College Students Flee New Orleans Ahead of Storm

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dominique Ivey of Bowie was driving through Alabama when the tropical storm was upgraded to Hurricane Gustav.

Michael Olaiya of Largo was stopping for gas outside Atlanta by the time authorities began removing residents from Gustav's potential path along the Gulf Coast. Danielle Person of Mitchellville and Gerald Smith of Northeast Washington had reached a friend's home in Nashville when buses began ferrying residents out of New Orleans.

For Washington area students in New Orleans, Gustav's march was a nightmarish reminder of three years ago this week when they scrambled to flee Hurricane Katrina.

"As people started talking about the new hurricane, I was thinking, 'This can't be happening again,' " said Person, 20, a senior pharmacy major at Xavier University who left New Orleans in the compact car she bought with her summer earnings. "We already lived through this. I don't know if we can do this again."

On Friday, most Gulf Coast universities closed in anticipation of Gustav, which was Category 4 yesterday as it passed Cuba. Forecasters said the storm could reach the U.S. coast tomorrow or Tuesday.

As students left their campuses, relatives and friends across the country arranged to take them in. Ruthie Reynolds of Northwest, a Howard University administrator who maintains a home in Nashville, drove there Friday to welcome Person, the daughter of close friends, and her friend Smith. Olaiya, 21, also a Xavier pharmacy major, hitched a ride with buddy Daniel Smith, 21, of Los Angeles, who went to stay with an aunt and uncle in Atlanta. Ivey brought her boyfriend, his mother and a cousin -- New Orleans residents -- to her mother's home in Bowie.

"This is very disruptive to their lives," Reynolds said. "They are concerned about that kind of destruction happening again and how it might postpone graduation or affect their careers down the line."

Parents who had lived through anxious moments during Katrina moved quickly this time to get their children out of harm's way. Chisom Onyilofor, 20, of Crownsville, a senior pre-med major at Xavier, left Thursday with her brother Nnamdi, 18, a freshman, on a flight arranged by their parents. They were already home when the school closed at 2 p.m. Friday.

Some Xavier students waited out the storm closer to New Orleans. Shari Johnson, 20, of Beltsville, a chemistry and pre-med major, left Friday morning with two friends for the home of one friend's grandmother 200 miles north in Bunkie, La. "I have a lot of faith," she said, "so I'm kind of just waiting for it to do what it has to do so I can get back to school."

Three years ago, Chisom Onyilofor was a freshman unfamiliar with tropical storms, listening with half an ear as Xavier administrators discussed hurricanes and evacuations at orientation for new students. She had no evacuation plan as Katrina approached.

By the time dorm officials knocked at the door to say the college was closing within hours, she was among thousands of students left stranded. She banded with three former classmates from Charles H. Flowers High School who also were at Xavier. The mother of one was able to fly into New Orleans, rent a small sport-utility vehicle and pick them up. They headed west to Houston.

"It took us more than 24 hours to get from New Orleans to Houston because the traffic was so bad," Onyilofor recalled. "We had to sleep in the car because the hotels were all full."

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