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SALT LAKE CITY – Away from the water that was rising up into his attic, Ernest Timmons says he was safe. It was August 2005 and Hurricane Katrina had just barreled into New Orleans. The levees broke and the city was deluged, with some areas under 15 feet of water. A mandatory evacuation order was in place and most people were running for their lives. But Timmons says he wanted to stay put.
“I was comfortable," said the New Orleans native, who had stocked up on food and water. "I could survive for three or four months."
He was hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst: “I said my prayers prior to that. I said, ‘Whatever's going to happen is going to happen.’”
But Timmons never imagined he’d end up nearly 1,500 miles away from the flood ravaged Bayou – in the arid desert of Salt Lake City, where he lives today. In the days after the storm, more than 600 people were flown from New Orleans to Camp Williams, a National Guard training site in Utah. Many, like Timmons, were evacuated against their will.
While walking down the street in the aftermath of the flooding, Timmons says he was stopped by National Guardsmen.
“They said, ‘You have to get on the truck,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘I don't want to get on the truck. Why should I get on the truck? I'm comfortable. I have enough supplies.’”
Timmons eventually did get on the truck. It took him to the airport, where he and the other evacuees were hurdled onto a plane. It wasn’t until they were thousands of feet in the air that they learned they were headed to Salt Lake City.
“I was angry,” Timmons said. “I stayed angry for a while, because first of all, I was kidnapped, so to speak, to be forced to leave by gunpoint…without someone telling me where I'm going. All my rights were gone. You just made me feel like nothing.”
Falling in 'love' with Utah
Over time, Timmons made peace with his situation and ended up making Utah his home. But adapting to life in the west was an adjustment for him and the other evacuees who chose to stay. (There are no records of exactly how many that was.)
“We first came at night, and then that morning you were able to look and see all this,” said Timmons, looking at the view of the Rockies on the horizon. “Because many people had never saw a mountain before.”
Aside from the climate and landscape, Utah was noticeably different in another way as well. While most of those evacuated from New Orleans were African-American, 92 percent of Utah’s population is white.
Pastor France Davis heads up the Calvary Baptist Church, a historic African-American congregation in Salt Lake City, and was asked by Utah’s governor to greet the evacuees when they landed.
“[The governor] did not want them to, quote, ‘get off the airplane and just see a sea of whiteness,’” Davis said.
For many of the New Orleans transplants, including Timmons, Pastor Davis’ congregation became a place of support and community.
“Many of these people, like African-Americans here in Utah, were religious in terms of their upbringing,” Davis said. “And the church has always been the center of community for African-Americans. It's the gathering place and it provides a sense of identity.”
As the months turned into years, Timmons says he grew accustomed to his new surroundings and began to see a future for himself in Utah.
“I fell in love with Utah,” he said. “I liked the mountains, I liked the weather. I had a good job, you know, and then I saw advancement for me here.”
Timmons, who had a background in social work, also chose to stay in Salt Lake City because of job opportunities that weren’t there for him in New Orleans. He went back to school, got two different degrees and got a job helping ex-convicts find employment.
A decade after Hurricane Katrina, Timmons says the chaotic aftermath of flooding led to a new beginning for him in an unlikely place.
“It's gone by fast. A lot has happened here,” said Timmons. “I've grown. That's what's the most important: I've grown.”