At first we could convince ourselves that this was just another storm. We knew about storms here, with snow pummeling us every winter and wind whipping our faces year-round. However, this was a different storm. For one thing, it was springtime.
It started with a few distant bolts of lightning, a few errant raindrops; we knew what was coming, of course, but in the beginning we could pretend this was normal. That this wouldn’t rob us of our home. The storm began tentatively, at first, and then all at once its full force set in. I have only a sorely-incomplete picture of what truly happened around campus, but that little bit is enough to share.
Waves crashed against the tumble of rocks on the edge of the lakefill, with such force that chips of paint and stone were thrown in the air and, upon falling, disappeared into the churning foam of the lake. Soon enough, entire stones themselves slid away from land, but the water was already so disturbed that their entrance added no splash.
On Sheridan, rivulets of water quickly became streams and then rivers. Flyers on the ground were swept away, tape and all. Each building was an island. And what were we to do but watch the sidewalks disappear? We could hope that the water would not find its way into our buildings and that everything irreplaceable would be spared. But hoping would not alter the course of the storm.
The wind alone would have been loud enough to necessitate raised voices inside. But we heard it little, only in the brief gaps between crashes of thunder strong enough to shake the buildings. And then there were the screams of campus: branches cracking and snapping, windows shattering, great booms as structures collapsed.
We grew accustomed to the cacophony soon enough, as someone who has lived near train tracks for many years no longer hears the rumble of a train’s passage. The boarded windows cast the hallway in a premature darkness, but the dark storm clouds created the mid-afternoon dusk as well. We sat in the basement halls of our dorms and apartments, as removed from windows as possible. Candles and flashlights were our only light; the electricity had been shut off that morning.
As the storm set in, we talked about what could happen: how long we would be without power, when classes would resume, how relatives nearby would fare. Such talk quickly became repetitive and what was more, it all relied on the unspoken assumption that once this was over, life would quickly enough return to normal.
But how could life return to normal when we all knew this was not an isolated event? The tornadoes two weeks ago may have missed us directly, but they had destroyed the roads surrounding Chicago to the extent that ground evacuation had been impossible. Strange wind currents had crippled commercial flight; even the military hesitated to fly now, and they had not even attempted to offer a way out to the people an urban area as large as Chicago.
Talk quickly changed to things that the storm would not touch: movies and music, regrets and losses. Our options were limited, then, but we worked around this because we so wanted to avoid the alternative.
The storm had been in full force for about an hour and a half when a huge branch smashed into our building. We knew this because the noise suddenly increased, and we could hear the rain drumming against a board through a now-broken window. We discovered that the windows of two adjacent rooms had shattered. There was nothing we could do, though, so we returned to the hallway and resumed our conversation.
How could we balance fear and boredom? Looking back now, I am unsure how we managed to pass the seven hours of the storm. We had resigned ourselves to this time, I suppose, and knew that acknowledging the long stretch of nothingness would only slow the speed at which it passed. We could not make the situation too light, however, as that lurking fear remained – unacknowledged, perhaps, but present nonetheless.
And then, the storm had moved on – I phrase it like that because really, can a force of such magnitude simply dissipate? Surely it must instead reign itself and become unknown and move on to somewhere else – it left behind darkness; even the stars had been battered into oblivion, it seemed, and they would not reemerge until the following night. Streetlights were not upright, let alone lit.
Inside, what struck us first was the silence. The bravest among us removed a board from the lounge window and we searched for any clues about the damage. We knew that there was flooding, of course. But the darkness was so complete that we could not even see water. A small light from Jones, dancing the way candles do, told us that others were curious as well.
Though it was not particularly late, there was little else to do now that the storm no longer threatened us. Our flashlights were flickering and our candles growing short. So we retreated to our own rooms to sleep, and a few more unfortunate students found that their windows too had been cracked. Those people replaced the boards to keep out the light breeze that still stirred through our battered campus. In the darkness and with the stress of the storm still weighing me down, I, for one, slept well.
But the morning – oh, the morning! Somehow I awoke today and thought briefly that the flutter in my chest was from a forgotten midterm. When I remembered, dread made my fingers tingle and head dizzy. With shaking legs I opened the blind of my window, and the sight outside took the remainder of my balance.
Water filled the streets and pathways, but the true shock was the sheer amount of debris. Huge boughs floated by, in much greater number than the trees left standing. Angles of cars stuck out of the water; the force of the current during the storm had carried them from any distance away. And there was trash, so much trash: bike parts, notebooks, bottles, Starbucks cups.
For the sake of brevity I will not describe all that transpired. But I will add that never has the entire Northwestern community been united in such universally equal grief.A full four feet of water travels lazily down Sheridan, as if our campus is the most natural place for it to be. Creatively-engineered precautions saved the residence portion of the first floor of our building, but the dining hall has not been spared and water sits against the window like some partially-filled aquarium – except, of course, that even more water sits outside.
We cannot leave, so I write this as reports trickle in through our CA’s radio. No electricity until the water is gone; no classes for, well, a while. A sense of impatience sits over us now, and gone is the acceptance of waiting. We want answers.