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Cathy Free: Hurricane survivors at home here

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The water was coming in under the front door when Sandra Stalbert was awakened from a deep sleep by her landlady pounding on the door.

"Wake up! The water's rising! We've got to get on the roof!"

Scrambling out of bed, Sandra raced out to the porch. Dirty water was almost up to her knees and rising as the two women waded over to a ladder and climbed onto the roof of their New Orleans duplex. Within hours, the water was up to the top of the house, and Sandra didn't know how to swim.

The only thing she could see to grab onto was the thick branch of a tall oak tree, rocking back and forth in a strong gale. Wrapping herself around the branch, Sandra hung on for one hour, then two, then all night long. "Somebody help me!" she shouted into the wind. "Is anybody out there?"

One year later, Sandra, 44, sits on her apartment balcony in Midvale and gazes out at dark clouds rolling in. "A little storm doesn't bother me," she says. "I'm safe in Utah. I know that nothing will ever be as bad as Hurricane Katrina."

Sandra figures that she has a lot to celebrate on Aug. 29, the first anniversary of the hurricane that swept away the memories of her life in New Orleans. Photo albums, clothing, jewelry, favorite books. All are gone.

"But I'm alive," she says, "and that's more than a lot of people got." Besides, she adds with a slight grin, "if it weren't for Katrina, I wouldn't have met my husband."

That would be Billy Stalbert, 57, a former truck driver who helped care for Sandra when she became seriously ill after she was plucked off her rooftop by rescuers and taken to New Orleans' Superdome, where she went for days without food and water. The couple were married a few weeks after they arrived in Salt Lake City last September with about 600 other Katrina evacuees.

Hoping to share their gratitude for the kindness shown by Utahns, the Stalberts recently recounted the past year over a Free Lunch of takeout pizza in their three-bedroom apartment. We were joined by Sandra's nephew, Ernest Trimble, who moved in two weeks ago with his wife, Dedey, and three children, after a year of going from one shelter to another throughout the South.

"There's no hope left in New Orleans," says Ernest, who worked as a kitchen manager at a popular restaurant. "My house was under 9 feet of water. There's nothing left. Here, there's a chance to give our kids a decent life. It's so pretty and clean here. Utah — I love you. We're never going back."

Except for following the Utah Jazz ("You stole our team," says Billy), Sandra and her extended family knew little about the Beehive State when they moved here. Now that they've set up house permanently, "it's OK if you want to steal our football team (the New Orleans Saints) too," says Ernest.

"We feel so fortunate that people opened their arms to us," says Billy, who recently found a job with the Salt Lake County Parks Department. "The air is cleaner here — even the tap water tastes better." He looks out at the Wasatch Mountains and laughs. "But there is one thing we'd better prepare ourselves for. You have many earthquakes here?"

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.