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In the Eye of the Storm

November 9, 2017 | By Anne Kniggendorf (SF97)

Jennifer Swaim is transported in the aftermath of a hurricane.
Jennifer Swaim (A95) was displaced earlier this fall.

Jennifer Swaim’s books are in a storage facility near Kansas City, so she knows they’re safe. She isn’t as sure about one of her cats.

The St. John’s College alumna, who split her time between the two campuses but ultimately graduated from Annapolis in 1995, had been living in the Commonwealth of Dominica for four years. Until Hurricane Irma, which grounded her in San Juan, Puerto Rico, en route to Dominica in early September, she’d never been through a Category 5 storm.

Swaim is one of a number of St. John’s alumni who have been affected by natural disasters in recent months, including hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean, and Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Some, including Swaim, spoke with the college about their ordeals. Others shared their stories via email. Fortunately, no injuries were reported, though some alumni experienced property damage.

In Puerto Rico, Swaim waited out Irma in a hotel for five days, then made it home to Dominica, only to be slammed by Hurricane Maria on September 18.

“This one really did have me pretty freaked out,” she says.

Once the storm passed, only 10 percent of Dominican structures were habitable, including her home. Even so, Ross University, where Swaim is a counselor and Department of Behavioral Sciences instructor, forced a complete faculty and student evacuation, so she couldn’t return to her house.

For 11 days, more than 1,400 members of the university lived in campus buildings as they awaited ferries that would take them to Saint Lucia.

Hurricane damage is seen outside of Swaim's office.

Swaim and her neighbors agreed to let newly-homeless Dominicans use their houses. That came at a cost. One of Swaim’s cats is now lost, though another found its way to her friend’s house. She figures her belongings are a loss. The island still has very limited communications, so she doesn’t receive many updates.

In the many weeks since Maria, Swaim says she has slept in 16 locations, including the cruise boat off of Saint Kitts that will serve as a university and her new residence through at least the end of the semester.

Meanwhile in Houston, where Hurricane Harvey dropped torrential rain and caused catastrophic flooding, Keith Rosen (AGI86) fared a little better.

Rosen (AGI86) runs a historical tour company in Houston, where he’s lived for most of 35 years. Though his house backs up to a gulley and is only three houses away from a major bayou, the most serious damage he sustained was to his business, not property. In September, when Rosen spoke to the college, he said he normally has 25 tours scheduled for that month. This year he only had six.

As for personal property, his leaking roof was very minor compared to what many households experienced. He was able to repair it himself.

“I was probably the only sad, old, white Jewish guy within a thousand miles on my roof making repairs rather than putting up a blue tarp or waiting for someone else,” Rosen says.

Fortunately, the leak occurred in his den rather than his front room where his library is housed.

Though Swaim and Rosen spoke most extensively with the college about their ordeals, other alumni checked in as well.

  • Bill Malloy (SF77) wrote on Facebook: “I was OK in one of 300 (out of 700 ground units) that did not flood. One hundred and fifty feet to the east and to the west of me flooded. Two hundred feet south of me, boats weren’t able to pull in five sickly folks who had to be plucked by cages into a helicopter. It was the fifth flood in 27 months in my neighborhood.”
  • Lori Duarte (SFGI05) emailed the college after Harvey to say, “Thankfully, my family and friends are all safe.” 
  • Matt Hartzel (A81) wrote to report: “We are lucky enough to live in a place called the Heights in Houston.  That means it’s all of almost 60 ft above sea level. A lot of our friends and neighbors around town and this part of Texas have had their whole lives soaked up on the first floor, scraped, shoveled up and dragged out to the front yard.”
  • Lee Tarpley (SF80) reached out with a positive update as well: “Family is safe, no damage, in Beaumont, Texas.”
  • Deric Barber (AGI) says: “We were one of the lucky ones that did not get water into our home.  We do, however, have several friends that either had damage, had to take retreat to a shelter, or still are wondering about the status of their home and property with insurance claims, etc.”

In a year that has been particularly marked by natural disasters, including recent wildfires in California, the college hopes to hear from its alumni and to help facilitate communication and support from across the St. John’s community. Please check in by writing to alumni(at)sjc.edu.