Parent's Plight Causes Katrina To Hit Home

By Donna Britt
Friday, September 2, 2005

When it happens to you, you have to bear witness.

At some point, everyone faces it -- one of those awful or unthinkable tragedies that we know is inevitable but that we strive mightily not to imagine. At any given moment somebody, somewhere, is contending with it.

The rest of us are choosing whether we will bear witness.

This week, it couldn't have been clearer to Roger Harris of the Shepherd Park neighborhood. His only child, Keisha, is a freshman at Xavier University in New Orleans. On Sunday, she called him on her new cell phone from inside the dark, sweltering dorm where administrators had gathered its remaining students to await plans that never materialized. On Tuesday, the phone became useless after a college administrator who'd borrowed it returned it with the battery drained.

The next day, Harris e-mailed me about Keisha's situation, bringing it -- Hurricane Katrina -- home for me. Not that I welcomed it. Last week, while preparing my sons for school, I got news that put me on a Chicago-bound plane, then dashing to my childhood church in Indiana.

To bear witness.

My late father's sister had died. Nothing seemed as important as cradling my sobbing mother in that hushed sanctuary as mourners described their sorrow over losing my beloved Aunt Marian.

For several days, Katrina barely registered. But as the surrealness of my personal loss receded, awareness of this much larger it grew -- even as I avoided the endless hurricane-related news accounts.

The spirited aunt who'd adored my father and sewn up my always-ripped pants was gone. The death toll in Iraq kept surging. Nearly a thousand had died in a fear-fueled Baghdad stampede.

All I wanted to do was turn away.

But when a friend told me about a stricken-looking man on the news whose life-mate had been swept away, I turned on the TV and faced it . By the time I got Harris's e-mail describing Keisha as being "among approximately 400 people that were unable to leave campus . . . now trapped in dormitories with dwindling food and water," I felt ashamed of my desire not to bear witness.

Professionally, Harris -- who was divorced from Keisha's mother, Faye Vaughn-Cooke, when their daughter was 6 -- has faced it time and again. A supervisor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he last year helped the government manage four hurricanes.

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