Friday, October 13, 2017

Weathering the Storms; Life Lessons Taught by Hurricanes Irma & Maria

UVI Bent, But Not Broken

Nigencia James, a junior communications major, stood on stage in the Sports and Fitness Center looking out at hundreds of new freshmen ready to launch their collegiate careers in August 2017 at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Student Convocation. Fresh faced freshman and transfer students were gathered to be officially welcomed into the UVI Family.

No one could have guessed that just a few weeks later and 12 days apart; both of the University’s campuses would be damaged by two category five hurricanes.

East Residence Hall

James, a St. Kitts native, was one of 150 students that sheltered in the East Residence Hall. Built in 1991. This residence hall was specifically designed to protect students during weather events.

James, a new resident assistant for Middle C, D and E, worked with other RA’s and Director of Residence Life and Student Housing Jennifer Palmer Crawford to set up room arrangements and kept cool while placing residence into the hall. Kaunda Williams and Jiame Berry were a part of the team that moved more than 50 mattresses to the shelter.

Nigencia James
“We tried our best to make sure we were prepared as possible,” says Williams, a senior majoring in business administration. “That was a major thing of course. I could see that students were a little anxious, but the RA team was prepared mentally. We were reaching out to each other in our group chat.”

James was not too worried about the storm. “I was concerned, but I also had a kind of positive attitude. I was more thinking that UVI has to ensure that I am okay,” she says.

Berry, a Business administration major and RA, advised Ms. Palmer Crawford to prepare for the worst. “The worst is going to happen to us,” he predicted at the time.

Hurricane Irma struck during the day. Winds upward of 185 mph ravaged the St. Thomas Campus. James sheltered in East 201 with other RA’s. Other students hunkered down with friends and classmates. Palmer Crawford and her family took shelter in East Hall as well.

Kaunda Williams
During the storm, Berry sheltered on the males’ side of East Hall with nine students, most of whom had fallen asleep. “This big white thing was coming towards the building. We heard a loud crashing thundering noise – boom.” The men jumped out of their sleep. Berry says they thought the shelter was compromised, but the building held. The roof of GeoCAS, formerly the accounting building was the culprit. The roof spilt on either side of the hall. “It was sort of frightening, to see a whole roof coming toward the building – hitting the building – but yet the shelter wasn’t compromised, which was a blessing.”

Others had a similar experience. “There was one point when we were all sleeping and we just heard a loud noise like something hit the building,” James says. “We all jumped out of our sleep—hearts racing. We were trying to figure out what’s going on.” Then something else hit the window. “That was the turning point,” she says. “We realized this is serious. This is really happening. We started putting on our shoes. I don’t know where we were going, but we were packing our bags just in case. God forbid we had to evacuate. That is when it really hit me. This is a category five hurricane. We are at the mercy of mother nature at this point in time.”

“Seeing outside, it was very different. I don’t think I have ever been so deep into a fog,” says Williams. “Looking out the window I could not see a good 10 meters in front of me.” Water started to push through the bathroom and he grabbed a mop to clean up the water as Hurricane Irma forced it into the dorm.

“That was definitely the most stressful part—constant mopping to make sure that the water did not get into the lobby,” says Williams, who battled the incoming water for about five hours. “The last thing I wanted was for water to get there and for the mattresses to get wet.”

MacLean Marine Science Center

Hurricanes Irma’s winds left East Residence Hall without major damage. There was, however, damage to multiple buildings on campus. The School of Business Building, Maclean Marine Science Building and the Reichhold Center for the Arts sustained major damage. West Residence Hall, which housed 104 students, was no longer habitable.

After the Storm

Students emerged from the East Residence Hall stunned. “I did not expect the campus to look half as bad as it did,” James says. “It was just overwhelming. The hurricane actually did this.

She continued, “These are things that we take for granted. Oh, I am going to the Business Building for class today,” she says lightly. “You would not actually think that a storm might just come and decide the business building is no more.”

Business Administration Office
James was relieved that the majority of the other residence halls were okay, especially Middle Dorms which she is responsible for. She was relieved that the personal belongings of students were saved. “You don’t want to lose everything in a place that you feel is your safe haven at this point in time,” she says.

“The ‘Caf’ was exceptional,” James noted of the UVI Cafe. “I don’t know what is was, but the hurricane food was the best I have ever had from the cafeteria. They were on par. I think they did an amazing job. They went above and beyond for us.”

UVI Café’s staff stayed on Campus to meet student needs. Six Café employees weathered the storm in the UVI Café, now located in the building in the middle of north, east, middle and south dorms. “Most of the cafeteria staff have family that they could have gone home to, and they decided to stay here to ensure that we had something to eat and we did not hear them complain or anything. They cooked the food. They brought it down. We shared and they repeated this cycle over and over without a frown,” James says.

“The Cafeteria staff took excellent care of us,” Williams says noting that they were better off than the rest of the island. “They were going through so much and we were here eating three meals a day.”

Physical plant staff also stayed on campus and were able to fix the generator to East Hall quickly.

Recovery Mode

Business Administration Building
“After the storm, people who wouldn’t even be talking, are actually talking,” says Berry. “Everybody was put in a situation that none of us were ready for, but we had to make the best of it. What you thought about back then or had an imagination of is no longer existing.” He continued, “Certain simply things that you would even take for granted, like a cold shower – not even hot – you’re going to appreciate that even more.” The day when Physical Plant got the water back up, the relief when people actually got to take a shower – the sigh of relief.” Students used collected water for personal hygiene while the Physical Plant employees worked to repair the generators.

To keep students entertained after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, St. Thomas Campus Dean Verna Rivers, Palmer Crawford and UVI Basketball Coach Jeff Jones came up with activities for students. Hand tennis, yoga, and a day time quiet party were just a few of the activities. For the quiet party, the UVI Cafe windows were covered to give a night-time effect and students donned head phones and partied to the sounds of DJ Keg.

“This experience has been a learning one – definitely,” says James. “I think that if we weren’t strong before, after this we will definitely not be easily broken.” There is a saying that says ‘we may be bent, but we are not broken.’ I feel like that is where UVI and students, faculty and staff are at this point.”

“I feel that hurricane season really teaches us about community and unity,” Williams says. “It’s like you hear stories about what is happening across the island – people who don’t speak to each other. If your neighbor’s house is gone you’re not going to just watch them—you are going to open up your doors and say come inside.”

Lessons from the Storms

“I am very grateful for life,” Williams says. “I am super grateful for UVI. Because the conditions that people living in right now on the island is still in my mind unbearable.” He continues, “I am at UVI still eating three meals a day; still having running water; still have a bed to rest my head and a roof over my head. A lot of people don’t have those luxuries right now. I am definitely 110 percent more grateful than I was before hurricane season came around.” Williams plans to participate in the Thurgood Marshal College Fund’s Leadership Institute in October 2017. He would like to interview to do marketing with fortune 500 companies that he hopes to connect with at the conference.

“Now I appreciate everything so much more,” James says. “I really try hard not to complain because I would complain there is no Wi-Fi and there are persons with no roof, no clothes.” After completing her undergraduate degree at UVI, James will pursue a master's in international relations or enroll in law school.

Student Activities Building
Berry, who plans to become an entrepreneur after college, says the storms left the community and the wider Caribbean community with more humility and this brings forth their humanity. “You have to respect people, understand people and also care for people,” he says. “I lot of that does not happen anymore, but after these series of unfortunate events that’s happening right now. People are more human again towards one another.” Berry will pursue a master degree after he completes his undergraduate degree at UVI.

UVI Classes started on Monday, Oct. 9 on both the St. Thomas Campus and the Albert A. Sheen Campus on St. Croix.

UVI has started a UVI Rise Relief Fund to solicit donations to help UVI’s students, faculty and staff. Text 2017IRMA to 71777 to support this effort or use this link UVI Rise Relief Fund.

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