Some students never even made it to campus because they were trapped on the highways by Imelda.
“I left work for class on Thursday and spent six hours in traffic, and two hours into that class was canceled,” said construction management senior Gabriel Rodriguez. “I did some very dangerous things to make it back to work and sleep there until I could go home.”
Metro shut down operations just after 9 a.m., three hours before campus closed, so commuters that used public transportation weren’t able to get home.
“I had friends who had their cars flooded and people were stuck due to negligence of the school since Metro shutdown,” said Águila.
Rachel Fairbank, communications coordinator for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and UH alumna, was among the many campus staff that came to work despite concerns for their safety. She also put her son in UH’s daycare.
“When UH finally made the decision to close, I went to the daycare for my son, and waited there until I figured out a safe route to get home,” Fairbank said.
UH opened the Cougar Village lounge to people trapped on campus overnight and buses ran as long as they could. In the end, UH closed campus through the weekend, giving students Friday and Saturday off “to allow our community to recover,” according to the alert announcing the campus closure.
However, many students have lingering issues from the storm, like biology major Karen Rojas, whose car sustained water damage and is not currently usable.
“I still have to get to work, and I still need to study for my pushed back exams in a few days,” Rojas said. “And now on top of that, I have to spend countless hours trying to salvage the car and find new transportation.”
President Renu Khator in a letter sent on Monday said asked supervisors and faculty “to be flexible and compassionate in accommodating the needs of those still recovering.”
A recent Rice University study into the mental impact of flooding found 20 percent of Houstonians surveyed have post-flood PSTD, anxiety and depression from Harvey, and more than 70 percent reported they had anxiety about future flooding.
Students and staff alike were angered by UH’s decision-making during Imelda, and even pointed to similar incidents like Hurricane Ike, where Renu Khator sent out an apology for her decision to open campus early.
Five deaths have been reported in Imelda’s wake.
“Making the decision to stay open, even when there is personal risk involved in getting to and from work, exploits a balance of power between employer and employee,” Fairbank said. “UH has a responsibility to keep its community safe.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the time Metro shut down operations on Sept. 26.