As “Houston’s University,” UH has always enjoyed the city’s considerable advantages, like a robust economy, a diverse population and an enlightened cultural attitude. But, not unlike a marriage, you have to take the “worse” along with the “better.” In our case, that includes some pretty severe storms occasionally roaring in from the Gulf of Mexico and ravaging the region with killer winds, driving rain and devastating flooding.
“Several of us at UH know firsthand that here on the Gulf Coast, hurricanes are not some hypothetical hazard but a fact of life,” President Renu Khator wrote, almost prophetically, in June when she urged the campus community to be prepared for another hurricane season.
A few months later, a small weather system in the Gulf spun furiously into a much larger concern named Harvey, and, before it had grudgingly blown past us, the storm had uncorked more than 50 inches of rain and inundated several parts of Greater Houston. While the UH campus did not endure nearly as much obvious damage as many areas, the growing cost of the initial response and ongoing recovery efforts may be as much as $95 million.
Harvey now goes into the history book alongside three other notable tempests of the 21st century that threatened UH—two that wreaked considerable havoc and one that gave us a serious scare but no significant damage:
TROPICAL STORM ALLISON
From June 5-9 in 2001, this incredibly soggy weather system delivered nearly 40 inches of unrelenting rain on Houston, flooding the campus and infiltrating 90 (of 105) buildings and completely submerging all below-ground facilities. UH suffered widespread damage to its mechanical, electrical, telecommunications and computer systems. The subterranean O’Quinn Law Library lost 200,000 books and documents. UH reopened June 18, with more than 100 classes relocated to provisional classrooms around campus and Hofheinz Pavilion serving as temporary headquarters for the University. With damages approaching $200 million, it remains UH’s most severe disaster to date.
In late September 2005, it looked like this Category 5 storm was clearly on track to bring its deadly 175 mph winds roaring up the Ship Channel and into the heart of Houston. Some 2.5 million area residents evacuated, or tried to, resulting in a massive (and lethal) gridlock. UH closed the campus and hunkered down, while a long line of buses waited to transfer hundreds of students in the dorms to safer circumstances. At the last moment, Rita changed her mind and jogged dramatically to the east, leaving Houston and UH shaken but relatively unscathed.
On Sept. 13, 2008, Ike came whiplashing across UH with 100 mph winds, ripping off roofs, toppling nearly a third of the trees on campus and leaving $25 million in damages. Following a herculean clean up and recovery effort, the University reopened just three days after the storm blew through, offering classes on an optional basis and serving as an official distribution point for water, ice and packaged meals that UH volunteers handed out to multitudes of neighbors in need.