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November 28, 2014 | 6th Kislev 5775

Ridin' in the City of New Orleans... A Call to Action

by Harry Levy
I want you to imagine for a minute...the entire area of San Antonio inside Loop 410 with the exception of downtown...completely uninhabitable.

Where you are sitting now, all of Alamo Heights, Northstar Mall, hospitals, schools, homes large and small, everything sustaining such damage that habitation is not possible. This is roughly what New Orleans has suffered put into our San Antonio terms. Perhaps you have seen movies featuring dystopic visions of an empty world with neighborhoods full of houses but no people…this is what it is like to visit a devastated neighborhood in New Orleans. When we see pictures in the newspaper or on TV, one simply cannot put into proper perspective the extent of the damage. It is simply overwhelming.

New Orleans’ Charity Hospital…the city’s equivalent to our University Hospital, remains shuttered and may not reopen. There are only four public schools that are functioning, although several charter schools have been able to re-form for this spring semester. There are many areas where the power still has not been restored, and the traffic lights do not work all over the city. Although the four Reform congregations all fared fairly well and are all almost completely repaired, one Orthodox Synagogue (the one where the Torah Scrolls were pictured being rescued in the now-famous internet photo) is beyond repair. Many, many other churches and worship spaces are struggling to either have a place or to find their flock.

One interesting phenomenon…jobs are plentiful. One can make $10.00 per hour at Burger King plus there are signing bonuses…hefty ones. Unfortunately, the jobs don’t come with a place to live. That is the real problem…there simply aren’t enough places to lie down at night. There are FEMA trailers everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, but housing remains woefully inadequate, both for the residents and those that are trying to assist in the rebuilding.

What was most amazing to me when I visited there with Rabbi Block just before Passover, was how much still needs to be done, and the dawning realization that this destruction will take many, many years to repair…and there are doubts in some minds how much will ever be restored to pre-Katrina condition. Countless homes, businesses, and lives have such uncertain futures! Many folks have abandoned their heritage, homes, and their culture in New Orleans to live elsewhere, some here in San Antonio. One such evacuee currently works at my company. He has lived his entire life in New Orleans, but couldn’t face the overwhelming difficulties in trying to re-establish his family’s lives in the shattered city.

But, for those that have remained in, and those that have returned to New Orleans, the resolve to rebuild is stronger than ever. Just ask one who is working all day, every day to rebuild a home, business, school, or life why they are trying to get back on their feet when they live in a city below sea level…just one strong storm away from complete devastation again and you will get an earful! “You just don’t understand what it is like to live here,” they will say. “You don’t get it…New Orleans is too important to abandon.” For some rebuilding has been impossible due to a catch-22; They cannot get insurance on their rebuilt home until the flood tables are published so they can know how high they might have to raise the home. The flood tables aren’t being published until the levees are repaired. And the repairs to the levees are somewhere…no one really knows for sure. For those that have chosen to stay there, New Orleans is really their only choice.

And we should, we must support it.

There are many who say that we should simply abandon this city that sinks every year, is at the mercy of Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, pumps, levees, city and state politics. They make a valid point, one that I agreed with shortly after the storm. After all, from an engineering perspective, this city shouldn’t be there. But my mind has been changed, mostly by those that live there. After all, we live in an area that is challenged by strong storms, tornadoes, and flash flooding. San Francisco, and for that matter most of California rest on a fault that threatens them constantly, and could strike without warning. Obviously, there are many more examples, none of which we would suggest should be abandoned. New Orleans is a city that is singularly responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, for much of the trade in the central part of the country, and of course is a cultural Mecca that has no equal anywhere. We just cannot turn our backs on this city, just because they suffered this terrible setback.

And yet, that is what worries New Orleanians, now more than ever. They worry that a new storm season will bring other areas into focus and take attention away from their continued plight. After all, we suffer from short attention spans for most things, and new issues take us away from last fall’s news every day. Most experts that are working on the restoration of the city estimate that it will take upwards of ten years to rebuild New Orleans to whatever shape it will eventually take. Ten years and countless billions of dollars.

These are dollars that only the Federal Government can provide. Incidentally, many from New Orleans do not blame Katrina for their misery; they blame the US Army Corps of Engineers. There is a growing sense among many who know these things that the construction of the levees was substandard, inadequate, and that the Corps knew this. If true, our Federal Government must be held accountable. In fact, the vast majority of the damage we saw in the greater New Orleans area was not from storm damage (although it was extensive) but from flood damage…damage caused by the levee failures.

A lot of money has been spent already, and some of it is making its way to New Orleans now, although it is difficult to see much progress. So much more needs to be done, and this is where we come in. We need to do three things. 1) We must strongly encourage our elected officials to visit New Orleans themselves. Only by seeing this city for themselves can they be adequately motivated to do what needs to be done. This was overwhelmingly the most often heard request from New Orleanians. 2) We need to make sure our legislators continue to appropriate the necessary funds to keep the reconstruction going…if we can get them to visit the area, this shouldn’t be hard. 3) We need to keep giving ourselves. Whatever avenue you choose, the URJ disaster relief fund, the Temple’s own Landsman Relief fund, or other legitimate causes, we can’t stop now. This is a long term problem that will take long term commitment to the solution.

This week’s Torah portion is actually a double portion. The first part, read so beautifully by our Hazzan, concerns Yom Kippur. The second portion, Kedoshim, is read also on Yom Kippur afternoon by our past president Mickey Roth. This portion tells us we are a holy people and then goes on to give instructions on how to be a holy people: A re-telling of the Ten Commandments, and a few rules that encourage us to help others, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard’ you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.” And the words you see above the ark, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Let us take these words from our Torah Portion to heart and continue to work together to help our neighbors a little to the East regain the sense of normalcy and wholeness for which we all pray.

Amen

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