Flooding in Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey has forced several universities to evacuate their students or cancel classes in the first weeks of the new school year.
Colleges and universities in southeast Texas, where the storm has dumped more than 50 inches of rain, were set to welcome thousands of students — including international students — back to the coastal Houston and Galveston areas, as well as the inland cities of Corpus Christi and San Antonio.
“This continues to be a difficult and challenging time for us all,” said University of Houston President Renu Khator in a statement.
“Houston bayous have crossed their borders, water has entered homes and roads have become unfriendly,” said Khator.
The University of Houston, 50 miles north of the storm’s landfall along the Gulf of Mexico coast, has been severely impacted by high winds, rainfall and flooding.
Housing, food service overwhelmed
University housing and food services have been overwhelmed in the relief effort as the storm affected those on campus and in the surrounding area. The opening of classes has been postponed until September 4.
However, schools have opened their dining facilities during the storm at no charge. Kitchens have been operating 24 hours a day to accommodate incoming students who moved in before Harvey made landfall in the Houston area, according to the university’s webpage.
VOA speaks to University of Houston student
University of Houston "dining halls were open to all students whether you had a meal plan or not," student Sunny Gotewal told VOA. That included free food to those in the community who were displaced, he said.
Classes at Texas A&M’s coastal campus in Corpus Christi — nicknamed the “Island University” because it sits on a peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico — are postponed until at least September 5, officials said.
Most students had not arrived on campus when the storm hit, said university spokesperson Luisa Buttler, but eight students and three faculty members were evacuated to Laredo, about 150 miles to the west.
Rice University in Houston said it is not evacuating students despite heavy flooding, spokesperson B.J. Almond said.
“All of our students are safe,” he said.
University of Houston students have also stepped up to help with storm rescue efforts. Before the National Guard arrived, four students waded through floodwaters to aid elderly residents of Beall Village, a nearby community, reported The Cougar, a student newspaper.
Moved to higher ground
Hadley said he and three other students moved residents to a parking garage on a higher level of the residence.
“The first room that I saw had a lady in a wheelchair," Gotewal told VOA's Student Union. "Water was up to her knees and she couldn't move, and she was just sitting there."
The students helped whom they could, Gotewal said, but couldn't lift the motorized wheelchairs through the high water.
The National Guard arrived and removed other residents, Hadley said.
The University of Texas-Austin is also offering shelter to those affected by the hurricane, said Cindy Posey, UT’s director of internal and safety communication. “UT Austin is honored… to provide the space.”
Students at the University of Texas-San Antonio (UT-SA) have donated more than 50 units of blood in a drive arranged by the student health department. The South Texas Blood and Tissue Center, which is also holding a blood drive on UT-SA’s campus, said it had sent 350 units to the Houston and Gulf Coast area.
The university will host several other events in the coming weeks, including food and clothing drives.
Lorenzo Sanchez, director of UT-SA’s emergency management, said that he is thrilled with cooperation between the university and the San Antonio community.
“We want to make sure we’re doing our part in helping our neighbors in Houston,” Sanchez said.
All students, including international students, are eligible for assistance even if they are not permanent residents of the affected area, said Troy Christensen, external affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Christensen said FEMA is coordinating with the Department of State to offer assistance to international students.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) website urges international students to save documentation to prove their non-immigrant student status, including a passport, visa and I-20 form to provide documented proof of their immigration status. DHS also advises students to have emergency-preparation kits and monitor FEMA’s website.
International students whose visa status could be affected by Harvey must apply for an extension or change of status waiver, if needed, according to the U.S. Department of State’s website.
“Your safety is important to us as well as out commitment to the mission of education. … Please know that we are all in it together — as a family and as a community,” said Khator. “We hope to get back on our feet, help each other and help our community in its rebuilding efforts.”
Zach Rayment and Max Cotton contributed to this report.