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Katrina Evacuees Make Utah Home

Many families uprooted by Hurricane Katrina are celebrating this Christmas far from the place they once called home.

Just after the storm, CBS national correspondent Hattie Kauffman introduced us to a woman who'd been rescued in Utah. She visited with the Phipps family as they get ready for their first holiday away from the place they used to call home.

It's a scene Kathy Phipps could never have imagined — her New Orleans family playing in the Utah snow.

"They love the snow. They've been sleighing and everything," she said. "They're throwing — what do you call those? — snowballs at one another."

For the Phipps family, getting to this point was hellish. During Hurricane Katrina, Kathy was separated from her kids. When Kauffman met her, she'd just gotten off a rescue flight that she thought was taking her to Texas.

"Utah! How am I going to find my kids in Utah?" she asked following the storm.

She would be in agony for days until Utah volunteers Barbara and Jim Williams found the kids in a shelter in Texas.

That's when The Early Show bought Phipps a plane ticket to Austin, Texas, to pick up her children. The first reunion was with Mikhail, 8, and then Michael, 10.

Within minutes, Phipps whisked them off to Utah, where, thanks to the generosity of strangers, she and her kids had a new home waiting for them in the town of Pleasant Grove.

"They did a lot and I'm trying to find a way to repay them all — even if it's just a bowl of gumbo or sweet potato pie," Phipps said of the women who helped her to relocate and who have become her friends.

"I'm here. I know the area and, yeah, I want to help her. I want to help her feel like this is her home as well," said Claire Wilmour, who helped the Katrina evacuees resettle.

"If this happened to me after a massive earthquake and they put me on a plane and I didn't know where I was going and I got off and they said welcome to New Orleans ... oh my goodness!" Barbara Williams said. "I don't know what I would do and these guys have picked themselves up by their bootstraps."

The children have blossomed. Mikhail is taking piano lessons and Michael is doing something completely new to him — he's reading. The kids have improved academically, too.

"Oh, man, my son was actually reading," Phipps said. "Now that was something I've never seen him do before! My little girl, she's reading and writing, so that's good. It's good here."

Both children attend a high-achieving middle school in suburban Salt Lake City. Though they're almost the only non-white students, they're making friends and making progress.

It's quite a change from their world in New Orleans.

"The schooling was horrible," Phipps said. "Michael was (playing) hooky from school, little Michael (playing) hooky and making all F's. Around the corner someone's laying around dead in the car, dead!"

The kid's dad recently joined them in Utah. He has a steady job as a welder and is enjoying life in the suburbs.

"I really like it, peace and quiet — no crime. I can go outside and here myself throw a rock," Michael Spencer said.

"This storm was the best thing that ever happened to my family. We are working saving, working, and doing well for ourselves," Phipps said.

In the snowy mountains of Utah, this will truly be the family's first white Christmas. Even though it is majestically beautiful here, Phipps still longs for New Orleans.

"I miss my home," she said. "I mean, I was born and raised in the lower Ninth Ward. That's all I know and not to know I can't go back that tears me up every day."

Though grateful to be decorating in her new home, Phipps can't help remember Christmas with the big clan in New Orleans.

"Every holiday we got together. In my whole 40 years, this is going to be the first year without my family," she said. "You know, we could just walk around the corner to see each other. If you need me, I'm around the corner. So now we're thousands of miles away."

It's a sentiment shared by thousands of displaced people this Christmas.

"Merry Christmas y'all," she says to her family. "This is our first Christmas without each other. You do it like we do it, I love you guys." She gave Kauffman a big hug.

Phipps' mother and grandma relocated to Mississippi. Her two brothers are in San Antonio, Texas, and a sister is in Georgia.

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