A few days later
The water has now fallen below some arbitrary level, and we can finally emerge from Hinman without the aid of a makeshift raft. In rain boots and any other waterproof clothing we can find, we push through the 10-or-so inches of water remaining.
Much of the small debris now clusters where it was caught when the flooding reduced to eddies and then to a near standstill. The large branches no longer float and are spindly obstacles. Stumps of dismembered trees, which appeared as the water level fell, now stand as if in shock and defeat.
The clock tower was struck by lightning and this what caused such loud booms during the storm. Luckily, no one was hurt by its collapse – should we count ourselves lucky that there were no casualties among students, when we feel so cursed to have suffered this storm at all?
Walking up Sheridan, away from the lake, we see that the stained-glass windows of Alice Millar Chapel are gone. I notice that the arch is still standing; one of the stone supports is half leaning, as if it stumbled backwards and caught itself just in time.
We stand beneath the crooked arch, surrounded by debris and broken trees, nearly knee-deep in water and unable to figure out what words would be appropriate for such a situation. Not a single cloud has dared to show itself since the storm, and the blueness of the sky mocks our destroyed campus.
And we continue walking down, past the branch-strewn steps of Harris. There is still no word on when classes will resume. How can our community simply halt itself? Last year, when such strange events began happening around the world, there was a sense of urgency and a fervent hope that we could complete our educations before the catastrophes reached us. Slowly, that range shortened. Just one more year. Just one more quarter. Just one more week.
When forces beyond our control disrupt our lives, how completely must we allow society to collapse? Do we assume that this will have a tangible end and wait it out, to resume life as normal at that point? Or do we try to hold a normal life even as the physical world crumbles around us?
When change was happening elsewhere, pretending it could not reach us was so easily. Those poor people, we thought. How unfortunate for them.
How strange now to be in their place.
The truth is that physically distant problems are far too easy to dismiss. Until the storm appeared in our forecasts, we thought blindly that we would escape with nothing more than a few tornadoes in the suburbs. I know I did.
We round the corner and I stop short. The spires of University Hall have crumbled. The road leading down past Crowe is still deep in water. The bike racks are twisted or simply gone.
And the Rock is gone. Struck by lightning and crumbled – a few jagged edges stick up out of the water.
I get angry. Angry first at nature for taking Northwestern back – as if the artificiality of the lakefill had put a target on our backs for a hundred years – that it felt it had the right to destroy us in this way; angry then at ourselves, because I realize nature is just angry at us …
And then I am sad for our follies and the repercussions brought about. The permanence of campus is gone. The hubris that we could be so destructive and expect no destruction in return.
We walk in silence through the rest of the campus, past a vanished Deering Meadow and all the way to Tech, where the water still laps at the lower steps. Silence. The chilly autumn air is thin and motionless; no sort of weather stirs, and none has since the storm. What can follow such a catastrophe, after all?
We are unsure of what else to do, other than wander. What purpose, what direction, could we have? Soon enough, we will be able to help – clean up the wreckage, start to rebuild. But for now there is only the desolation.
We complete our slow lap of campus, but as we stand in front of Hinman again, I feel shallow and insignificant and guilty. The distinction between the flooded streets and the lake is gone, and the trees that once obscured my view of the water are broken and scattered. To say that everything is gone would be inaccurate. There is still the wreckage, and there is still our shame.