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Reflections from EE bus amid Tropical Storm Ida

As Tropical Storm Ida flooded streets and left students to flee on the few buses still operating, it served as an eerie reminder that tragedy can strike at any time. – Photo by Hayley Slusser

Tropical Storm Ida’s devastation in New Jersey led to the destruction of homes, massive flooding and a rising death toll. The effects of the damage in New Brunswick are still being assessed, but there are reports of flooding, cancelled classes and dangerous road conditions.

It was the first day of the semester for Rutgers—New Brunswick students. There were about five of us that collapsed onto seats of an EE bus at 8:20 p.m. on the day of the storm. As we got on, we all looked at one another incredulously, as if surprised that we had made it safely through the dangerous circumstances. 

My last class of the night was a 1.5 credit requirement. After we discussed the syllabus at length, the professor asked each student how we were feeling in an attempt to acknowledge and accept that we’re currently in tumultuous times. 

I said that I thought the atmosphere on campus felt “jubilant.” I could barely pronounce it right (it was one of those words I stored in a cupboard in my brain of “things I had always wanted to someday feel”) but it was the only word to describe rejoicing in the streets of New Brunswick, recognizing people I hadn’t seen in months from the pitches of their voices or the hues of their eyes. 

Almost immediately after I shared that word — jubilant — our phones blared in harmony, warning us of Tropical Storm Ida’s impending doom. We moved to a safer space to avoid the storm, and with masks on our faces, we prepared ourselves, again, for the unexpected.

On the back of the EE bus our eyes searched each other for some kind of understanding of what had just happened. “This is an EE, right?" I asked the person in front of me, even though I knew it was. I just wanted to hear something real at that moment. 

He nodded. The rain sheathed the bus entirely in a cocoon of water that made it nearly impossible for us to see through the windows, already foggy with our catching breaths. 

As the lights shone beyond the water somewhere in the space between droplets, I heard the person in front of me quietly announce the stops to the person across from him, a complete stranger up until that moment. “Okay, we just left SoCam,” I heard him say. I was grateful for the reminders of where we were going. 

Another person tapped me on the shoulder with enough force to pull me out of my reverie. “The bus is leaking on you,” they said. I moved one seat over but the streaming tears from above didn’t stop. I didn’t move. 

Earlier that day, I discovered that a Zoom screen can’t ever display the glassy-eyed stares of my bored peers, or the magnificent ways that those same eyes can crinkle enough to form visible crow’s feet, even behind masks, or how the sounds of pens and keyboards and sighs and the academic tones of professors create a melody I didn’t even remember I forgot. 

“People can smile so much in a single day,” I wrote in what was supposed to be a notebook for class notes. I guess it was. 

In every one of the four classes I attended on the first day of the semester, we discussed what would happen if the delta variant of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) worsened. 

“We’ll go back to Zoom because we already know how to do that,” all four of my incredibly smart professors said yesterday at some point during class.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how ridiculous that sounded. Of course my professors are doing all that they can to ensure that we get a proper education. But what then? Our futures are uncertain, and not just because of COVID-19. Nothing about our generation’s future is stable. 

How can I feel so hopeful, yet so scared? Although I’d like to subscribe to that attitude expressed in administrative emails or by well-meaning Rutgers professors, the idea that the worst is somehow behind us is factually infeasible. Pandemics, natural disasters, “unprecedented times" — they’re all inevitable given the current state of our climate and society as a whole. 

As the rain fell, I was walking so fast and with such purpose — my umbrella bending against the wind and my hair sticking to my forehead — that I almost knocked straight into a woman who was smoking outside. I recognized her as one of the residents of my building. 

I breathlessly apologized, but she only smiled. “That’s okay,” she said, with concern in her voice. I almost collapsed once I reached the inside, from the weight of strangers’ kindness or the rain, I wasn’t sure. My hands clutched my knees and I took deep breaths. 

That night inside my apartment we heard sirens, each competing with one another for attention from somebody to do something in response, like our clashing inner thoughts come to life. 

BEEP!! Alarm for ongoing COVID-19 pandemic with a deadly new strain. BEEP!! BEEP!! Alarm for climate change. BEEP!! Alarm for the war in Afghanistan. BEEP!! Alarm for an unstable job market. BEEP!! BEEP!! BEEP!! Alarm for increasingly horrendous conditions for democracy. BEEP!! BEEP!! 

If we truly gave ourselves time to process everything that is happening, would we ever get anything done? Did we ever get the space to talk about how much quarantine affected all of us? How weird it was for professors not to know our names but to see the posters in our bedroom? Is every unprecedented event just another thing we pretend is normal so that we can continue working for whatever purpose?

When I was in the tight classroom after the alarms of our phone warned us of the tropical storm, I couldn’t help but notice that I was weighing my options: Sit too close to my peers and risk the deadly COVID-19, or sit too close to a window and risk getting hit by a tornado? 

Either way, I realized I was sitting.

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