Correction to This Article
In the Donna Britt column in the Sept. 4 Metro section, Xavier University freshman Keisha Harris was identified as Keisha Rogers in some editions. Also, in all editions, her father, Roger Harris, was identified as Rogers in one instance.

From a Dorm, Life Lessons in Surreal Tragedy

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By Donna Britt
Sunday, September 4, 2005

Life, Xavier University freshman Keisha Rogers has discovered, can be strange.

One day, you can be sitting on a crowded overpass in a hurricane-decimated city, alternately baking in the sun and being drenched by rain. The next day, you can be seated next to your mom in a trendy suburban restaurant, eating fricasseed chicken as you describe the most surreal, frustrating and -- yes -- monotonous episode of your teenaged life.

On Wednesday, Keisha's father, Roger Harris of Northwest Washington, e-mailed me, saying that his only child and more than 400 other students weathered Hurricane Katrina and then sat for days in the dark, airless dorms from which the New Orleans college never evacuated them. For two days after the storm, sporadic cell phone calls reassured him that Keisha was sweaty, uncertain and a bit anxious -- but okay.

By Thursday, Rogers had lost contact. He and his ex-wife, Faye Vaughn-Cooke, spent that day clueless as to their daughter's condition or whereabouts.

About 2 a.m. Friday, a jangling phone awakened Harris from a fitful sleep. It was Keisha, calling from a bus in Baton Rouge. Hearing her voice "was like Christmas," Harris recalls.

Her mother, too, remembers Keisha calling -- and the first request of the daughter who'd left everything but her laptop, iPod and cell phone at Xavier:

"Mom, can you take me shopping?"

Vaughn-Cooke laughs at the memory. "I thought, 'Can't you get back home first?' "

Now she's back. And Keisha -- whose hair is a massive twist and whose body is a walking festival of silver rings and ear baubles -- seems amazingly self-possessed for 17. Was she scared? "I didn't really get nervous," she says.

In fact, some fellow students' reactions were almost as frustrating for Keisha as the hurricane. "One girl's hair was falling out. Some people were throwing up," she says. "Some were saying, 'We can't stay calm!' "

Confesses Keisha: "I was just getting fed up with it."

Not as fed up as her father was with her predicament. As the Category 4 catastrophe loomed, three-fourths of Xavier's 1,600 on-campus students fled. But more than 400 students stayed behind -- some stranded when the airport and bus stations closed earlier than news reports predicted; some out-of-towners who were certain that Xavier would evacuate them; others fearful of missing a week of class and risking automatic failure. Explains Keisha: "Why pay $300 for a ticket and have to come back three days later?"


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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