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Evacuee calls Utah 'perfect'

And nephew has joined him by moving to S.L.

Bill Martin is a meticulous man. He keeps important information in neatly labeled file folders, binder clips holding relevant paperwork together. He makes decisions based on research and a careful weighing of options.

It is most interesting, then, that he found his way to Utah through a series of haphazard events — a devastating hurricane, two insistent policemen, an empty seat on a helicopter, a chartered flight to an unknown destination.

Still, if he had selected a new hometown systematically, as is his way, Martin suspects he still would have ended up in Utah's capital city.

"This place just happens to have the right combination of everything that makes it the perfect place," said the 65-year-old man.

After exactly 12 weeks in Utah, Martin knows Salt Lake City better than many lifelong residents. He reads the local news religiously, remarks on the politics of Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (he's impressed with both) and quizzes locals with little bits of Utah trivia.

During his stay at Camp Williams, Utah's temporary home for nearly 600 Hurricane Katrina evacuees, Martin came downtown daily, first taking the bus to Sandy and then TRAX. He shunned organized trips to local attractions, wanting instead to "get to know" Salt Lake City.

What he found, he said, was friendly people in a clean, beautiful city with a healthy respect for architecture — important for a man who made his living in that field. "I was determined that Salt Lake was the right place."

So much so that Martin convinced his nephew, also a victim of Hurricane Katrina, to move to Salt Lake City a little over a month ago. Marty Smith called his uncle from Memphis, Tenn., where he was staying with friends and asked what his new town was like.

"I just told him I absolutely love Utah and started listing the reasons," Martin said.

Smith made his way to Utah shortly afterward and has since found a downtown apartment through the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, as did Martin, and a job at a local restaurant.

"It's absolutely gorgeous," Smith said of Salt Lake City. "The people have been very, very nice. A lot different from New Orleans."

Unlike many of the Louisianians forced from their homes by this summer's devastating hurricanes, Martin was ready to leave New Orleans. However, a new marketing business, which was on its way to marking its first profitable month, and valuable industry contacts kept him on the Gulf Coast.

"I knew that I should have gotten out of New Orleans years ago," Martin said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a dying city."

And that, he said, was before Hurricane Katrina had its way with the town. Now, Martin believes there is no future for the town that he called home for 26 years.

"People are always going to look on New Orleans with the idea of what happened," he said. "The riots; the murders."

For a week after the late August hurricane, Martin stayed in his apartment in New Orleans' famed French Quarter. He walked around outside during the day, surveying the damage and dodging trouble — he said he saw looters and violence and was shot at several times. Most of his personal belongings, in a temporary storage facility in a low-lying area of the city while he moved into a new, fourth-floor apartment, were destroyed.

Shortly after he returned on Sept. 4, however, two policemen pounded on the door and ordered him out. With just minutes to pack a bag, Martin said he threw his medications and important paperwork in a briefcase and some clothes in a small overnight bag. From there, he was taken by van to a building across the street from the New Orleans Convention Center and immediately volunteered to fill a vacant seat on a nearby military helicopter.

"I figured a helicopter ride would be a lot more comfortable than a ride on an overheating van to Baton Rouge," Martin said.

But instead of staying in Louisiana's capital, the helicopter landed at the airport and Martin was shepherded onto a waiting airplane. It wasn't until the plane was airborne that Martin learned where he was headed.

"The pilot came on and said, 'Welcome to JetBlue, flight to Salt Lake City,' " Martin said. "I didn't think much (of it), positively or negatively. Of course, I had the negative stereotype of (Utah) being religiously controlled — that you couldn't drink or smoke or anything else that was fun."

It isn't a stereotype that has been borne out too much, Martin said, although he does wish more things were open on Sundays. Still, he has become a regular at a downtown bar, with the owners inviting both Martin and Smith to their home for Thanksgiving dinner.

In fact, Martin's only complaints now have nothing to do with his new home state. Rather, it's the federal government that is causing him concern. His assistance has not yet come — most Katrina survivors, including Smith, received a $2,000 check from the Federal Emergency Management Agency shortly after the storm — and delivery of his Social Security checks has been disrupted.

Martin spends up to two hours a day on the phone with various federal agencies to iron out the problem, which apparently originated when he included business losses on his initial FEMA claim. For that reason, his case was shifted to the U.S. Small Business Administration, which has not yet provided Martin with any compensation. Martin has been working with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch's Salt Lake City office to resolve the problem.

Additionally, his food stamp benefits have recently been cut to just $12 a month, and recent questions about continued housing assistance from FEMA have Martin worried.

"I'm not trying to say anybody should feel sorry for me," he said. "But all my life I've been successful. I've never had to worry about money."

Still, Martin said he'll work through the financial problems and continue to make his new home, and life, in Utah.


E-mail: awelling@desnews.com