Weathering the Storm
Texas Colleges Recovering from Hurricane Harvey
Desperate times, the old idiom goes, call for desperate measures. So it was for the community colleges battered and damaged by Hurricane Harvey an unprecedented weather event which presented unprecedented challenges for colleges on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Consider Lone Star College, the sprawling community college system that serves more than 95,000 full- and parttime students across six campuses in suburban Houston. The record-breaking rains of Hurricane Harvey poured floodwater and sewage through the college’s Kingwood campus, badly damaging six of the campus’ nine buildings, causing millions of dollars in damage and requiring the major changes to the college’s course schedules.
Hurricane Harvey slammed into Houston on Aug. 26, devastating the city with wind speeds up to 130 mph. More than 200,000 homes were damaged by the winds and floodwaters; 77 people died. The estimated cost to repair the damages Harvey inflicted has been estimated at $150 to $180 billion.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the central question facing the college was how to serve students starting the fall semester when so much of its infrastructure was out of service and likely to remain so through the spring semester and perhaps beyond.
The college’s answer? Technology and digital learning. According to college officials, some 600 courses that had been offered in-person at Kingwood had to be quickly converted to online or hybrid formats. Before Hurricane Harvey hit, 28 percent of courses offered on the Kingwood campus were offered either fully or partially online; after the storm, that figure was 73 percent. About 12,000 students are enrolled at the Kingwood campus.
Longtime faculty members — many of whom had never before taught an online course — had to undergo training and abruptly leap into the world of online education. Many professors were familiar with the college’s digital footprint through their use of online grading and other course management programs. But they had to learn how to host virtual discussions, figure out how often to respond to student emails and discern when to schedule a video call.
Harvey dumped more than 30 inches of rain to the Kingwood neighborhood over three days, isolating the area from other parts of the city. Repairs the campus will span the semester. Damage was estimated at about $15 million.
For the college, creating continuity in course offerings amid the chaos of Harvey was critical. Studies have shown that many community college students whose studies are interrupted, for whatever reason, never return to school.
So faculty members were asked to squeeze courses into truncated semester and operate without office space. The college also quickly arranged to lease space for classes that need to be taught face-toface. English as a Second Language courses were moved into a nearby church. Fire Science classes were shifted to the Harris County Fire and Sheriff’s Training Academy. For Registered Nursing and Respiratory Therapy classes and Licensed Vocational Nursing courses, the college began sharing facilities located at other Lone Star College campuses.
In a statement to the campus community, Kingwood campus President Katherine Persson praised students and faculty for soldiering on in the wake of the hurricane.
“I am proud of our administrators, faculty members and staff who have done their best to accommodate the needs of our students given our post-Harvey reality,” she said. “We know many of you had apprehensions about taking online classes. We understand, have offered, and will continue to offer help in navigating through this format.”
The Kingwood campus was not the sole Lone Star College facility damaged by the record-breaking storm. The storm also forced the college to delay the opening of its new University Center science building until spring 2018 due to flooding.
The $15.4 million Center for Science and Innovation had been scheduled to open in time for the fall 2017 semester, but it is now slated to open in spring 2018.
Construction of the new building nearly complete before a foot of water flooded the ground floor. Furniture, electronics and drywall all suffered extensive damage.
The recent flooding has not changed overall construction plans for the building, officials said. But the college is considering measures to prevent future flooding, including the construction of a berm designed to keep water out.
Damage from the storm was less severe at Del Mar College, in Corpus Christi, about 210 miles southwest of Houston. But it promoted an outpouring of support from the campus community.
Charles Miller, Del Mar superintendent of buildings and grounds, skipped his own retirement reception and postponed his retirement date of Aug. 31 to assist with cleanup and repair efforts.
“This is my job,” Miller said. “I am doing it for the students,” Miller, one of about 12 Del Mar employees who returned to work soon after the storm passed, found toppled trees and minor damage to about half of the college’s 74 buildings.
Del Mar’s staff, faculty and students demonstrated resilience during the disaster that became branded “Texas Strong.” But while the college was back up and running within days of the storm, returning to normalcy for some people will be a long-term process.
Del Mar’s executive leadership team decided to delay the start of fall classes to the day after Labor Day, Sept. 5, as Harvey approached the Gulf Coast. Campuses were closed for business on Thursday, Aug. 24, and only essential personnel were allowed to stay as the college’s Hurricane Preparedness and Response Plan went into effect.
The executive team was back on campus on Monday, Aug. 28.
“The magnitude of destruction in our neighboring communities is sobering,” Del Mar President Mark Escamilla said at the time. “Del Mar College is committed to doing everything within its authority to provide assistance to our beloved employees and students, however we can.”
Robert Shannon, a master electrician at Del Mar, left his Rockport home with his wife and dog and evacuated to San Antonio before Harvey hit. They returned to find the home extensively damaged, with most of the roof shingles missing and standing water inside.
“We were lucky,” Shannon said. “There are people in Rockport who don’t have anything left. I drove around over there and it’s just terrible.”
Shannon was back at Del Mar on Aug. 28. He and his coworkers began pumping two and a half feet of water out of the William F. White Jr. Library basement that was coming dangerously close to some electrical equipment.
Shannon slept the next two nights in the college’s Emergency Training Building along with Escamilla, other staff members and first responders from the area.
Transfixed by images of people being rescued from floodwaters in Houston, Danielle Garza and her husband, Ricardo, both Del Mar students, decided to get involved. They hooked up their 14-foot fishing boat, drove to a Northwest Houston suburb and helped with evacuation efforts.
“I felt in my heart that I had to help,” said Danielle, president of the Student Government Association. “When you’re looking at it on social media, it seems like it’s easy to get around, but it’s not. It took us five hours just to cover one subdivision.”
The college’s assistance efforts took other forms too.
The DMC Foundation established emergency funds to help students affected by the hurricane pay for their education and to aid those in need with food, clothing, temporary shelter, transportation and other essentials.
Donations included 100,000 from the Coastal Bend Community Foundation (CBCF) through the estate of Olga Doan.
“We’re blessed to have a community partner like the CBCF,” said Mary McQueen, executive director of Development/DMC Foundation. “With these funds, we can help our students move forward with their education and their lives.”
Employees in Del Mar’s Division of Business, Industrial and Public Safety Education began collecting donations of clothing, food and personal hygiene items for those who need them. Others in the division who teach heating, ventilation and air conditioning courses plan to repair air conditioners for needy families free of charge.
Many employees participated in individual cleanup and relief efforts in communities throughout the area. And, in an unprecedented move, Del Mar began adjusting out-of-district and other fees to accommodate students from surrounding communities impacted by Harvey.
“I’m extremely proud of Del Mar College’s response to this crisis,” Escamilla said. “We came together like a family to support each other. Nevertheless, we can’t forget that many people are still recovering from the storm and may be recovering for a long time.”
Del Mar College writer Michael Bratten contributed to this article.