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Camp life: 'It's great here'

Evacuees are grateful for hospitality and services

Joshua Bowie leads "platoon" of smiling children across a street at Camp Williams to get some lunch. He figured a march was in order since they are at a military base.
Joshua Bowie leads "platoon" of smiling children across a street at Camp Williams to get some lunch. He figured a march was in order since they are at a military base.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

CAMP WILLIAMS — The hottest ticket in this town is to the barbershop, now open every Monday for five hours.

The shop, the latest addition to a growing number of services for some 600 people evacuated from the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, joins a cafeteria and commissary, medical clinic, employment center/transportation hub for people trying to get back to loved ones in other states.

"This is a little community we're caring for," said Ash Chambers, a Red Cross volunteer from Spokane, Wash. "We're going to make them as comfortable as possible here."

The majority of Camp Williams' residents are from downtown New Orleans, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. As of Monday night, more than 80 evacuees were making plans with the help of the state to meet relatives or friends in other parts of the country, authorities said. Fifteen have paid for their own transportation to other destinations.

Each head of household who leaves Camp Williams will be given $150 and $75 for each dependent. The state, with reimbursements expected from the federal government, will also pay for transportation costs.

Camp coordinators said Monday night if family members outside of Utah are located at other evacuation centers, every effort will be made to reunite and relocate that family in a location of their choice.

For the most part, evacuees appear comfortable, although some are displeased that an 11 p.m. curfew has been imposed. Others wondered if they were allowed to leave the base but were later assured they could do so at will.

Most interviewed by the Deseret Morning News said they were grateful for the hospitality they've received in Utah.

"We've had no problems whatsoever," said 67-year-old Madge Urbina. "It's great here. Yes, it is."

Shuttles run to the grocery store every afternoon at half-hour increments, and the Utah Transit Authority has planned hourly shuttles from Camp Williams to several locations, including local shopping centers, the airport and a TRAX stop to allow access into downtown, spokesman Justin Jones said. The buses will likely run for several hours in the morning and afternoon, plus a few in the evening.

Utah's newest citizens are behaving themselves, said Capt. Bob Anderson of the state Department of Public Safety. Security at Camp Williams, a Utah Air National Guard training base about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City, is being handled jointly by the Utah Highway Patrol and Salt Lake County and Utah County sheriff's offices.

The camp is patrolled around the clock, with eight to 10 officers on duty during the day and up to 20 at night, Anderson said. Community-oriented policing is the approach, he said, with officers on foot and on bicycles, interacting with the evacuees and getting them the help they need.

"We're running it as if it was a city," Anderson said.

No arrests have been made since the first wave of evacuees arrived Saturday night, he said, although one case has been referred to Salt Lake County prosecutors for possible charges. In that case, a man used his cell phone to send an indecent photograph to the cell phone of a female teenage volunteer.

Law enforcers have also identified and are keeping separate several gang members, Anderson said. A few problems have surfaced, but nothing violent or not easily handled.

"It's really been quite quiet. It's been very good, and we like that," Anderson said.

Resident Mike Ford, who landed in Utah early Sunday morning on a Utah Air National Guard plane, said his experience at Camp Williams has been "great. It's been really wonderful." Ford first found refuge from the storm at the New Orleans Convention Center, where he says he saw things — violence, hunger, death — he can't even talk about.

He said Camp Williams is a welcome change to the sleepless nights at the convention center. "We've had a few minor things here and there, but nothing like the convention center. I'm thinking we got the cream of the crop here in Utah."

The only problem he's heard about is a stolen purse, a few men in the restricted women's barracks and a mentally ill person scaring other evacuees.

Glenn Lockwood, operations director for the Utah Red Cross, said things are coming together at Camp Williams. Every disaster relief operation takes a few days to "work out the kinks," he said, and everything is finally running smoothly.

"We're setting up an entire socio-economic structure," Lockwood said. "It's not an easy job. For every issue we solve, we have 10 more things pop up."

The state Department of Workforce Services has a strong presence at Camp Williams, with a volunteer staff of 15 people taking applications for food stamps and cash assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as running relocation efforts and helping those interested in staying in Utah find a job and temporary housing.

A few people have said they intend to stay in Utah, something agency workers are encouraging evacuees to do, Nixon said.

"We don't want to put a drain on Houston. They have enough people already," he said.

The Houston Astrodome is at capacity with 60,000 evacuees, with another 70,000 in other Houston shelters. Altogether, nearly 250,000 displaced Gulf Coast residents have made their way to Texas.

It's unclear how many more evacuees will come to Utah. Camp Williams is set up to handle as many as 2,000. The Air National Guard has said people could continue coming throughout the week; there were no arrivals Monday.

FEMA approved disaster aid funding to Utah for its relief effort. An amount was not specified, but the agency said the reimbursement would cover relief expenditures as of Aug. 29.

Contributing: Leigh Dethman