Weathering the Storm

Contrasting Yale campus stories and responses in the wake of six massive natural disasters.

Hurricane Irma coming down on Miami, Florida

During the first two weeks of the semester, while most Yale students were busy shopping too many classes and having late nights out at Toad’s, Hang Nguyen, JE ’21, had other things on her mind. She called home three times every day, and worried about her family every moment of the day. “I was freaked out,” she said, “especially because I didn’t know what I could do being here at Yale.”

Forecasts predicted that Nguyen’s family would be in the eye of Hurricane Irma when the storm passed through Tampa, Florida in the beginning of September. Her community was urged to evacuate as soon as possible. But evacuation was a financial burden that the Nguyen family could not shoulder, so they decided to remain home.

Hurricane Irma heading towards Florida’s coast in September

Hurricane Irma was the second in a series of natural disasters that occurred this fall. Irma, at that point a Category 5 hurricane, hit Barbuda, parts of the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and leaving millions without electricity. Irma continued on its path, striking Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina as a Category 4 hurricane. In total, Irma killed 69 people, according to World Vision. Thankfully for Nguyen, the hurricane skimmed past her community, which received only mild rain.

There have been six natural disasters in the last month and a half. The Western hemisphere has been struck by strong winds, heavy rainfall, and shattering quakes that have destroyed thousands of homes and left communities in pieces. In New Haven last week, residents prepared for the worst, but Hurricane Jose only grazed our coast, delivering heavy but manageable rains. On Yale’s campus, fear of the storm came and went rapidly. Even while Maria caused devastating damage and fatalities in Puerto Rico, and a second earthquake in Mexico trembled through the country’s capital, life inside the Yale bubble had returned more or less to normal, as students and administrators largely ignored the consequences of these events.

On August 30th, Kimberly Goff-Crews, the Secretary and Vice President of Student Life, sent out a mass email to the Yale community offering support to those affected by Hurricane Harvey. During the month after this email, as four other natural disasters tore through the U.S., Yale’s student body heard nothing more from the Deans or from the Student Life office.

Earlier in September, the Yale College Council (YCC) partnered with the Texas Society Club to host a barbecue at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ restaurant to support the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort; they followed this up by hosting a bake sale on cross campus. At these two events combined, they raised $3,300 — an impressive sum that might make a tangible difference for affected communities in Texas. But all of that money was donated to the American Red Cross, in spite of recent reports that the organization distributes more than 20% of their donated funds to internal administrative and management costs, rather than to actual relief efforts. With Yale’s donation money disappearing into the maze of bureaucracy, these projects are likely not as effective as they’re intended to be.

Meanwhile, Gage Denmon, TD ’21, felt disconnected from his home in southeast Texas, watching the progress remotely as his community began rebuilding. Harvey left 51 inches of rain — the largest amount of rainfall from a tropical cyclone in the continental United States in the past 1,000 years, according to CNN. An estimated 30,000 people have been displaced and are in need of temporary shelter, while 450,000 asked FEMA for disaster assistance, and 72,000 were rescued in Texas and Louisiana alone. While Denmon’s home remained intact after Harvey, the outskirts of his town were completely flooded. But there was a massive community endeavor to help everyone in town, he explained, and the relief effort has been effective.

Hurricane Harvey flooding the streets of southeast Texas

It was strange seeing pictures of home, Denmon said, because “no one talked about it here at school.” While he took note of the mass email that President Salovey sent out as well as the emails that the Head of College (HOC) and Dean of TD sent to affected students, Denmon commented that the messages felt like “a social obligation.”

Similarly, both the HOC and Dean of Jonathan Edwards reached out to Nguyen offering support. But it was Dean April Ruiz of Grace Hopper College who provided a place for Nguyen to unload many of her thoughts and feelings. Nguyen first met Dean Ruiz when she was the Dean of the First-Year Scholars at Yale program that Nguyen participated in this past summer, and their relationship continued when Dean Ruiz, knowing Nguyen was from Florida, reached out to her to check in about Hurricane Irma. They continued to exchange emails and had a “genuine conversation” about Nguyen’s situation at home. This, Nguyen said, meant a lot to her.

Nguyen explained that she thought that Yale “did what they could” during these difficult times, and she acknowledged that there are “less fortunate people” who don’t get the same special attention that her HOC and Dean afforded to her. “Jonathan Edwards College, in particular, did an amazing job of reaching out,” Nguyen said, and added that she was very grateful for that support.

Dean Ruiz offers a unique perspective, as she herself has family in Puerto Rico. “We really do care about our students,” she insisted, “and so we do everything we can to make sure they know that so many people are here for them for anything they need, whether it’s a conversation or a crying session in my office.” When problems like these recent natural disasters arise, she explained, Deans and HOCs take the time to go through lists of students and personally reach out to those they know live in or around affected areas. “We want students to know they’re not alone,” Dean Ruiz said.

Denmon, for one, is extremely appreciative of his academic advisor, who bought his required textbook for his Russian language class with her own money because she knew that Harvey was exacerbating his strenuous financial situation at home. However, many low-income students don’t know that they can receive this type of financial aid, especially when natural disasters are impacting their families back home. Many students’ families simply cannot evacuate because they don’t have the money to do so. For these students, sending money home is often an additional burden that’s exacerbated by the chaos of the situation; and calling home, already a difficulty for those who can’t afford cell phones, is now nearly impossible in many storm-ravaged areas that have little or no service.

“I think faculty should personally reach out to students more,” Denmon commented, but he also conceded that “that’s unrealistic.” He proposed that the university offer assignment extensions and funds that students can request in situations like these. “Although Yale claims to be in touch with world affairs and the lives of students,” Denmon said, “there is a bit of lag between that sentiment and their action.” Many of the university’s administrators excel at providing individual support, but with hundreds of students being affected in different ways by these events, what can Yale really do?

Yale is one of many schools to send supportive emails to the entire student body; but other schools have also implemented action plans to help those affected by these events — Harvard extended its deadline for high school seniors to apply to the university and also offers a Humanitarian Response Intensive Course that trains people to react in natural disaster situations. At Wesleyan University, the Vice President of Student Affairs ensured that students would still be able to enroll in classes even if they had to arrive to campus late because of the storms. The administration also communicated with professors to get students assignment extensions. These schools offer not only moral support for affected students but also financial and academic support. This kind of institutional backing helps to ease the balance between being an engaged student and an engaged member of their communities at home.

At Yale, the Student Life office created a portal called “Responding to Disasters” on YaleConnect just a few days ago, which provides links to various articles and organizations. When the Herald reached out to Secretary Goff-Crews Monday evening to ask about the Student Life Office’s response to the natural disasters, the portal did not yet exist. The following day, Secretary Goff-Crews sent out a second mass email addressing the more recent natural disasters, which included the new information portal. While the email and portal will hopefully raise awareness and encourage student relief activity, four weeks of valuable time was lost in which progress could have been made in relief efforts. As Goff-Crews explained to the Herald, it’s only “in some, but not all cases [that] a message goes to the university community.” Despite this message’s delayed arrival, Goff-Crews insisted that “the office’s first priority is to check in with those affected to find out what they need and to help connect them to resources,” and to “reach out to students and encourage them to reach out as well.”

Dwight Hall in Old Campus of Yale University

Dwight Hall, Yale’s main student-run service organization of Yale, is often looked to in tumultuous times like these to start projects of community outreach. According to the Hall’s Development Director, Johnny Scafidi, Dwight Hall has helped its member groups with natural disaster relief projects in the past, but no such projects have sprung up this year.

The bulk of the relief work on campus has been taken on not by organizations whose missions prioritize community outreach and student body morale, but by those whose primary purposes are focused elsewhere. The Vietnamese Students Association, for instance, is hosting a Hurricane Relief Food & Clothing Drive on Sat., Sept. 30 on Cross Campus. The event is hosted in conjunction with Despierta Boricua, La Unidad Latina, and Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity, Inc., and all proceeds and donations will go towards hurricane relief efforts.

In addition, the Yale College Council and Snackpass are using their partnership to jointly begin fundraising for hurricane relief. As YCC President Matthew Guido, BK ’19, explained, the group “is taking special initiative this year to prioritize outreach because,” he admitted, “YCC does not have any particular protocol on how to react to natural disasters.” This year, Guido said the student-run organization is emphasizing including more student voices “to understand the student body’s needs,” specifically those affected by these natural disasters.

But even with these organizations’ efforts, dialogue about these natural disasters remains stagnant. As we frantically try to balance midterms and adjust to this new semester, there is little discussion about the millions of people living without running water, electricity, or shelter. Even more overlooked are the undocumented immigrants who cannot seek aid for fear of being deported, especially without DACA on their side. The university’s responses have been few and far between, leaving student community groups with the staggering tasks of raising awareness, collecting funds, and continuing the discussion about what we can do from afar.

The scarce outreach efforts from the administration and student body reflect on the bubble we live in, where students are desensitized to the effects of these natural disasters devastating other parts of the world. Yale is a massive institution, and when disasters like these hit one after the other, Yale has a civic responsibility both as an institution and a community. On a more personal level, these events are directly affecting many on our campus; as Denmon points out, “the wellbeing of [Yale’s] students after disasters like these should be [the administration’s] chief priority so that nobody feels forgotten.” By challenging ourselves and Yale to do the most we can, as both students and global citizens, we dare to hold a microphone for those who need it the most in the wake of these natural disasters.