[From the diaries by susanhu w minor edits. These interviews are journalism!]
As of Wednesday, the number of New Orleans evacuees registered to stay in Utah totaled 108, or 40 to 60 households, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Apartment complex owners agreed to both waive deposit fees and cap rents in order to keep living expenses affordable. Last night I asked locals how they felt about evacuees starting new lives here. “Utahns are giving people. If they have nowhere else to go, they are more than welcome to stay,” said one local resident. “We’ll do whatever we can to make them comfortable.”
BELOW, my interviews with NOLA evacuees:
It should be noted that not one New Orleans resident I met at Camp Williams on Wednesday expressed anger for unkowingly being flown to Utah, a very different state than Louisiana. Every person I interviewed who plans to stay said they are eager to find work. Most made under $7/hour in New Orleans and said they are becoming restless without jobs.
Here are a few more of the interviews I did on Wednesday at Camp Williams in Draper, Utah.
Cornell Perkins, 20
Tell me about the process involved in getting here.
Me and my friends ended up at the convention center for four days until they sent a charter bus to get us. From there, we were brought to Louis Armstrong International. After that, we got on a plane to Utah that we thought was going to San Antonio, Texas. We came here, got a bite to eat, got our Utah IDs and they assigned us a bunk.
So you didn’t know you were going to Utah?
How did you feel about that?
I felt bad at first. I’m like, what are we doing in Utah? I thought we were going to San Antonio like the National Guard told us. Man, we wound up far away from the south, but I’ve adjusted and I’m about to start my life over here in Utah.
So you’re going to stay?
What sparked your decision?
I guess by just looking at the mountains and thinking about a fresh start. New Orleans is full of crooked politicians. The governor was not doing her job and the mayor was not doing his job. I just got so sick and tired of getting paid slave wages down there.
What did you do down there?
I was a prep cook down there. Hopefully I’ll go check out the job fair tomorrow.
What was your neighborhood like in New Orleans after the levee broke?
After the storm, we thought everything was OK. We lost a couple roofs and power lines, but the water started coming about an hour later. In three hours, it was almost to my chest and I managed to escape. I walked through the water to a home for elderly and retired citizens. The people told me about the convention center and I wound up staying there for four days.
What went on in the convention center?
Haywire. No police. It was vigilantes. Children getting raped. Bodies in the freezer. There were horror scenes all over. People scouring for food, water, pampers for babies. Two or three babies died. It was very tragic.
What sparked the chaos?
It all happened the second, third and fourth day. The first day, everybody was setting up camp. We thought people were gonna bring us some food and water, but the people didn’t know we were there until three days later. That’s when they started sending buses. The President came to visit. Jesse Jackson came to visit. They all pulled together. That’s the only thing they did right.
In terms of the violence, young guys came in with guns and the chaos began?
Yes. It was almost like a mini war. Citizens against the national guardsmen. Policemen couldn’t handle the pressure. One policeman committed suicide on the other side of the street. Over 400 officers quit the force just because they couldn’t maintain order and the city went under marshal law.
Could you leave?
No, the national guard would shoot us if we left. I found a safe spot in the back that was cool and waited for help.
How did that affect you? You saw some horrible things in that building.
It’s a feeling and a thought in my mind that I will never forget. Every time I look at something about New Orleans, I’m gonna think of that day. Think of that day Katrina hit and think of those days in the convention center. It was my hometown. I grew up there. I thought I was gonna live there.
Do you think New Orleans should be rebuilt?
Yes, it should be rebuilt for the people who want to go back. It’ll never be the same again for me.
Do you have family here?
No. Most of my family is scattered around in Houston and Dallas. I’m the only one here.
So you plan to stay here on your own?
Yes, me and a friend plan on getting separate apartments, but we’re here together. We got each other’s backs here. That’s the only thing that made us feel alright. I was kinda down because I didn’t have my family with me, but as long as I have someone here who experienced what I experienced down in the convention center, I’ll be OK.
What do you think of President Bush’s response?
He’s been doing a fair job so far.
What do you think of him overall?
I think he’s a very complex person trying to work with both sides. Sometimes he’s unfair and sometimes he’s fair. That’s all I’ll say about him.
Would you like to send a message to those who don’t know anyone in New Orleans?
New Orleans was a nice city before the storm hit. As far as the looters go, people needed to feed their families. It was mostly food items they were getting. We do have some ignorant people in New Orleans, but people were looking for food to feed their families. The people from New Orleans are not lazy. We’re very hard working, middle-class people who want a chance at a better life. We’re ready to start over.
How do you feel overall?
I feel great here. It’s a great city. I haven’t had a chance to look at the downtown, but the people are very friendly and very resourceful. I’m gonna start a new life.
Charles Andrew Williams, 63
Tell me about your experience.
My mother and I were in the house. I peeked out the window and watched the rain come down. I turned around and noticed that the water was coming in the back room and I told her the water was coming in the house and she got kinda scared. She got in bed and the water was coming to the bed. I put her on two chairs and the water got up to my waistline. I had to hold her up. That went on for seven hours. I put her in the doorway and looked for help. I put her in my bed, which was floating. She stayed there for about an hour. Somebody said, ‘Here come the national guards.’ We stood in the doorway for about five hours. The boat came and she said she felt like she was gonna pass out. I told her, ‘God didn’t tell you that. God didn’t tell you that you wasn’t gonna make it.’ I was talking to her to keep her awake. The boat came and they took us to the Superdome and she was sick. She was so sick, she couldn’t eat anything, so I told the Red Cross to come and get her.
What was your experience like in the Superdome?
It was horrible. It was like a nightmare. Mother was gone. I stayed in the Superdome for six days. People were fighting in there, raping and doing everything in there. You could hear the shooting, but I wasn’t around those bad people.
Were you fed?
Yeah, we got food and bottles of water.
Do you think the local government prepared for this?
No, I think they did a bad job. They did not build up the levees. They did not put sand bags over the canal. They did not prepare us. The governor and everybody did a bad job of preparing the people.
What about the Bush administration?
Bush didn’t deal with it until the mayor of New Orleans called him about four or five days later. He was telling people what was going on in Iraq, but he didn’t talk about the disaster in New Orleans until five days later and the mayor called him up and told him to come down and see the people and he did. Bush did a good job after he was informed about what was going on, but it took him five days. There’s a big difference between Iraq and New Orleans. We are American people. We should get attention before anybody else. People were floating in the water. It was bad.
Did you see people floating in the water?
I saw a lot of dead people on the streets. People were walking on dead people. That’s something that you got to see for yourself.
How do you feel about being in Utah?
It’s gorgeous. They had a flight going to San Antonio. They had a flight going to Dallas and a flight going to Houston. A man said, ‘You going to get on any of those flights?’ I said, no, I want something new. So I got on a plane and the man said, ‘We’re going to Utah.’ So I decided to go because I ain’t going to no Texas. It’s too close to New Orleans. So I came to Utah and I fell in love with Utah.
What are your plans?
My plan is to talk with my mother and tell her I’m not going back to New Orleans. I’ll go back to get some of my stuff, but New Orleans is not gonna be my home anymore. I lived in New Orleans for 63 years.
Do you think it should be rebuilt?
No. You’re gonna get another hurricane and it’s gonna do the same thing. It’s gonna happen again.
Michael Ford, 48
Penny Landry, 37, Michael’s partner, joined the conversation in the middle of our interview
Tell me what your experience was like.
Michael Ford: I was in the Superdome for seven days and it was like being in anarchy. It was total chaos. People fearing for their lives because there was mass amounts of violence. There were not enough soldiers, but I’m not gonna play the blame game. It was really bad.
What sparked all of the violence?
Michael Ford: You want the truth? The people that were doing all the violence were young dope dealing thugs. They were up there breaking into suites, stealing booze, stealing cigarettes and selling them for inflated prices. Cigarettes and liquor became the new crack. They didn’t care about authority whatsoever. They threw chairs through glass windows. They would trample over old people. It was total anarchy. It was survival of the fittest basically. They banded together like wolf packs and marked their territory. You had to be really careful about who you talked to, where you went and when you did it.
How were you able to find a safe space?
Michael Ford: I know some people and we just kinda stuck together. When we did have to brave the elements as far as using the bathroom, we always went in pairs.
What happend to your neighborhood?
Michael Ford: I don’t know what happened. I was in the dome from start to finish. I was the 12th person who entered the dome.
Did you receive adequate warning from local officials?
Michael Ford: If you watched the news, you got warning. These people got this down to a science. In five days, it’s gonna hit New Orleans. I believe in science and technology. These guys are getting really good at what they do, so I tend to believe them. I didn’t have the resources to get out of town.
Do you think local officials did a good job of warning people?
Michael Ford: Everybody in the world has a TV. Nobody can say they didn’t know it was coming. Even if you don’t have a TV, somebody would have told you. They went through neighborhoods and used bullhorns, but that was when it was impending. You can’t blame anybody for this. If you didn’t go to the dome, I believe that was your fault.
A lot of people stayed because they wanted to protect their homes or their pets.
Michael Ford: True enough, but people brought pets to the dome. I don’t think anything can equal losing your life.
What do you think of the federal government’s response?
Michael Ford: I don’t know. Maybe, maybe, maybe President Bush could have acted faster. Maybe FEMA could have acted faster. But who knows? I never felt forgotten. I knew we were gonna get outta there. I know America takes care of its own. Some people claim that America doesn’t take care of its own, but I never had that feeling for a minute.
Penny Landry: I’ve been here for four days and I still don’t have a dollar. We spend billions of dollars on foreign aid every year. What about us? I should be able to buy feminine hygiene stuff. If I could get a job, I’d go to work right now. I’d get up and work with my hurt foot. We got food stamps, but where am I gonna put the food? In what refrigerator? What stove am I gonna cook on? If I wanted to go outside and eat somewhere, I can’t. I gotta depend on whatever is donated, which is great. Everybody has been awesome. I have pretty much everything I need, but there are a couple things we still need.
Michael Ford: We’re working on housing. We’re trying to get jobs. We’re not going back to New Orleans.
Do you think it should be rebuilt?
Penny Landry: It would take so much.
Michael Ford: Kind of like the Bionic Man: bigger, stronger, faster. You’re gonna have to build levees that are sufficient to handle the storm surge. You’re gonna have to reinforce them with concrete.
Did you both know you were coming to Utah?
Michael Ford: When we pulled into the airport, the FEMA guy came up and said, ‘Look, you’re all going to San Antonio.’ It took us an hour to get from the dome to the airport. By the time I finally got on the plane, it was 11:00 at night.
What did you do in New Orleans?
Michael Ford: I was working on the Mississippi Queen for the Delta Steamboat Company.
Penny Landry: I’m a painter by trade. I paint houses.
What are your plans here?
Penny Landry: We’re trying to get to Park City. I want to wait tables and make money.
Michael Ford: We’re gonna try to do the seasonal thing and see what happens.
Penny Landry: I heard there’s a lot of money there. They ship in foreign exchange students just to work and you can get housing there, so I can clean rooms in a hotel and have a room. I prefer to waitress or bartend for the tips.
Michael Ford: I will shovel snow. I’m not particular. I will do what I have to do to survive.
Penny Landry: We’re gonna hit the job fair tomorrow and go to Park City on Friday.
So they have things scheduled here?
Michael Ford: Oh yeah, these people are wonderful. They’re doing everything they can. These people are smiling and they’re working hard.
Penny Landry: I’m living in a dorm full of women. We’re trying to get together. We got separated and reunited, but by the time we got reunited, we were already placed.
What do you have with you? Do you have ID?
Penny Landry: I lost everything. I asked about it and they gave me the number to the social security office. Do you realize how long it will take me to get a copy of my birth certificate? There are so many people that have lost everything and it’s gonna be backed up for a couple of years. I’m just counting on my mouth piece to get me a job. Plus, they know what we’ve been through. I’m doing everything within my power. This is day four.
Michael Ford: I got my ID and important papers with me.
Did you go to the dome also?
Penny Landry: I didn’t make it to the dome. I was checking on family members and friends. I had a boat, so I was helping people with food and water. I seen a dead body tied to a post floating in the water. Then I got in a copter.
How’d you find each other?
Penny Landry: Fate. We got on separate flights and ended up in the same place.
Wow, sounds like you’re meant to be together.
Penny Landry: Yeah.
Are other family members here?
Penny Landry: I don’t know where my grandmother and son are. I’m on the online thing and I called this morning, but still haven’t heard anything. They evacuated before the hurricane, so I’m sure they’re safe.
Michael Ford: This is really kind of unreal. It’s almost like you don’t believe you’re here.
It must be surreal for you.
Michael Ford: It’s totally surreal. It’s hard for me to believe that I was in the greatest national disaster in the United States history and somebody cared enough to bring me here and care for me.
Penny Landry: It’s been awesome. I appreciate everything. I’m in a hurry to start over. Obviously the things I had weren’t meant for me to keep, but I’m an able body. Just to get from here to there takes money. Everything takes money and I have none. I wish they would give us something even if I had to pay it back. Just give me something.
Michael Ford: I have to say this. I have seen first hand, the worst. The lowest level of the human spirit and I’ve also…I’m about to cry. I’ve also experienced the best of human spirit. I can’t believe I’m crying. I want to get up and display the best of my spirit.
Penny Landry: We just try and stay positive. I haven’t given up. I ain’t going down like that. I refuse. God didn’t bring me here for nothing. There’s a greater purpose that’s above me. I’m just trying to do my part. I appreciate everything here, but I want to move things as fast as I possibly can. The shock is over.
Michael Ford: The shock is over. Get on with your life.
Penny Landry: There’s all kinds of support here, but I’m an independent person. I can’t walk into my own house, put the keys down and put something in the microwave or whatever. I can’t take a shower by myself cause these are community showers. I just prefer more privacy. I’m 37. I’m used to being on my own. I’m sure you enjoy your home. Could you imagine? It’s hard, but it’s appreciated. It’s not that it’s not appreciated. It’s just that the adjusting is hard because you’re dealing with all kinds of different personalities that you’re not accustomed to.
Michael Ford: I want to go back to the dome for a minute. The people that didn’t get out came to the dome. Everybody knew that if the hurricane hit, we’re gonna lose power, we’re gonna lose water and we could be there for days. The only thing that I don’t think they planned well for was the bathroom thing. The Supredome was huge on the inside. For Mardi Gras, they could get 1,000 porta potties lined up in a day. They could have put those in the dome for use. It wouldn’t have been a toilet like it is now. When the military was handing out MREs, it was like a free for all. People went through the line five times. The elderly couldn’t get their food.
Penny Landry: I was getting water for people and by the time I got to the airport, I passed out. The military had to bring me in and hydrate me. I drank a lot of water, but you can’t imagine being in the water, in the sun, in a boat for two days. I pulled people in the boat, walking through the nastiness.
Michael Ford: I was a wreck. I’m still a wreck. I wasn’t able to shower. You’ve got thousands of people around there and they’re throwing food. A lot of times you don’t know where you’re laying. You didn’t have a cot to lay on.
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Penny Landry: God bless Utah. I’ve never seen such Christianity. Even when I was doing bad things in my other life (laughs), God had me and he’s really shown me that he does work through people. These people don’t know us from adam.
Michael Ford: And they’re working their fingers to the bone.
Elaine Sims, 64
Tell me about your experience in New Orleans.
We got rescued by a boat and got brought down to Interstate 10. We spent the night on Interstate 10, then we had to walk to get to the convention center, which I think was horrible. When we got to the convention center, it was like a nightmare. We had no food and no water for at least three days. After making it through all the flood waters, then to get there and be without food and water in the heat and being frightened of different things that were happening in the convention center was worse than trying to escape the floodwaters.
And you couldn’t leave the convention center?
We had nowhere to go. That was the shelter, but it was a horrible shelter. It was like a nightmare. It was frightening until the military came in. We left there Saturday and they told us we were going to San Antonio. After we were in the air, they said, ‘You know where you’re going?’ We said, San Antonio. They said, ‘Salt Lake City, Utah.’ We said, oh no, but after we got here, everything was great. The people here are very nice. Really nice. You couldn’t ask to be treated better. I think we ended up at the best shelter.
Do you have other family members here with you?
Yeah, my daughter is here and my son and my neighbor next door, we call her grandma. She’s 97. My husband is right here.
What are your plans?
We want to go to Washington to live with our other son and wait until we can go back to New Orleans.
So you want to go back to New Orleans?
I really would like to. I was born and raised in New Orleans. It snows out here and I don’t like cold weather.
Do you think the local government did enough to prepare you?
No, it was like we were forgotten. That was frightening. I’m 64-years-old and had to walk all the way up an interstate. We thought a bus would pick us up and bring us across, but it never came and it was blazing hot. I said, if I want to survive, I gotta walk.
What do you think about President Bush’s response?
As far as I can see, everything is going good so far. I know a lot of money was put in for this and hopefully it will help us get our city back. I hope something good comes out of this.
How do you feel?
I’m feeling OK. I went to the medical center when I first got here because I wasn’t able to bring all my medicine. I went to see the doctor and he wrote prescriptions, so everything is good. I’ll be glad to get our city back and we can go back. I’ll just have to take my chances with hurricanes.