Students flee north to avoid Katrina’s wrath

The beautiful campus of Dillard University began its fall semester last Monday. Although the second week of school was well underway, no one was prepared for Hurricane Katrina, and the effects she would have. In the brief time it took to reach shore, it tore through Southeastern Louisiana with no remorse Monday morning, forcing Dillard students along with the entire city of New Orleans to evacuate.

According to Vice President of Campus Life Dr. Freddye Hill of Dillard University, it was during a senior cabinet retreat that reports and development of the hurricane were discussed.

“We made a decision, headed straight back to campus, and began an evacuation at about 10:00 Saturday morning,” Hill said.

Betsey Eaves, Chaplain at Centenary College believes Dillard President Marvalene Hughes contacted Centenary President Kenneth L. Schwab to discuss housing arrangements for Dillard evacuees.

Evacuation was finalized based on predictions from the National Hurricane Center by the emergency preparations committee.

The New Orleans mayor officially issued a mandatory evacuation by (9:00 Sunday morning). Dillard officials made their decision earlier. “By 5:00 (Saturday), we had completely evacuated our campus,” Hill said.

In an advisory sent to the Centenary community on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005, the Centenary President released this statement:

“We have spoken today with Dillard University officials, and it has been determined that it will be some time before the Dillard campus in New Orleans will reopen following the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Therefore, the focus concerning the evacuees now at Centenary is to identify places for these students and to channel contributions toward their relocation effort.”

Dillard students were forced to evacuate campus in about a three-hour time span. Most students were able to find a way to their hometowns – some leaving with friends, others leaving with family. According to Schwab’s statement, a chartered bus took “some 50 students to the Dallas area” with another planning for Chicago, with drop-off stops along the way.

To assist the many others who could not return to their homes or who were from other remote locations, an account was set up at Centenary College “to help with relocation expenses related to their dilemma.”

A total of six charter buses totaling out to about $15 thousand were ordered to transport 206 Dillard students to Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Getting Out

Birmingham, Ala. native Crystal Hawkins, a 20-year-old junior, was a residential assistant, and was faced with the responsibility of notifying residents of the evacuation.

“On Friday night, I was notified by one of my residents that a hurricane was coming,” Hawkins said. “By morning, everyone was crying, asking me what’s going on and what to do. Ms. Darby –the Dorm parent who I report to– asked me to announce that the school was to be evacuated by 4:00.”

Hawkins went around to the rooms of her hall notifying students to get their things together but had little time to worry about her very own arrangements. “By the time I could begin to think about what I was going to do to go where I needed to be, it was too late to get plane, a bus or a train ticket.” About 35 upperclassmen that could not find any other means were on the buses to Centenary.

Hawkins knew what to expect having dealt with Ivan, but she says it was still complicated. “We would have left campus earlier, but one of our buses broke down right before we left,” Hawkins said. “We had to wait two hours for another bus to come in.” A replacement bus was brought in, but it too was destined to cause further devastation.

A Dangerous Twist

About two and a half hours outside of New Orleans a stop was made at a McDonalds. Once the students were finished and loaded back on the buses, the bus continued on to Shreveport. About 20 to 30 minutes further into route, students on the replacement bus said they smelled smoke, followed by a sway after a tire failed.

“The driver pulled over,” Rashida Jones, an 18-year-old Sophomore from Houston, Texas said, “After taking a look at what happened, the driver ordered everyone to get off of the bus. So, we’re just standing there and at first we saw a little flame. Then it began to spread.”

Within minutes, the whole bus was ablaze. “I thought they were trying to put it out,” Jones said. “I couldn’t tell you how quickly it happened. I was so traumatized that this whole thing had happened.”

Practically everything was unsalvageable, but Jones was able to recover a suitcase. “When I was packing, I just threw everything in a suitcase. I didn’t know what was in there.” Her other bag was lost with a few very important belongings. “I went through so much stuff this summer that I wasn’t even surprised.”

A long trip to Shreveport was made longer, leaving campus at 6:00 p.m. and arriving at 6:00 a.m. Monday, more than twice the time it takes on a regular day.

Support at Centenary College

Upon arrival, Betsey Eaves, Chaplain at Centenary College, met the students to assist them in what would be the next steps in getting them settled in. “We’ve worked hard together very well, the community has been very generous and supportive with supplies and financial support,” Eaves said.

Students were greeted with all the necessities needed to get through the first night.

“The school reassured us that everything would be replaced,” said Jones. By the time they woke up Monday, donations were poring in. “I didn’t expect anything, but the community really responded,” said Jones. “Cell phones, clothes, blankets, pillows… anything you could think of, they gave to us.”

“Everyone was really supportive about it and offered encouraging words.”

All day, donations were coming in. “I am pleased wit the success of the operation,” Eaves said. “Both institutions came together in previous years.” According to Eaves, what made it unusual was not only the short amount of time for the evacuation, but the severity of the hurricane.

Figuring Out What’s Next

By Wednesday evening, of the 206 Dillard students at Centenary College, roughly 40 students remained–most of which had more extensive travel destinations to reach. Arrangements were still in the works.

“We got a vast majority out, and have been working all day to accommodate students going to places like California, New York, and other far away places.”

Dillard students were prompted to begin searching for flights on various websites, seeking out flights from various areas of the country for as cheap a price as possible, while others were on standby for further accommodations. “First United Methodist Church has a van that’s taking us to Birmingham,” Hawkins said, speaking of two others from her hometown. Hawkins just got news that a tree fell through her mother’s house. “From what I understand, no one’s hurt, but my mom wouldn’t tell me if she’s not doing well anyway,” Hawkins said. “She wouldn’t want me to worry.”

An Impacting Experience

Others’ parents were coming to pick them up from Shreveport, while arrangements for international students were more complex to fulfill.

Eaves remained optimistic about getting all the Dillard students taken care of. “Our staff is working around the clock to keep these kids comfortable,” Eaves said.

Sharell Jarvis a 17-year-old freshmen from N.Y. described the feel of campus during her first week of school:

“It was fine. Small, very homelike, in a secluded area. Everyone was like family that first week. People helped us find classes and teachers were really welcoming.”

For Jarvis, Hurricane Katrina may have changed her mind about Dillard just as quickly as it destroyed the city of New Orleans. “I was shocked,” Jarvis said. “Me coming from a big city, I didn’t know what to expect in a situation like this.”

Jarvis has been wrestling with feelings of uncertainty. “I don’t know what kind of condition campus is in. I heard some building were destroyed, there was lots of damage, and even looting. If we don’t go back to school, then I still have to come back because my fees have already been paid. Am I going back? Due to circumstances, I just don’t know.”

Eric Madlock, a 17-year-old Chicago, Ill. native offered a different perspective. “It was both scary and exciting because I never suspected any of this,” Madlock said. “It was scary with all the buses breaking down and then we’re wondering if the buses are safe, but it was exciting because it was an experience in a major disaster.” Nevertheless, to Madlock, Gulf coast weather is not a bother. “This is something I can live to tell about. I’ve been through high winds and blizzards, but never a hurricane.”