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Thomas Aquinas College, Catholic liberal arts college in California, brought in the school year with ‘hurriquake’

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Broken religious statues are pictured on a table at Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai, Calif., Aug. 23, 2023, following a 5.1 magnitude earthquake. On Aug. 20, tropical storm Hilary made landfall in southern California, the first to hit the state in 84 years; hours later the earthquake shook the college. (OSV News photo/Liam McDaniel, courtesy Thomas Aquinas College)

Students at a Catholic liberal arts college in California told OSV News that they’re more ready than ever for the new school year, after weathering both a major storm and an earthquake on the same day.

On Aug. 20, tropical storm Hilary made landfall in southern California, the first to hit the state in 84 years. The former hurricane had largely spent itself over Baja California, but still caused flooding, downed trees and tornado warnings.

Hours later, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake struck near the town of Ojai, some 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

The two events were quickly dubbed a “hurriquake,” with the earthquake causing “widespread (but) not serious” damage at Thomas Aquinas College in nearby Santa Paula, California, said executive director of college relations Christopher Weinkopf.

No one was injured at the school, but a statue of the college’s patron saint fell in the dining hall, and “there are lots of cracks in the plaster” throughout the campus, with most buildings affected, Weinkopf told OSV News.

In the 135-foot belltower of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, the school’s flagship building, the framework of a bell carriage was warped, he said.

Fire Department personnel attend a fire call following a 5.1 earthquake, in the midst of the approach of Tropical Storm Hilary, in Pasadena, Calif., Aug. 20, 2023. Classes at Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai, were interrupted by the earthquake and hurricane. (OSV News photo/Mario Anzuoni, Reuters)

While an initial examination by fire department and college officials did not reveal structural damage, the school closed the chapel and postponed its opening Mass of the Holy Spirit — a start-of-the-year tradition for many Catholic schools — until Ventura County inspectors had given an all-clear on Aug. 21.

Those new to the school’s California campus — Thomas Aquinas College has an East Coast campus in Northfield, Massachusetts — admitted the hurriquake wasn’t exactly on this year’s syllabus.

“I was not expecting rain or seismic activity when I applied to a small college in the sunny mountains of Southern California,” said freshman Liam McDaniel, who hails from Tacoma, Washington.

“Like most of my peers, I did not expect a ‘hurriquake’ to start off the year,” said senior Peter King of Lenexa, Kansas.

Sophia Colarelli, a senior from Lockport, Illinois, said she and her fellow students “made the most of the hurricane.”

“We set up a slip-n-slide, and it was a great way to get to know the freshmen,” she said. “The activity brought us all together during this intense time, and it felt kind of surreal: It was raining, but we were having fun slipping and sliding!”

The earthquake itself, however, was more sobering.

“I had just finished a game of foosball with one of my dorm mates. I was completely taken by surprise because I had never experienced a noticeable earthquake before,” said student George Powell of Alpharetta, Georgia. “It basically was over just a soon as I had a time to react.”

Even students from California were somewhat rattled.

“We do experience earthquakes sometimes, but that was definitely one of the biggest ones I experienced in a while, so it was kind of a shock,” said senior Laura Poon of Pleasant Hill, California.

Thomas Aquinas College president Paul J. O’Reilly said in an Aug. 21 statement that he and the school community were “profoundly grateful that the region weathered both the storm and the earthquake so well, and especially that all remained safe.”

For many of the students, the unusual experience was a moment for prayer and pondering.

“The combination of earthquake and storm was shocking and alarming, but also oddly invigorating. … Like Elijah on the mountain, God is not in the moment of the earthquake or the storm, but in that silent moment of reflection and processing afterwards,” said freshman David Holmes of Lander, Wyoming. “A simultaneous experience is God’s awesome power, but also that he is looking out for each and every one of us.”

“I was in one of my buddies’ rooms, and we were just talking … when (the earthquake) started,” said Josh King, a sophomore from Buena Park, California. “He started freaking out. He’s from Wisconsin; he didn’t know what to do!”

King noted his friend’s room had a bookstand with a crucifix, a Sacred Heart icon and some statues of saints in his room, “but those things stayed completely fine.”

“We looked at everything that fell down, but the bookcase and statues didn’t fall down,” he said. “And we thought, ‘This is going to be a great semester! Whatever happens, there’s no knocking down God — He’s always with us.'”