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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

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?"

A week ago Saturday, after a dorm staff member announced over the P.A. system that remaining students would be "on lockdown" until they were picked up, students -- who in June were bused to Texas when Tropical Storm Cindy threatened -- assumed that meant they were going to be evacuated. Xavier spokesman Warren Bell has since told reporters that university officials "started calling bus companies" that day. "No one would call us back. By then, it was too late."

It was five days until police in motorboats transported Xavier students to the nearby Interstate 10 overpass, where they waited nine hours before boarding a convoy of buses, which was arranged by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom some frantic parents had alerted to the situation. The convoy was bound for Southern University at Baton Rouge and Grambling State University. Keisha flew out of Baton Rouge on Friday morning.

As Harris and other angry parents await explanations, their children have stories to tell. Ironically, the storm itself wasn't terribly disturbing, suggests Keisha, who "slept through it, mostly." Worse were the dorm's unrelieved heat, non-flushing toilets -- and the mounting uncertainty. For a long time, it seemed, "No one knew we were there."

Still, a daily routine was established. About 10 a.m., students descended 128 slippery, unlighted stairs -- "I fell so many times," Keisha says -- to the lobby where bottled water and cafeteria food including lunch meat and wieners-and-beans awaited. Lunch was nonexistent. Dinner? A repeat of breakfast.

Bored students cracked jokes, duct-taped colorful "HELP US" signs outside windows, prayed and "played a lot of cards," says Keisha, who discovered an unexpected talent for it. "Five-card poker. . . . I won a lot of pennies."

Although Keisha saw none of the violent mayhem reported by the media, some memories are vivid: The mother wading past her dorm window, holding her baby aloft, with a toddler astride her shoulders. Large families seemingly glued together, waiting patiently on the overpass. The glaring woman who stood, arms stretched wide, to prevent students from boarding a student bus so her family -- "adults in their thirties and forties," Keisha says -- could board.

The faces of hungry townspeople on the overpass -- who watched enviously as rations were handed to the students, as National Guard trucks took them away. "We felt bad," Keisha says slowly. "But -- you couldn't stay a lot longer."

She says she understands the outrage of displaced New Orleans residents. When the bus she was on made a wrong turn "we went past the Superdome. . . . People were throwing stuff at us," she says. "They'd been standing outside, no shelter from the sun, hungry, thirsty.

"Nobody wants to be there."

On Tuesday, Keisha will start pre-med classes at Howard University, which reinstated the scholarship she turned down to attend Xavier. An aspiring pediatrician, Keisha adores school. But Tuesday?

"I'm extremely tired," she sighs.

Her mom smiles. "Maybe you should not go shopping and sleep," she says.

"But I need jeans," says Keisha, appalled.

Life might be strange, but when Mom says, "I can find six pairs at home," Keisha does what any self-respecting college freshman would do:

Changes the subject.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company