New Orleans Evacuees Find New Home in Utah Utah has welcomed New Orleans hurricane evacuees, placing them in apartments and generally putting out the welcome mat. Despite dramatic differences between the two locales, many evacuees say they will stay in Utah.
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New Orleans Evacuees Find New Home in Utah

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New Orleans Evacuees Find New Home in Utah

New Orleans Evacuees Find New Home in Utah

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

State officials in Utah closed their Hurricane Katrina evacuation shelter this week after the last of the state's New Orleans evacuees moved into apartments. Utah couldn't be more different from New Orleans, given snowy winters, dry air, skyscraping mountains, a comparatively sedate culture and very few African-Americans, less than 1 percent of the population. But many evacuees have decided to stay. From Salt Lake City, NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Four weeks ago today, a KC-135 Air National Guard refueling plane sat on the tarmac at the New Orleans airport as Guardsmen ushered 51 hurricane survivors aboard. Reporter Jonathan Brown of public radio station KCPW was there.

Mr. JONATHAN BROWN (Reporter, KCPW): A lot of these people are tired. They are ready to go anywhere. But they don't know where they're going, and we're not allowed to tell them their destination.

BERKES: Brown asked pilot Jason Oswald(ph) why?

Captain JASON OSWALD (Air National Guard Pilot): We've had some serious problems with some of the more unruly people, so we've come to the conclusion that we just don't tell them. We just take them out to the various aircraft and we disperse them to places where they have a better chance to live, more or less.

BERKES: Which seemed to suit evacuee John Seal(ph).

Mr. JOHN SEAL (New Orleans Evacuee): They ain't tell us nothing. Just so we're aboard a plane, you know? Where we're going, really, we don't care as long as we get out of that water. It stinks in New Orleans--and the dead bodies floating. It ain't nothing nice.

BERKES: Close to 600 people, African-Americans mostly, were put on flights like this to Utah, 1,200 miles from the French Quarter. Here `Jazz' is the name of the basketball team, and `saints' are Mormon faithful. Think Jell-O salad, not gumbo. But Curtis Crosby of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward is ready to get a Utah passport.

Mr. CURTIS CROSBY (New Orleans Evacuee): And I'm in Utah now, you know? After being in 20, 25 feet of water, the next thing I know I'm 5,000 feet up in the air. I'm in the mountains; spring water coming out of the facet. They got a desert across the street where I can dry out. What more could I ask for? Y'all have the perfect solution for Katrina.

BERKES: It isn't perfect for everyone. Despite clean and safe quarters at a National Guard base and more than 900 volunteers attending to every need, about half the group left right away for familiar places and faces. Those who stayed say they've been overwhelmed by the help and good will. Kenneth Watts(ph) owned a hauling business in New Orleans.

Mr. KENNETH WATTS (New Orleans Evacuee): There were a bunch of people where we got off from the airplane and they applauded us. They clapped. These people are so hospitable. They definitely impressed me to a point where I want to stay in Utah.

BERKES: Watts spoke in the community room of the National Guard shelter, TVs blaring in the background. He was about to move into an apartment complex in a Salt Lake City suburb. He didn't take lightly his decision to stay, doing research about Utah--learning about an active earthquake fault, the persistent practice of polygamy, the predominantly white and Mormon population, and a racist Mormon belief that was part of church policy until 1978.

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: Watts believes the hospitality will last, given the generosity and warmth he's seen so far. He's not sure about the weather, with 20-degree lows in January and more than five feet of snow each winter. But there are jobs with better pay and neighborhoods with little crime. There are even mosques for Muslims and black churches for Baptists. Ernest Timmens(ph) was a social worker in New Orleans.

Mr. ERNEST TIMMENS (New Orleans Evacuee): A lot of us whose lives were destroyed in New Orleans, we 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. It's a great opportunity if you want to restructure your life. The doors are open a little bit wider here than they were in New Orleans for me.

BERKES: Timmens says he'll miss New Orleans' music and food, but maybe not for long. Several evacuees are talking about opening restaurants. And Salt Lake City's Main Street has already sounded a bit like Bourbon Street, at least for one night.

Unidentified Man #1: One, two.

(Soundbite of procession music)

BERKES: Just two weeks after their exodus, about a dozen evacuees with borrowed instruments danced and sang in a Mardi Gras procession.

(Soundbite of procession music)

BERKES: There's some uncertainty as evacuees transition now from guests to neighbors, but it's hard to imagine them or their new home ever being the same.

(Soundbite of procession music)

BERKES: Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City...

(Soundbite of procession music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Katrina!

Group of Men: (Singing in unison) Katrina!

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Katrina!

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Oh, yeah, you...

Unidentified Man #2 and Group of Men: (Singing in unison) ...done us wrong.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I said Katrina!

Group of Men: (Singing in unison) Katrina!

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Baby...

Unidentified Man #2 and Group of Men: (Singing in unison) ...you done us wrong.

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