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'I wish I was at home': Students from Houston area feel helpless as Harvey ravages their hometowns

At 11 a.m. Sunday, Alex Cherches was on Facebook when he saw a new post from his mom. 

“Water in house,” it read. 

Cherches, a junior from Houston, quickly reached his family by phone and learned more details. Everyone was safe as Hurricane Harvey continued to barrage his hometown, but the first floor of the Cherches’ two-story home was flooded and their cars were destroyed from water damage. 

His mom, dad and older brother were camped out on the second floor of the house, waiting for the storm to end. 

Duke students from East Texas are beginning to learn more about the damage Harvey caused to their hometowns. Many students’ houses have been spared—others have not. But of the six students The Chronicle spoke with, all of them said their families were safe. 

The hurricane has devastated southeast Texas—turning streets into rivers and lakes, stranding thousands and leaving cities unsure of what the next several years of recovery will be like. As the rainstorm, which is the biggest to ever hit the continental United States, finally began to move out of Texas, officials have begun to take stock of the material damage and human casualties.

The Associated Press has reported that 23 people have been confirmed dead, and more than 32,000 have packed into shelters around the state. In Houston, authorities and civilians are beginning to transition from focusing on rescues to managing the recovery. 

In separate emails Monday, President Vincent Price and Larry Moneta, vice president of student affairs, offered the University’s support to students who have been affected by the storm. 

“As we begin this academic year, our thoughts are with those members of the Duke community who have family and friends living in communities affected by catastrophic flooding in Texas,” Price said. 

He called on students to look out for each other. But for some students, that support did not end their feelings of helplessness from being in Durham as Hurricane Harvey continues to destroy parts of their hometowns. 

Senior Shivam Dave said his home in Houston did not suffer any damage—drains around his house prevented any major flooding and his parents are fine. But seeing pictures of the floodwaters around Houston was shocking for him. 

He left Houston to travel back to Durham on Friday—a day earlier than he had originally planned because of the storm. But he never expected Harvey to cause the destruction that he has seen on the internet and on television. 

“I’m just seeing these pictures of highways that I drive on, routes that I take to get school or to get to my friends' houses, and they’re completely submerged. You can basically see waves of water,” Dave said. "I’m seeing all these pictures that are really beyond anything I could have imagined.” 

Dave, whose high school has been turned into a shelter for displaced residents, explained that it was hard for him to understand how his house was spared after seeing so much destruction. He felt powerless knowing that there was little he could do help those affected by the storm. 

“Here, all I can do is talk about it,” he said, referring to campus. “If I was there, I could potentially be more helpful because I know my friends and I know the people are out there and doing the work that you need to recover.” 

The damage has also been jarring for senior Maria Luisa Frasson-Nori. Her family and home escaped the destruction, but one of her close friends and the friend's family had to be rescued on a boat after the first floor of their home flooded. 

Like Dave, Frasson-Norri thought the storm would just be an inconvenience. In fact, as she was leaving Houston for the start of school, she was most concerned about just avoiding flight delays and making it to Durham. 

“No one realized that it was going to be a storm of this magnitude,” she said. “No one was prepared for this… Now I feel a worry and concern every time somebody talks about it, which is pretty much every half hour.” 

For Cherches, the junior whose house flooded, his mom’s Facebook update came after an already tense few days. He had initially planned to split the drive from Houston to Durham with his father because he was nervous about driving his manual transmission car so far. But then his dad decided to stay behind, leaving Cherches to drive the entire 19 hours himself. 

Two days later, his house was filling with water. 

“[I’m] grateful that my dad did make that decision to stay with my family instead of coming with me,” he said. “[Seeing the pictures]—it was crazy.” 

Cherches said the flooding has since receded, and his family has been updating him about the water damage at their home. But he said the stress has persisted. He wants to do more to help. 

“I wish I was at home,” he said.