Hurricane​ ​Irma:​ An NSU student recounts her​ ​evacuation​ ​experience

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Student walks through the halls at shelter

The doors flew open. Liz Kelley, area coordinator for Rolling Hills Graduate Apartments at Nova Southeastern University (NSU), rushed into the lobby in a frenzy. “Sheandra, I was looking for you! I was so scared,” she blurted clutching her chest and breathing a sigh of relief upon seeing me. NSU’s shuttles were preparing to leave. I had somehow missed the memo.

Liz grabbed my suitcase—a blue, rolling duffel bag I had packed with snacks, bottles of water and several changes of clothes as instructed by NSU’s Office of Residential Life and Housing in an email blast sent two days earlier. Ominous gray clouds, patchy drizzles, and unbearable humidity met Liz and me outside as we hustled from Rolling Hills C to Rolling Hills A where several shuttle buses filled with students were gearing up to leave. I boarded one of the shuttles. Liz finished up her rounds then hopped on the shuttle that was waiting in front of the one I was on.

I was one of 40 NSU students who hadn’t checked out of the dorms when news broke of Hurricane Irma’s impending arrival in South Florida. All 40 of us were being evacuated to an emergency shelter a few miles from campus. The shelter, an elementary school, was going to be our home for the next few days as Irma, a slow-moving Category 5 hurricane, inched its way toward Florida, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction in the Caribbean. Luckily, models were beginning to show where Irma’s track was shifting west, which meant that Broward County would be spared from a direct hit. Nevertheless, NSU wasn’t taking any chances.

Off we went—a caravan of shuttle buses on a slow trek through the streets of Davie. In the seat behind me, Assistant Area Coordinator for Rolling Hills and board game connoisseur John Jaeger riddled off the names of the board games he had packed to help us pass the time. Skull…Love Letter…Sushi GO!—I wasn’t familiar with any of them. In the seat in front of me, Public Safety Officer Anthony Fernandez engaged me and John in humorous small talk. The Dominican-born thirty-something-year-old had me and John laughing the entire shuttle ride.

As the shuttles pulled into the shelter, I was surprised to learn that Associate Dean of Student Services & Director of Residential Life and Housing Aarika Camp and five members of her department, in addition to Liz, would be staying with us. I was even more surprised to learn that the five public safety officers who accompanied us on the shuttle ride to the shelter were also staying to ensure our safety. In that moment, any fear I had completely dissipated.

We unloaded the shuttles and joined a long line of persons waiting to be let into the shelter. While waiting, many of us broke out our water supply—downing bottles of Aquafina and Walmart’s private label brand Great Value as the scorching Florida heat began to take its toll. Forty-five minutes later, we were instructed to head upstairs to the second floor.

Newton surveys the hallway while lying in her sleeping bag.
Newton surveys the hallway while lying in her sleeping bag.

In single file, our group of 50 trooped up the stairs. “This is it, guys,” a law enforcement officer announced as we entered a hallway. Many of us stood there, looking around, not quite sure what we expected; whatever it was, a hallway wasn’t it. Three students left the very first night.

One good thing about the hallway was that it was ours—NSU’s own private wing where our public safety officers would hold down a strong presence at both ends. Their presence kept us safe from unscrupulous characters—characters who tried to sneak into our hallway at night while most of us were asleep; characters who almost came to blows in the cafeteria during expletive-filled arguments triggered by statements like “You stepped on my sheet!;” characters that included an adult male who grabbed a little girl in the stairwell. Luckily, the man was caught, public safety officers confirmed.

I could spend a lot of time writing about how my experience in the shelter was the most miserable three days and three nights of my entire existence. How I often had to remind myself that no, I hadn’t signed up for that TV show “60 Days In: Atlanta” on A&E Network in which everyday citizens go undercover as inmates in Fulton County Jail.

I won’t go into details about the overflowing toilets that reeked or the prepackaged meals that left much to be desired. This account of my first hurricane shelter experience is recorded history; 10 years from now, I want to be reminded of the positive aspects.

I want to be reminded of the NSU students I would have never gotten to know, like Savad Garner, an MBA student from South Carolina who shares similar career goals and frustrations as me; Michelle Thomas, a doctoral student from Trinidad who inspired me so much that I spent my last night in the shelter researching doctorate programs with the last bit of battery life left on my smart phone, and Brian Kim, the incredibly smart freshman from Utah who read me an excerpt from one of his many leisurely reads: Non-Obvious: How to Think Different, Curate Ideas & Predict The Future by Rohit Bhargava.

Students play UNO to pass time at shelter
Liz Kelley, Rolling Hills Area Coordinator, plays UNO with students.

The hurricane shelter was the worst experience that produced what I am certain will go down as some of my best NSU memories. If I had to do it all over again, I’ve got to be honest—I wouldn’t. I would hightail it out of Davie faster than Irma’s record-breaking winds. However, I don’t regret staying. Had I not, I wouldn’t have heard Officer Fernandez’s back-to-back punch lines and the ensuing bursts of laughter that echoed throughout our hallway; I wouldn’t have seen Jamaican student Yanique Levy’s dance moves to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”; I wouldn’t have witnessed the impact of Aarika Camp’s decision to donate some of NSU’s non-perishable food items, which dozens of families lined up for.

The morning we were permitted to return to campus was a very good day. The best part—other than the hot meal prepared by Chartwells that everyone promptly devoured and the hot shower we were able to take in the gym locker rooms—was being greeted by NSU’s president, Dr. George Hanbury. The man, whose concern for students was often expressed in well-crafted emails, welcomed us as we arrived. It was clear from the way he was directing on-call staff that his concern went beyond diplomacy and university protocols. His concern was genuine.

During lunch in NSU’s gym, Rolling Hills Area Coordinator Liz Kelley remarked that she didn’t have the words to describe the three days we had all just experienced. At the time, I didn’t either. All I could do was describe how I felt. One word came to mind: grateful.

Not only was I grateful that I survived Hurricane Irma, but I was also grateful that I was a part of a community where I wasn’t just another number in the 2017-2018 enrollment records. Everyone, from NSU’s public safety officers and Residential Life and Housing staff, who didn’t have to stay in the shelter with us, to Dr. Hanbury, who could have busied himself with assessing campus damages and costs, made me feel like I mattered.

Earlier this month, NSU ended its “Weeks of Welcome,” which ushered in the new school year. Some students may say that the two weeks of fun and exciting events was a showcase of the university’s culture; For me, it was the three-day lockdown in the Broward County shelter during Hurricane Irma and my release in the wake of the storm that truly showcased what NSU is all about.

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