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Ali Thariani
Ali Thariani. photo by Tim Kaldahl

After The Storm

by Tim Kaldahl

Jason Rich and Ali Thariani are making good use of their time at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO).  Both are freshmen, both have loaded up on classes this fall and both already had considerable UNO college credit from last year, thanks to dual enrollment. 

Both also had to flee the university they had been admitted to – Tulane, a private institution in uptown New Orleans, a streetcar ride away from that city's now damaged downtown.

Jason Rich
Jason Rich. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Rich, 17, went to high school at Omaha Burke; Thariani, 18, at Omaha Westside.  Neither young man knew or knows the other, but both had gone to New Orleans with family to get settled for their first college semester when Hurricane Katrina changed everything.

"I didn't even make my bed (in the dorm)," Thariani said.  He also said he feels lucky.  "I've lost my college.  I made it out, I guess that's important," he said.

Rich echoed that same feeling in a separate interview.   

"I'm not really high maintenance," he said.  "I roll with the punches."

Jason Rich and his parents, Philip and Diane Rich, began their trip south on Thursday, Aug. 25.  Friday morning, the Riches arrived and had lunch in the French Quarter.  Scholarships, the reputation of Tulane University and southern weather all influenced his decision to leave Nebraska for Louisiana, Jason Rich said.

On Saturday morning, the family moved Jason's things into his dormitory.  Later that day, Philip and Diane headed north to St. Louis for a business meeting.  Philip Rich said with people boarding up buildings and thousands driving out of the city, New Orleans felt eerie. 

"All of my stuff is still there in my room.  It's fine," Jason Rich said. 

Because weather forecasts continued to worsen, Tulane announced campus-wide evacuation plans and cancelled new student orientation sessions that same move-in morning.  Instead of getting comfortable in his new dorm room, Jason and more than 400 other Tulane students slept on a gym floor at Jackson State University in Mississippi that night.  Tulane rounded up buses and large vans to get everyone out of the hurricane's path.

"You start to realize how much things can change that are beyond your control," Philip Rich said.  He also said he was pleased with how Tulane made student safety its main priority.

Initially, school officials hoped that classes would only be cancelled through Sept. 7.  It has since become indefinite.

"The news escalated a lot on Sunday (Aug. 28)," Jason Rich said.  He got a ride out of Mississippi with a friend and his parents that afternoon.  After meeting up with his mom and dad in St. Louis, he was back in Omaha by Monday.

"They (his parents) just kind of feel sorry for me with everything that's happened," he said.  Philip Rich said he isn't sure if his son realizes the impact of the storm. The city his son would have known, he said, has completely changed.

"I think this will be one he remembers for a long time," he said.

At UNO, Jason is taking courses in gerontology, philosophy, mass communication, macroeconomics, art history and criminal justice.  The credits he earns go on top of the early admit classes he took during his high school senior year.  They all should transfer back to Tulane, he said.

"It's kind of unfortunate," he said.  "The biggest storm in history hits the day I move in."

Ali Thariani really, truly, completely does not follow current events.

"I don't even watch the news.  I'd rather read a book," he said.  "Which is why I didn't know about the hurricane."

Thariani learned about Katrina fast.  He and his mother, Ann, got into New Orleans the night before Tulane's Friday evacuation.  Instead of getting bused out of the city, Ali got a ride with a family acquaintance (a friend of his father) who lives in New Orleans.  "Somebody I didn't even know," he said.  The pair left New Orleans at 3 a.m. Sunday morning for the safety of Houston.  Ann Thariani was on one of the last flights out of New Orleans later that same day. 

"The one thing I've learned is that small acts of kindness can make all the difference in survival," she said.  She had a harrowing, agonizingly slow four-hour journey in her rental car to the airport to make her flight.  She dodged bumper-to-bumper traffic the best she could, drove on the shoulder of the road and through parking lots to avoid being trapped by the hurricane.

"Things just happen so quickly," Ann Thariani said.  "Things can change in a minute."

She and her husband, Kumail, reunited with Ali a few days later when he flew back to Omaha from Texas.  At that point, it became apparent that Tulane would not be in session any time soon.

"I'm basically in the re-evaluate phase right now," Ali Thariani said.  Waiting to see what happens at Tulane is being balanced against possibly going to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or staying at UNO.  The Tharianis live close to campus.  Ali Thariani has been walking to school. 

He said he would be surprised if Tulane can get everything in place for spring.  While the campus was not significantly damaged, the faculty and staff must be dealing with their own issues of housing and displacement.  He said he feels a little displaced, too.

"It's really weird to have said goodbye to everyone," he said.  "And then I'm back."

While he said he hopes to major in engineering and had been set for a heavy load of science credits at Tulane, his first semester on campus at UNO has him taking classes in philosophy, ancient literature and anthropology.  His only math class is calculus.

"It's really fun stuff here," Ali Thariani said.

Currently, Tulane University is operating out of its Houston campus.  Its Web site is back online, and a great deal of emergency information for faculty, staff and 13,000 students has been posted there.  Tulane's athletic teams for this fall are now based at five different universities in Louisiana and Texas.

Jason Rich said he would like to be back in New Orleans next spring semester.  The students he's been in touch with from Tulane (now scattered around the country) all want to go back.  Philip Rich isn't as sure.  "Who knows what we will know in a few months about the university and the area," he said.  He also said he is concerned about communicable diseases which could be a problem in tropical New Orleans. 

Ann Thariani said UNO has been extremely helpful with her son's situation, and she has a new appreciation for the university.  Still, it's not what they had planned for this fall.

"I would love to have Ali have a sense of loyalty to Tulane and New Orleans," she said.  "But it's his decision."

Ali said he admits to being something of a procrastinator.  He filled out his college application on the last possible day.   

"I'll probably end up flipping a coin in the end to make my decision," he said.

Tim Kaldahl is assistant director of media relations at UNO.  He can be reached at tkaldahl@mail.unomaha.edu.

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