For some MIT students, Harvey hits home

Administrators offer aid with travel issues

MIT offered its support to students affected by Hurricane Harvey, the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since 2005.

Harvey ravaged southeastern Texas last week, leaving record-high rainfall in its wake. 288 undergraduate and 187 graduate students at MIT currently have a home address in Texas, Aaron Weinberger, assistant director for institute affairs, wrote to The Tech.

“Many people have reached out to me with concern about my family, and they told me that if they ever needed anything all I had to do was ask. It was a heart-warming experience,” Isaac Toscano ’21, a student from Houston, Texas, wrote in an email to The Tech.

Toscano’s family’s apartment was safely on the second floor, but their cars took on significant water damage during the hurricane; his own car floated about 25 feet away from its original position due to the winds and was completely submerged underwater.

Allison Couch ’21, also from Houston, found MIT to be “extremely accommodating” when her originally scheduled flight was canceled. “I did not know if I would be able to get out, and my advisor offered to meet electronically if I missed the meeting. The orientation office was very understanding and promised to do what they could help,” she wrote to The Tech.

Couch and her family made it through the hurricane “mostly okay.”

“There are three neighborhoods on our side of the reservoir, and ours was the furthest away,” Couch wrote. “My house did not take on any water, but I have several friends in the other two neighborhoods with several inches to feet of water in their homes.”

“We are fairly certain most of [my grandparents’] house will be in ruins,” Couch added. “Most importantly, though, no one I know was physically injured by Harvey.”

Staff from the office of Vice President and Dean for Student Life sent the names and contact information of students living in Texas to the relevant heads of house and area directors, requesting that they reach out to students to offer their help. The Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups (FSILG) Office did likewise to notify graduate resident advisers of potentially affected students in its organizations.

Separately, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz coordinated with advisers. He encouraged advisers to send a personal message to students from Texas and also emphasized the availability of the resources listed on the Student Resources website, in particular, Student Support Services (S3), Graduate Personal Support, Let’s Chat, and MIT Medical Mental Health and Counseling.

“We've found that encouraging outreach from those closest to the affected students…is most effective,” Weinberger wrote. “That’s what the outreach from Vice Chancellor Waitz and Dean Nelson’s office is designed to initiate.”

Other offices and organizations across campus also reached out to students, both directly and indirectly, including Student Financial Services, who emailed students to offer assistance with financial aid and student account concerns; David Randall, senior associate dean of student support and wellbeing, S3, and the Coordination, Assistance, Response, and Education (CARE) Team, who helped individual students and families with logistical and travel issues; and the Community Services Office, who wrote to the Community Giving Ambassadors in each department with information on how to support hurricane victims through monetary support and collection drives.

Hurricane Harvey dumped 51.88 inches of rain over Houston and the surrounding area, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated that the resulting damage would cost around $150 to $180 billion — possibly surpassing the cost of Hurricane Katrina.  

“The main cause of the truly exceptional magnitude of Harvey's floods was that the storm stalled over eastern Texas, not far from the Gulf [of Mexico]. Hurricanes are driven by heat fluxes from the sea and therefore dissipate over land, but in this case, the dissipation was slow and Harvey's wind circulation continued to pump very moist air from over the Gulf into eastern Texas,” Professor of Atmospheric Science Kerry Emanuel PhD ’78 explained in an email to The Tech.

In light of recent political conditions, some scientists and news outlets have also commented on the extent to which the disastrous effects of Harvey and natural disasters of a similar scale can be attributed to climate change. David Leonhardt, a columnist for The New York Times, called Harvey “the Storm that Humans Helped Cause.”

According to Emanuel, in the past decade, “substantial progress” has been made by researchers in his field toward understanding how climate change affects hurricanes.

“We have used advanced modeling techniques to estimate that, if greenhouse gas emissions are not curtailed, hurricane rain of Harvey's magnitude will affect Texas with an annual probability of one in five by the end of this century,” Emanuel wrote. This number is in comparison to a one in a hundred probability in 1990 and a one in fifteen probability today.

Emanuel continued, “Greenhouse gases increase the potential rate of heat flux from the ocean, which makes hurricane winds stronger. At the same time, more water vapor in the atmosphere increases the quantity of rainfall produced by a given hurricane.”

Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma has made landfall on the Caribbean islands and is expected to be among the most powerful Atlantic storms in recorded history.