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Storm Surge

By France Griggs Sloat

The first day of his first semester of college began for Karan Motiani far from home and far from where he was supposed to be. Instead of discovering the locations of his classrooms in New Orleans and meeting his professors for the first time, Motiani spent Monday, Aug. 29, holed up in a hotel in Houston with a bunch of people he didn’t really know while Hurricane Katrina battered his dormitory on the campus of Loyola University.

The lessons learned, though unexpected, are priceless. Since Aug. 23, Motiani has been on the road: He’s traveled from his home in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to New Orleans, where brunch on the last day of orientation was followed by a rushed evacuation to Houston for four days, then to Mississippi, back to St. Thomas and finally to Cincinnati where he is now a Xavier freshman. The whirlwind left him breathless but grateful.

“We took over 20 rooms at the hotel in Houston and stayed there about four days hoping to drive back into New Orleans,” Motiani says. “The hotel had to kick us out, so we drove north to Mississippi and stayed in my friends’ relatives homes. It was a party every night at someone’s house.”

Motiani is one of 28 students routed by Katrina from universities in New Orleans who are berthed for the fall at Xavier in a joint effort among the Jesuit universities to ensure their education isn’t interrupted. Xavier was able to take in so many because it had space caused by a smaller-than-expected freshman class, says Marc Camille, dean of admission. “My initial thoughts were it was probably too late, but I thought about it and decided we need to make it happen, “ Camille says. “What was amazing was how quickly the campus came together.”

Professors made room for the new students and helped them catch up. Financial arrangements were made so students don’t have to pay twice. Students were let in before their paperwork arrived. Initially there were 11 students from Loyola University New Orleans, 12 from Tulane University and seven from Xavier University of Louisiana, but two didn’t show up. Motiani picked Xavier over several other offers when Camille phoned him personally.

“They said, ‘Just come on up.’ They gave me housing and freshman status,” Motiani says. “I’m in the accelerated pre-med program at Loyola and needed a certain type of program of labs and lectures, and Xavier was able to do that for me.”

By Sunday, Sept. 4, he and his father were in a hotel nearby, shopping to replace what he’d left behind—which was just about everything. “I’d walked out with my laptop, two changes of clothes, one pair of socks and my slippers.”

While Motiani was grabbing his laptop that Saturday night, Natalie Younger, a senior at Xavier of Louisiana, left her computer on her bed and grabbed her cat, Cameren, instead. They rode to a friend’s house in Houston, leaving at 3:00 a.m. and arriving 15 hours later.

“When we first got to Houston, a lot of us were studying because we had things due on Monday,” Younger says. “We still thought we were going back. Then we heard the levies were breaking.” Her mother, Anna Ghee, a Xavier University assistant professor of psychology, urged her to enroll at Xavier here. Now living at home, Younger is enjoying new-found friends but struggling with being torn from her world in New Orleans, where she’s also in pre-med.

“I expected I would have to be separated from my friends because it’s my senior year, but this was devastating,” she says. “I’ll be happy to get back with them. That was the hardest—not having my friends and not knowing anyone.”

Younger returned with her father to her New Orleans apartment in October to recover what she could, but her car was a total loss. The storm also interrupted her efforts to apply to medical school because all application materials are housed temporarily at Duke University.

“What I have learned is that life is unpredictable,” she says. “I also learned about the kindness of people. The people at Xavier really surprised me.” The experience surprised Motiani as well. After moving into “south pit”—the basement wing in Brockman Hall—he’s been overwhelmed by the generosity he’s encountered and the friends he’s made. Now he’s not sure he wants to leave.

“It’s been the best experience,” he says. “Everyone here is like, ‘Don’t leave,’ and they started a fund to keep me here. If Katrina had never happened I wouldn’t know about Xavier, and now that I’ve made so many lifelong friends, I really don’t know.”

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