When the Water Clears: Students and the Aftermath of Natural Disasters
“Harvey didn’t discriminate, but [as] with most tragedies in America, people of color and the poor were hit the hardest,” John Peavy reflected. Peavy, a Black Tufts senior from Houston, Texas, returned to campus just days after leaving his family, friends, and neighbors still grappling with the aftermath of Category 4 Hurricane Harvey.
“Fortunately my house did not flood, but several homes on my street did,” he continued. “I live just west of downtown in an upper-middle class neighborhood. But […] every neighborhood in Houston flooded. Relief efforts often took three days or longer to reach [the] inner city.”
Harvey, which hit Texas August 25, was recorded as the most destructive hurricane to hit the United States in over a decade. Not long after, meteorologists began tracking an even more threatening storm, Hurricane Irma, heading through the Atlantic towards Florida and several Caribbean islands. Irma’s devastation was catastrophic—with reports showing that the hurricane even left Barbuda, a small Caribbean island previously home to 1,638 residents, completely uninhabitable.
Harvey and Irma are neither the first hurricanes to hit the US with such a devastating impact nor the first to gain such widespread media attention. Additionally, like other natural disasters that came before them, both storms disproportionally affected the lives of disenfranchised populations, namely racial minorities and low-income communities.
Boston may seem far from these storms’ physical impacts, but like Peavy, many Tufts students call these places home. According to Tufts’ online Diversity Data, in 2016 there were 280 students from Florida and 155 from Texas in the total undergraduate and graduate classes, and many more from Caribbean (University data doesn’t say the exact number of students from the Caribbean). For many of these students, campus life became a stark contrast to the realities they had either just left behind, or knew their loved ones were currently facing across the country.
Many wanted to stay connected to their hometowns. Peavy, along with his fellow Tufts senior and Houston resident Joseph Caplan, started a Facebook page called “Jumbo Hurricane Harvey Relief Effort.”
“Our goal was to try to spread as many stories about the storm as we could,” Caplan said. “We wanted to try raise money within the Tufts community, but actually ended up working more through our high school network. But a lot of Tufts students did donate.”
Marissa Michael, a Tufts senior born in Antigua to family of Lebanese origin, also started a GoFundMe page in an effort to raise funds for the reparation of Antigua and Barbuda. She is also organizing fundraiser events in the upcoming weeks with Tufts’ Caribbean Students Organization. However, knowing of the devastation, Michael remains distressed regarding the future of her home country.
“Antigua and Barbuda is the only independent nation that was severely impacted by Irma,” she explained. “We do not have organizations like FEMA or budgets like the Federal Government who can throw millions of dollars at us with ease.”
She also emphasized the intense connection she feels to the country and every tragic story coming out of it.
“In the Caribbean, there is a very strong sense of community and patriotism in each nation,” she said. “I don’t know anyone personally in Barbuda but they’re all my brothers and sisters.”
It is largely for this reason that she sees it as so important to acknowledge the personal stories of people affected by the storms.
Along with the stories students publicized online, some had their own experiences with the storms to recount.
“For about 30 hours straight [the streets] turned into a river,” Caplan recalled. “If you were outside water was up to your waist.”
He emphasized that most of the immediate relief he noticed in Houston was local—neighbors patrolled the flooded streets in motorboats from their driveways, and some brought kayaks or canoes out their garages.
Caplan even recalled a women in labor throughout the hurricane. “She had to be picked up by motorboat and taken where the EMS could pick her up.”
Both Caplan and Peavy returned to campus later than they had planned—after airports reopened and their families had safely resettled. They expressed gratitude towards the support they received from people on campus who reached out with concern.
With news of the Harvey aftermath soon replaced by the incoming threat of Irma, students from Florida, though already back on campus, were still deeply affected by the ever-changing weather updates.
Matthew Wilson, a Black senior from Mirarmar, Florida, recalled feeling constantly anxious about his mother, who was still in Florida. “Losing communication when the phone lines and power went out was pretty immobilizing,” he said. “I ended up crying at work during my break just watching the news coverage of it.”
Other students felt the reality of the storm set in when they were contacted by Tufts’ administration. Danny Knight, a junior from Jensen Beach, Florida, said that Dean Mack, who heads the Office for Student Success and Advising, emailed all students from Florida expressing the University’s support. He commented that even though his town escaped much of Irma’s destruction, the Dean’s email made the storm feel much more real.
“[He] was talking about me, my home, my friends, and it made me feel connected to a strong sense of community on campus,” Knight said.
Although these students felt the storms’ impacts in various ways, and many were even exposed personally to them, many also acknowledged their relative privilege in being able to safely process the hurricanes’ aftereffects. For some other groups, either their position within a marginalized community, their lack of resources due to socioeconomic status, or a combination of the two, makes life after a hurricane a much more complicated reality.
This is not always reflected in national media, which can even contribute to further isolating or misrepresenting these voices. Michael again expressed her exasperation with the particular lack of attention to the Caribbean’s devastation of Irma.
“It really didn’t surprise me at all,” she said. “Every single year it happens […] It was literally unbelievable to me how much attention was drawn to the impact of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and the potential impact of Irma in Florida compared to the actual devastating impact of Irma on Barbuda, St. Martin, St. Thomas, Tortola and other islands.”
Others have raised similar critiques. Natural disasters have a politicized history in the United States, and there is no better example than perhaps the most well-known hurricane in recent memory—Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA). The devastation Katrina caused 2005 is widely known. However, less widely acknowledged is the governmental abandonment of NOLA’s Black residents.
In 2006, Tufts professor Sam Sommers wrote an article examining the racialized ways Black communities in New Orleans were effectively left for dead after the hurricane, and how the mass media portrayed them. The news was filled with images of residents stranded on their rooftops—many with infants in their arms, others desperately holding up signs begging for help to the helicopters circling the overflowing streets.
The majority of those stranded after the levees broke were Black. Stories surfaced of police pointing guns at Black residents attempting to evacuate, and of evacuees trapped in shelters with scarcely any food, water, or fresh air.
Sommers emphasized that the media refused to recognize this racist desertion of NOLA’s Black residents—instead choosing to demonize them. Only days after the hurricane, their focus was not on survivors but rather, as Sommers wrote, “on the outbreak of violent crime throughout New Orleans.”
“‘Looting comprised one aspect of this coverage […] particularly among evacuees at the Superdome and Convention Center,” he continued. “The interesting aspect […] is in retrospect many of [these behaviors] did not happen at all, or at least not to the extent that the media and local officials led us to believe.”
The same shift in focus from supporting survivors to demonizing victims—especially those who are Black and Brown—resurfaced after Hurricane Harvey.
“Mass devastation in Houston has brought with it a breakdown in law and order […] There’s reports of looting by storm survivors,” Fox News Host Tucker Carlson remarked, merely four days after the eye of the hurricane hit residents. His commentary was delivered over video clips of primarily Black residents in Houston searching stores for basic necessities after losing their homes. Labeling such behavior as criminal vilifies people of color, and highlights the fact that racism, classism, and citizenship status remain integral even after catastrophe strikes.
Recovery from Katrina took immense time and resources, and profoundly changed the communities it touched. Likewise, recovery for the areas impacted by Harvey and Irma is far for from over. However, this process will look very different for different groups. Although it has been over a decade since Katrina, it is clear that race and class still remain a central factor in responding to natural disasters. For all communities, however, the process will be a long one.
For students whose families are still navigating recovery, this is a sobering reality to consider. And the storms themselves are still coming—Category 5 Hurricane Maria has now torn through the island of Dominica. Michael, who has family on the island, fears the worst is yet to come.
Both in and out of the US, the scope of these disasters is massive. “It’s just crazy when […] you just see the sheer amount of people who are going to have to restart from this,” Caplan lamented.
Going forward, maintaining awareness for not just some, but all people and places affected will be key. “The people of Antigua and Barbuda aren’t begging for pity,” Michael emphasized. “[But] no one is obliged to help us and we certainly can’t do it on our own.”