Katrina Evacuees Boost Town's Black Population

Hurricane Katrina forced residents that lived along the Gulf Coast to settle all over the country. Howard Berkes takes us to a town in Utah where the black population was less than one percent. Now, more than 300 Katrina victims, many of them African American, are calling the place home.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Hurricane Katrina changed the face of New Orleans; now it's changing the places evacuees are settling. Take Utah, for example. Before Katrina, African-Americans were less than 1 percent of the population. That figure is up just a notch as 300 Katrina victims now call Utah home. From Salt Lake City, NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

When Pastor France Davis heard that 600 New Orleans evacuees were headed to Utah, he was worried.

Reverend FRANCE DAVIS (Calvary Baptist Church): They're coming from a different setting, a different environment, a different life experience, as well as a different racial mix, and so I was concerned about that.

BERKES: Think mountains, not bayous, Jell-O salad, not gumbo, Donny Osmond, not Fats Domino, mostly white, not mostly black. Reverend Davis ministers to the 900 members of Salt Lake City's Calvary Baptist Church. He arrived in Utah 33 years ago when the state's dominant Mormon faith considered dark skin a curse. Black Mormons were barred from sacred buildings and practices until 1978.

Rev. DAVIS: The history of Utah is offtimes compared to that of Mississippi. Based on that and some of my own personal experiences where, when I first came here, I had to deal with housing issues, I had to deal with being stared at, felt out of place, and certainly outnumbered. So based on that, I knew that there would be some unique concerns with this group coming in, being a majority African-American.

(Soundbite of voices)

Unidentified Man: OK. Vanessa Brown(ph), Tyrone Smith(ph), Walter Falon(ph) and David Howse(ph), your apartments are ready, let's go.

BERKES: Still, last month the last of about 300 evacuees were moved from a National Guard barracks to a wooded apartment complex in a Salt Lake City suburb. Another 300 left Utah almost as soon as they arrived for more familiar faces and places. Those remaining decided to give Utah a try, despite its history and differences. Kenneth Watts ran a hauling business in New Orleans.

Mr. KENNETH WATTS: The people have been overly generous. When I first got here, they didn't have any belts, so my pants wouldn't, you know, stay on, and so one of the guys said, `You need a belt?' And he took the belt from around his waist and he gave it to me. That's an example of how the people have been to us here in Utah.

BERKES: It's not just belts. One family was given a furnished home, rent free, and a car. Others have been offered jobs, better-paying jobs, some say, than what they had in New Orleans. There was a field trip to a reservoir where crawfish were scooped up, boiled and eaten, and a Mardi Gras parade, turning Main Street into Bourbon Street, briefly. Kenneth Watts.

Mr. WATTS: Because of the tragedy, a lot of people have bent over backwards. But I'm not sure about the long term. Being African-American, being in this particular part of America and having a Caucasian wife, hopefully the people won't mess with us because of that.

BERKES: Pastor France Davis shares that concern, as evacuees turn from guests to neighbors.

Rev. DAVIS: I think it was a response to a crisis and the response to a crisis is always different than a response to everyday life. Now they're gonna be dispersed throughout the community and throughout the community they're likely to run into those individuals, people who are not so pleased that they are here.

BERKES: Back at the National Guard barracks, 2nd Lieutenant Wayne Lee(ph) thinks Utah can be a good place for New Orleans evacuees. He was raised in Michigan, has lived here 15 years, and is African-American.

2nd Lieutenant WAYNE LEE (National Guard): It's not as hectic as in other places in the country. It's not too fast, not too slow. Raise my family here. My children love it here. For me it's just right. It works for me. This is home for me.

BERKES: Some evacuees know they'll have to acclimate to make life work for them here, literally. There's five feet of snow in an average winter and 20-degree lows in January. There's also a more sedate atmosphere, and there isn't the music or food of New Orleans. Still, some are looking forward to building a new life in Utah. Ernest Timmons was a social worker in New Orleans.

Mr. ERNEST TIMMONS: (Technical difficulties) destroyed in New Orleans, you have an opportunity to build on that, you know, instead of going back and saying, `Well, I have to look for a job.' Those things are being offered here. I mean, it's a great opportunity if you're gonna restructure your life. The doors are open a little bit wider here than they were in New Orleans for me.

BERKES: There might be some doors opening to new Cajun and Creole restaurants. Several evacuees see that as their opportunity. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

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