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New school year, new hurricane

Umbrellas bobbed along the Bryan Center plaza.
Umbrellas bobbed along the Bryan Center plaza.

I remember one morning last September, my parents called me and told me that my neighborhood was flooded and water levels were slowly rising. They were going to start moving everything up to the second floor. Before my 8:45, I went to the Oasis outside the Wellness Center and I cried while looking out into the forest. I thought of my parents and my little brother being stranded there for days. I thought of everything I owned, photos and trinkets I deliberately didn’t take to college to make sure they were safe. I thought of my little dog Heidi, who shivers in fear when it’s sprinkling outside. After a few minutes I wiped my eyes, stood up, walked to organic chemistry, and went on with my busy week.

Around this time last year, I was beginning my first semester at Duke as Hurricane Harvey was hitting my hometown of Houston, Texas. I had just come down from the high of O-week and was adjusting to the novelty of everything around me. Back at home, however, my family was experiencing a natural disaster unlike anything they had faced before. Seeing my family go through that stress, yet continuing to scurry through my daily life, made me realize how remote problems at home can feel in college. While preparing for Florence last week, I saw how lonely personal issues at Duke can feel when contrasted to the solidarity we feel when an event occurs on campus or statewide. 

In college, many of us feel like we have two homes. There can be the warm, familiar place that you come from and there is the fresh, challenging place of campus. For me, these places were 1,200 miles away from each other, and even further apart in my head. What went on at home felt completely separate from my day-to-day life. Even though the disaster last year could have had lasting impacts on my life, it never got close to that in my mind. As my family was cooped up in our house for weeks, I went on with my busy life relatively unaffected.

Life at Duke doesn’t stop for our outside lives. Our numerous responsibilities from our classes, organizations and jobs continue to be thrown at us. And while we sign up for this intensity somewhat willingly, circumstances in our life change. When these changes occur in places miles away from home, it can be easy to ignore them in order to focus on the tasks at hand. While this is essentially a part of growing up, many of us are still halfway between living at home and complete independence. This makes personal issues in both places more difficult, as we may not have the support systems we are used to in each respective place. When a big change was happening at home during Harvey, the people I would’ve gone to first were the ones being affected. The distance made it easier to compartmentalize my issues, but harder to address my feelings in a healthy way.

Last week, the Duke community got word about Hurricane Florence hitting the coast and its projected pathway that included the Triangle area. This time, it was my life at Duke that was in flux. My family and friends from back home were now the ones reaching out to me and making sure I was prepared. Although the hurricane ended up swerving off course and did not hit our area as hard as expected, we had no way of knowing that earlier. Life at Duke took a literal pause in order to prepare for the hurricane. It was easier for me to accommodate changes in my schedule since everyone else around me was going through the same changes. There was a sense of solidarity among students on campus that made the pre-hurricane vibe a mixture of anticipation and unity. Maybe it was purely the privilege I experience as a Duke student, but I felt much less afraid before this hurricane compared to the loneliness I felt last year when the disaster was happening back at home.

Last year, my home in Houston was spared from being flooded. Most homes in my neighborhood were not. So far at Duke, we have avoided the worst of the storm, although the impacts on other areas in the Carolinas have been severe. Both situations have made me realize how important family is to me in times of crisis, but also how removed my family feels from my life at Duke. Additionally, preparing for the hurricanes showed me more about how I feel about my two homes; I tend to take each one for granted while I’m at the other. Having such a busy, distant life at Duke can make it difficult to emotionally deal with drastic events back home, including natural disasters, loss of loved ones, and the general turmoil of life. On the flipside, returning home allows us to ignore our rapidly compounding issues of schoolwork, volunteer and work experience, and future careers. The reality is we have to address our problems in each place eventually, no matter how distant they seem. 

Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.