Coping with Disasters, Part 1: Students speak on their experiences, university response

Sophomore Saherish Surani, who is from Corpus Christi, Texas and faced delays in getting to campus for pre-orientation after Hurricane Harvey, poses for a portrait on Oct. 17. Alejandra Macaya / The Tufts Daily

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story. Part 2 was published on Nov. 6 and can be found online.

Disasters are an unfortunate but all-too-common part of life. For those affected, the days, weeks or even months after the disaster can be trying times. For Tufts students on campus, it can be especially hard, given their inability to be with family.

According to Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon, her office is the main branch of support for students affected by such incidents.

“A place like Tufts has students from all over the world, students from all over the country and connection points to almost every major event that happens,” McMahon said. “We’re the primary people that coordinate across different areas and try to provide support to individual students if something’s going on at home.”

When disaster strikes, the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs first sends out a message, signed by McMahon, to every student who may be affected. This message contains the sentiment that Tufts is thinking about them during the difficult time. It also provides several contacts for the student if they require further support.

McMahon said that the university understands the difficulty of coping with disasters and how disasters pose challenges to full-time students’ academic well-being. She said her office works closely with the Advising Deans to secure a nurturing academic environment for the affected students.

“Typically speaking, we coordinate with the Advising Deans,” McMahon said. “A very standard thing that we would do is let faculty know that the student might need some flexibility on deadlines … [and] papers.”

This initial contact is intended to reassure students of the university’s awareness of their situation.

“I think our main objective is to make sure, whenever possible, we help students feel like they’re seen as [they navigate] what’s happening at home while they’re here and supporting them on this side of the experience, as far as support for academic flexibility,” she said. “Certainly, we refer people to counseling, we remind people about the [Counseling and Mental Health] Services and the [University Chaplaincy] service.”

McMahon said her focus after the initial contact is establishing a connection with the student. 

“More than anything else, we just try to be humans and talk to people,” McMahon said. “And that means making people feel seen.”

When Hurricane Harvey hit the southern coast of Texas in late August last year, McMahon sent out 42 emails to incoming first-years who had home addresses in Texas.

“We wrote very specifically to first-year students who were delayed for orientation,” McMahon said. “We reorganized orientation with them, provided make-up sessions for them and then made sure there was a person waiting [at Tufts] who knew that they were coming in after [being affected by the hurricane].”

This was the case for sophomore Saherish Surani from Corpus Christi, Texas. With the threat of Hurricane Harvey looming, the city of Corpus Christi issued a mandatory evacuation. However, Surani said that her family decided to stay behind with her father, who felt a responsibility to remain in the city as a doctor.

“My dad is a doctor at the hospital, so he had this moral obligation to stay with his patients because he does lots of critical care [work],” Surani said. “It was important to stay as a family.”

Once the decision was made, Surani said her family began to prepare for the storm by buying food and water, bringing out an emergency kit and electric stove, unplugging their appliances and boarding up all their windows. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Surani, her sister and her mother took turns watching out for damage to their house.

While there was no structural damage, Surani said that her house did lose power for three days, while other households in Corpus Christi were without electricity for up to three weeks. Surani added that, with some cell service, her family was still able to communicate with her father, who was working at the hospital the night when Hurricane Harvey hit.

Surani said that while she felt safe in her house, the experience was nerve-wracking.

“The scariest part was the sounds of the wind, especially at night, hitting the wood that was boarded up,” she said.

The next morning, when the storm had passed, Surani and her family drove around the city to see the damage caused by the hurricane.

“It was eerily peaceful,” Surani said. “I hated that feeling.”

An incoming first-year then, Surani had planned on participating in the First-Year Orientation Community Service (FOCUS) pre-orientation program. She said, however, that her family decided to have her not participate in the program and instead move in during the regular move-in day on Aug. 30, due to the threat of Hurricane Harvey.

“I was … uncertain about moving in,” Surani said. “I remember they were like, ‘Parents can help move in from 9–1 p.m.’ … and I thought that if I moved in late my parents wouldn’t be able to help me, because I thought everything was so rigid.”

Surani said the email from McMahon helped alleviate much of her concerns.

“I think that helped ease some of the anxiety I was feeling at the time,” Surani said. “I think the university, especially the [Office of the Dean of Student Affairs], does a really good job of making sure that students’ needs are met, and also being that extra hand, to reach out even when we don’t reach out.”

Another disaster that affected a significant number of Tufts students was the gas explosions earlier this year in several Merrimack Valley towns in Massachusetts. McMahon said she sent out approximately 70 emails to students from Andover, North Andover and Lawrence who may have been affected by the explosions.

Gavin Smith, a junior from Andover, was one of the recipients of these emails. Smith found out about the gas explosions in class when he received a text from his mother saying that his family had to evacuate their house. Smith said his house had lost access to gas but did not sustain any damage from fires or explosions.

“They say ‘don’t worry,’ but obviously you’re worried,” Smith said.

According to Smith, Columbia Gas, the main supplier of gas for the towns of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, originally projected that gas would be restored by Nov. 19. However they recently pushed the deadline back to Dec. 16.

“Our gas stove, our gas dryer and our gas water heater were all condemned, so we don’t have those anymore, for now,” Smith said.

Smith said that his family was forced to take cold showers for weeks before they had an electric water heater installed. Smith said Columbia Gas covered expenses for the electric water heater, as well as other items such as an electric griddle, space heater and heated blankets. According to Smith, the gas supplier also offered to pay for some families to stay in a hotel.

Smith has returned home a couple times since the gas explosions and he noted the extraordinary number of construction workers he sees in his town.

“When there’s a construction project, there’s maybe five to 10 workers in the street. It’s like that but every street in the whole town,” he said. “It’s crazy. There must be hundreds and hundreds of workers all across town.”

Smith said he welcomed the email he received from McMahon.

“I appreciated the sentiment, absolutely,” he said. “There are definitely some people who lost their house, and having that support system [is really] nice.”

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story. Part 2 will be published in print and the full story will be available online tomorrow.