Two days before Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans, 49-year-old Walter Favoroth opened a detailing business. “We invested about $2,500 in that,” he says.
Now his business, along with his home and personal belongings, are all gone
Favoroth’s story is just as gripping as all the rest. He describes saving his wife Yolanda. “I’m in water up to here and I had her on my neck. I had to walk like that for five miles. She doesn’t know how to swim,” he says. “In our house, we were watching the storm. We saw water coming under the door fast. I went to go get a sheet to put under the door and the water just came in. It filled our bathtub and our toilet and water rushed up to the ceiling. In a matter of five minutes, the whole house was full of water.”
The Favoroths, like so many families, have since left New Orleans to start a new life in an unknown town. After spending a few horrific days in the New Orleans Convention Center, the couple boarded an airplane from New Orleans bound for San Antonio, Texas, or so they thought. After they took off, they were told they were actually going to Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I never got on an airplane in my life. It was an experience,” Favoroth says. “I was hugging my wife saying, ‘Baby, are we gonna be alright?'”
Over 63,000 New Orleans residents have been flown to shelters in nine states throughout the country, including Texas, Arizona, Georgia and Utah. Many had no idea where they were going or when they would return to New Orleans, if ever. Two weeks ago, 583 people were unknowingly flown to Salt Lake City, Utah. From there, they were taken to Camp Williams in Draper, Utah. Many left the base almost immediately and many more took buses to Texas to reunite with loved ones. As of Saturday, 299 people remained at the shelter.
When I visited Camp Draper last Wednesday, I expected to meet people who were angry about unknowingly being flown to a state that couldn’t be more different from Louisiana. What I found were people who were happy to be safe and who wanted nothing more than to share their stories, especially those who had been trapped in the New Orleans Convention Center without food and water. “There were horror scenes all over,” says 20-year-old Cornell Perkins. “People scouring for food, water, Pampers for babies. Two or three babies died. It was very tragic. ”
Perkins was in the convention center for four days until a charter bus picked him up and took him to the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. How did he feel when he found out he was on his way to Utah? “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.”
Every person I interviewed who plans to stay in Utah said they were eager to find work; most made under $7/hour in New Orleans. “Everyone has been nice, but I feel that since I’m out here, I need to do something because I don’t have anything,” says John Tucker, 26. Tucker is still searching for his mother, Patricia Tucker. “I want to get a job. I was a cook in New Orleans, so if I can get a job and make some money, I’ll stay out here until I find my mother.”
At a job fair last Thursday, 44 New Orleans evacuees were hired and 19 more have been called for second interviews. In addition to the job fair, the shelter provides phone and computer services, doctor appointments, prescriptions, free bus passes and information on housing. Many apartment complex owners in Salt Lake City have agreed to both waive deposit fees and cap rents in order to keep living expenses affordable.
Red Cross Public Affairs Director George Muller cautions people who say they are ready to rebuild their lives in Salt Lake City to first come to terms with their loss. “They should wait until they get fully fed and they’re used to a shower and everything else,” he says. “Then they’ll go through different stages, including safety, shelter, food and then self-actualization. When they reach the self-actualization level, what’s going to start happening? They’ll probably say, ‘I want to go back to Louisiana because I miss the Cajun food.’ Or ‘It’s too dry here. I hate the winters.'”
But Ronald Herbert, 48, says he’s never been more certain about rebuilding his life in Utah. “I love this state. I thought I was going to come down here to crazy stuff like, ‘We don’t want you niggers here,'” he says. “Man, they brought us here and showed us so much love. It’s not about racial things. It’s about love.”
After swimming for six miles against the current, Herbert was picked up by a boat and brought to the convention center, an experience he says he’ll never forget. “Yeah, there was rape. I was putting bodies in the freezer. We were right where it happened,” he says. “They had people in there who didn’t take baths for six, seven days. If you went into the bathroom, the odor hit you. All on the walls, in the corners, cracks, crevices. They were letting it out.”
In the convention center, Herbert met 50-year-old Jacqueline Gordon, another survivor who spent 18 1/2 hours on her roof until she was rescued. The two flew to Utah together, found an apartment in Salt Lake City and plan to marry at Camp Williams on Sept. 23.
Shock and Sharing
When I interviewed people at Camp Williams, I didn’t push the political issue because everyone I met was more interested in sharing their personal stories. At that point, they hadn’t watched or heard the news for the past week, and they had no idea how the Bush administration and FEMA responded to the devastation. When I returned on Saturday, I found people who were still dealing with the initial shock anyone would experience after losing their homes and community. I also found a few people who were eager to share their opinions on the government’s response.
“If we were in Florida, Bush would have been there the same day, but Bush waited three days and a dollar late. Then he come there like he’s some kind of hero. Bush ain’t worth a doggone penny,” says John Seal, 54. “He’s been to New Orleans before. For you to leave us underwater all that time, then you’re gonna make like the hero, the lone ranger? Hell no. He ain’t nothing in my mind. They call him Mr. President or Mr. Bush. The only thing he’s Mister of is his house, and his wife might be wearing the pants in there. I think it was mighty lowdown of him to do the things he did.”
For now, Seal plans to stay in Utah. “I’m on top of the world. I thought we had hospitality. We have never been treated like this before. Utah is a wonderful state. Anybody tell me different and I’ll slap the taste out of their mouth,” Seal says. “There’s been nothing but sweet love. Ain’t nobody say nothin’ negative. They always have a helping hand. Always trying to do something for us. Utah, y’all number one, other than New Orleans.”
Not everyone was as critical of the administration. “I was listening on the radio and Mayor Nagin was asking for Bush. Mayor Nagin was pissed,” says 34-year-old Troylynn Wilson. “Bush messed up, but he did come back and I thank him for that.”
After leaving Utah for Montana, I stopped in Idaho Falls — which is in a county that gave Bush 77 percent of the vote in 2004 — to ask residents about their reaction to the federal government’s response to the hurricane. “I think it was very, very slow. It’s sad. Those people didn’t have any food for how many days? Five, six, seven days. Not good,” says Dorothy Bischoff, 63. “I voted for Bush, so I’m not against him, but this is unacceptable behavior. He really messed up on this one.”
“When they say his approval rating has gone down, I’d have to be part of that,” adds Dianne Watts, another former Bush supporter. “I thought he was doing a really good job after 9/11, but he’s too much of an oil man. His politics have changed, and it’s just getting to be more about the politics than the good of the people.”
Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist gathering stories from people living in states that voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush. Track her journey at Stories in America.