Thank You, Jesus

A little after midnight, the prayers of hundreds of families were answered Sept. 2 as a convoy of 11 buses rolled up at Southern University in Baton Rouge, carrying evacuees from Xavier University in New Orleans.

"I just want to see those lights come around the corner," said Erica Schroeder of New Orleans, waiting anxiously outside Southern’s Clifford T. Seymour Hall, the men’s gym. She was hoping to spot AudreyPrice, her mother, as she peered through the tinted windows of the buses that stretched for nearly a block around the gym. "I just want to get her here so she can relax."

Price was among more than 400 storm-weary students, faculty, staff and relatives who stayed at the private, historically black university’s campus as flood waters rose around them. "Thank you, Jesus," Schroeder said, as she found her mother in a reunion scene that would be repeated for many through the day.

"I couldn’t leave those kids," said Price, explaining how she came to be among the storm victims taking shelter on upper floors of Xavier dormitories. "I had to be the mother."

Four hundred sixty students became trapped on the mid-city campus after Hurricane Katrina, its storm surge and broken levees together unleashed a deadly flood from Lake Pontchartrain. They were not alone: Price and other staff and faculty members remained with them, along with campus police and other refugees from the floods, including some friends of Xavierites and family members.

They were welcomed at Southern by area Xavier alumni, volunteers and relatives. Jesse Jackson, whose local Rainbow/PUSH Coalition leaders helped to secure the students’ safety, was also there. Only a day before, he had held a news conference blasting the government’s handling of a catastrophe affecting so many poor and black residents across the Gulf region.

The buses dropped off 250 storm-weary students, faculty, staff and others at a shelter hastily assembled by the alumni volunteers in the Seymour gym. The remaining students continued on another four-hour trek to Grambling University in north Louisiana, where they arrived at about 5 a.m.

"I didn’t care where they brought us," said Xavier sophomore Brittany Melvin of Chicago. "I am just happy to be out of that dorm."

When they arrived, some ran off the bus, searching for electrical outlets to charge cell phones and other communications devices so they could contact relatives. Others gathered their belongings and trudged up the ramp of the gym to check in at the shelter and receive a hot meal. Many told accounts of their days of waiting.

The students’ weeklong ordeal began Friday, Aug. 26, when Louisiana officials ordered an evacuation, in light of predictions that the eye of the storm might pass over New Orleans.

An e-mail advising more than 1,700 Xavier students to leave was sent out by the administration on Friday afternoon, said Calvin Tregre, senior vice president of finance and administration.

"We encouraged those students who were able to leave, to leave," he said. "We tried to arrange for buses to transport the remaining students to safety, but there wasn’t one bus available in New Orleans."

"Once the levee broke, it caused water to swamp the school," said Marion Bradley, Xavier’s director of facilities, from the shelter created by Grambling State University.  The university buildings sustained considerable wind damage and more than 4 to 6 feet of water covered the compus," said Tregre.

Seeking help outside

As the days passed and the waters rose, a decision was made to seek help outside. Two of Corkum’s officers, and Xavier’s vice president for fiscal affairs, waded in waist-deep water from the campus on Carrollton Avenue to the New Orleans disaster command center at City Hall to let city officials know that the students were trapped. They left Wednesday night and had to sleep in City Hall. But the response they encountered was disappointing:

"It was like they didn’t even care," said Alvin Tirquit, one of the two officers who made the harrowing trip, leaving behind at Xavier his mother, grandmother and 94-year-old great-grandmother, who had fled their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.

"We were told they were rioting in the streets and there was shooting at the Superdome," Tirquit said. "From there, we knew that we had to stick together."

During the week, the trapped students and families also had to deal with death. The cause was unknown and the victim was identified only as an elderly man, the husband of a retired faculty member. The couple had sought shelter on the campus when floodwaters rose near their New Orleans home. Students and faculty declined to be quoted, but said that the nuns comforted the wife and others who became aware of the death. Across the country, many students" families frantically were trying to contact Louisiana, New Orleans and federal officials and the news media to notify them about the trapped students.

Arrived in motorboats

Around 9 a.m. Sept. 1, New Orleans city police officers arrived in motorboats, Corkum said. An emergency Web site set up by Xavier, www.xulaemergency.com, said the National Guard also took part in evacuating the campus. The students were taken to the Interstate 10 overpass at Carrollton Avenue, where a number of people displaced by the floodwaters already huddled. "The kids were in a hostile situation when they arrived on the bridge, and other evacuees learned that buses were on the way to pick up the students," said Corkum. There are reports that some desperate people tried to join the students on the buses. Some students said that for security reasons, they were not told where they were being taken. Others said passengers were asked to stay low as the bus crossed some areas that were considered ‘danger zones’ due to reports of hijacking and robbery. Xavier President Norman C. Francis and other school officials worked with alumni, volunteers, Louisiana State Sen. Cleo Fields, and Jackson’s Rainbow-Push Coalition to arrange to remove the students rapidly from New Orleans. They sought help from Southern and Grambling to house the evacuees.

"When Dr. Norman Francis made the call to the university, we readily accepted the task in assisting one of our fellow HBCUs," said Johnny Anderson, chairman of the Southern University system’s board of advisers. "We will do our best to provide for them as long as we need to." E-mails went out, calling on Xavier alumni to help. Through these and word of mouth, many responded by heading to Baton Rouge. Fields arranged for three buses from a leadership institute. Grambling University sent more buses. "I received a call saying that the students were being brought to Southern, but I didn’t know what was set up or who would be there to receive them," said Alejandro Perkins, an Xavier alumnus and 2004 graduate of Southern University’s law school. "But I know that I was going to be there to help in any way possible."

When he arrived at Southern on Sept. 1, he found his former law school professor, Donald North, alone, trying to organize the university’s effort to create a shelter to house the coming evacuees. Soon, with 20 more volunteers, including law students and alumni, they converted Seymour gym into a shelter, separate from the official regional shelter being managed across campus at the Minidome by the American Red Cross.

Teamwork pays off

The teamwork paid off: The Red Cross provided extra cots from its shelter. Church organizations donated hot food. Other shelters in the area delivered their extra supplies and toiletries, enough to sustain evacuees for the first night. The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Jackson and Fields lent their connections in order to open doors and get needed services. Fields is the coalition’s national president.

Northern Louisiana universities contributed to help Grambling put together a shelter for the arriving evacuees. "We are merely a resource available to them in this time of need that is more than willing to assist them in getting them through the transition," said Ernest L. Pickens Sr., Grambling’s vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.

"We are not in this for glory. We are in this because it is the right thing to do." "These students are courageous and this is an experience they will never forget," said Jackson as he greeted students stepping off the buses to safety at Southern. "They held on to hope and had the strength and determination to survive." By late Sept. 2, volunteers were shuttling students to Western Union, the bus station and airport, to banks and to Wal-Mart and helping them reunite with families. "I could not have asked for better student, staff and community support and participation," said Bradley, the Xavier facilities director. "I’m wearing dry clothes, because people gave them to me." Next, students must decide whether to wait for school to reopen or enroll in another college.

According to an advisory posted on the official Web site Sept. 2, Xavier officials have been organizing to resume instruction Jan. 4, with the students reporting to the same classes for which they are registered this fall.

"The academic calendar will be revised and adjusted, so that students will be able to complete two semesters prior to the opening of the Fall 2006 semester," it said. "There will be a brief break between the semesters. Commencement exercises, originally scheduled for May 13, 2006, will be held in early August 2006." The release urges students who wish to take courses at other institutions this fall to enroll in courses for which they are not currently scheduled, since they will be going into the second week of classes in January.

Warren Bell, associate vice president for media relations, relayed this statement from Francis, Xavier’s president: "I’m glad they are safely out of there. I’m also proud of the staff that stayed with the students as well, and they should be commended also." Widely circulated news reports said Francis initially stayed at his home at the campus, and had not been heard from. The reports sparked concerns that he was missing. However, Francis had to move to a hotel in Baton Rouge, where he was working to get help for his staff and students. Bell had been in contact Francis by cell phone.

Xavier officials used their emergency Web site to announce plans to reopen campus on Jan. 4. The recovery plan includes extending the school year so that students may complete two semesters before fall 2006, allowing seniors to graduate only a few months behind schedule.

Uncertain about return

For many other evacuees who rode out the storm with Xavierites, the future is uncertain.

"I don’t know what I’m going to do. The only thing I have are these three bags," said Mayo, the New Orleans resident, as she laid out her clothes to dry and removed soggy food from her children’s backpacks.

Tregre said that he knows that parents are angry, and the university has already been criticized for not getting the students off campus before the storm. But he said the university made the right decision to keep those unable to evacuate together on campus.

"We did what we had to do, with no effective away to communicate through cell phones or radios, and we had a sufficient stockpile of food and water to provide for the kids," he said. "We were faced with a challenge, and as a team we stood with our students until the end." "In the end, the only thing that matters is that their children are all safe," he said.