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146 more evacuees here

Each new arrival is wrapped in a blanket upon deplaning

A couple of Gulf Coast evacuees are all smiles after landing at the Utah National Guard base Sunday. About 600 evacuees are now in the state.
A couple of Gulf Coast evacuees are all smiles after landing at the Utah National Guard base Sunday. About 600 evacuees are now in the state.
Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

From the warmth of the Big Easy to a chilly night in Salt Lake City, 146 more victims of Hurricane Katrina arrived late Sunday.

Volunteers wrapped each evacuee in a blanket as they deplaned shortly after 10 p.m., many of them carrying their only possessions in plastic shopping bags. Many appeared exhausted, yawning and rubbing their backs as they were escorted to processing centers at the Utah Air National Guard Base.

Others, like the 60-something woman with her hair wrapped in a blue towel, took a bow and thanked the line of well-wishers waiting to greet each evacuee.

Harold Scott said his home was not flooded, but he left because there was "no electricity, no running water, no sewer service," he said. "It wasn't practical to stay. It was miserable."

Bernard Blunt's family evacuated the day before the hurricane hit. He stayed behind to watch the house. But after the levees broke, water filled his home, 36 inches deep. "It was pretty bad," he said. "I went into survival mode."

Blunt had no contact with his family and wasn't sure of their whereabouts. But just before he boarded the plane for Salt Lake City on Sunday, he received good news — his family is safe and sound, in Dallas.

Reynord Cornelius, an Air Force veteran and a former long-haul trucker who has been through Utah before, said he was happy to come to Salt Lake City. But he wished he didn't have to go.

"Leaving the city I was born in under these circumstances . . . is just horrible," said Cornelius, who has been separated from his two sisters, brother and father and has no idea where they are. "I can't even describe to you how horrible this thing was."

Approximately 600 evacuees have made their way to Utah in three waves, one Saturday evening, one Sunday morning and another late Sunday night. The Utah Air National Guard expects more will be coming over the next week, perhaps as many as two flights a day for the next five days.

By that time, those running the airport operations expect few glitches in the process.

"The first time was a little shaky getting through it. But by 6 o'clock this morning, we had it down to a science," said Greg Stewart with the Utah Air Guard Fire Department.

Firefighters help transport the non-ambulatory passengers off the plane into a temporary triage center set up inside the fire station. There, medical personnel screen the evacuees for health problems and determine who needs more focused medical treatment. A total of 15 passengers have been taken to area hospitals by Sunday afternoon.

In addition to people, pets also began arriving on flights early Sunday, including a small dog wrapped like a baby with a pacifier in its mouth, perhaps in fear it would not be allowed on board, and a large Rottweiler.

A kennel was even set up Sunday at Camp Williams to accommodate the animals, Utah Air National Guard Col. David Thomas said.

Most of the evacuees who have arrived in Utah are thankful to be away from the chaos of New Orleans, according to reports of those working on the ground here. But some, when given the choice of getting on a plane to Utah or staying in New Orleans, chose to stay. Utah Air National Guard Col. David Thomas said 13 people who were supposed to be on Saturday night's flight got off the plane when they learned they were headed to the Beehive State.

For that reason, the evacuees don't even know where they are going until the plane lands. Thomas said relief workers are doing their best just to get the displaced residents into better conditions, wherever that may be.

"They're trying to take them out of New Orleans to anywhere they can get them to. They're not in the travel business," he said.

Many Louisiana residents, however, have had positive things to say about Utah.

"Some people have been so impressed with the area and the reception they got here, that they said, 'You know, I just might stay here. We've got nothing to go back to,' " Thomas said.

With the most populated areas already evacuated, such as the Superdome and the conference center, many of the arrivals Sunday came from outlying areas that didn't bear the brunt of the hurricane. A few said they hoped to leave almost immediately and plan to rent vehicles to meet up with friends and family in other states.

Those expected to arrive in Utah throughout the week will largely arrive on commercial airplanes run by carrier JetBlue. The Utah Air National Guard's military airlift is suspended indefinitely, after three KC-135s sent to New Orleans Sunday returned empty.

The first plane arrived at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport shortly before noon.

"We were told they had had so much military and commercial traffic that they didn't have any more people right then to pick up," said Lt. Col. Kurt Davis of the Utah Air National Guard. "So they asked them to just turn around and come back."

The plane's crew then called the other two Utah Air National Guard jets and told them to turn around as well, he said.

Fifteen soldiers from the Utah National Guard's 19th Special Forces Group, First Battalion, are currently in New Orleans to assist in the search and rescue effort.


Contributing: Leigh Dethman

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com, preavy@desnews.com