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October 24, 2014 | 30th Tishrei 5775

My Visit to New Orleans

By Ruth Rosenstein
When I arrived in NO last Monday, I waited a few minutes for the airport shuttle to arrive...the driver immediately apologized to the group, some of whom may have been waiting much longer than me. He said that his company used to have 110 drivers, but now there are only 8--this was just the beginning of my experience.....

The driver went on to narrate for 1-1/2 hours as he dropped off each rider, i went on to learn that only 60% of traffic lights were working, fast food restaurants cant open because there are no employees because there is no place for the employees to live, there is almost no police protection and no protection at all in certain areas, no or erratic trash pickup, very few drugstores and groceries are open , there is only 1st class mail delivery which is erratic—no magazines or catalogs, the streets are piled with debris for miles and miles and miles, many trees are down and uprooted, and there is nothing but dead trees and shrubs wherever there was flooding, and watermarks at 6 feet high tell the story of what happened in that city last august when the levees broke…..it may have happened 7 months ago, but the area is still in a state of crisis, but you don’t see it so much in the headlines anymore, and sometimes it may even feel like old news….UNLESS, you have seen it firsthand ---one picture of a roofless house tells nothing, even 50 pictures, until you see the extent of the damage, and until you realize how every nuance of everyday life is affected—malls are closed and in ruin, evidence of looting is everywhere ,and 22 people are running for mayor ….and that watermark is everywhere, with this X on every house to indicate that the house has been searched for animals, bodies, gasleaks….it looks like what a war zone must look like….

I went on the URJ mission to see how I could help….they organized a very busy itinerary for 28 of us to meet with community leaders, both jewish and non-jewish, to learn their concerns and needs, and to see the 4 reform temples affected, 3 in NO and one in Mandeville, a new congregation in an upscale community on the north side of lake Pontchartrain…..The history of the jewish community in the area dates back to 1797…they seem to be a very tight community, and I really felt connected to them….they greeted us as mishpuchah (pronounced with a southern drawl) and I observed their strength and courage as I listened to the many speakers who came to greet us, and thank us for coming, and they all had the same message…..tell our story, tell that we need help, don’t let us be forgotten…..

Over and over I heard how the people helped each other, and then went home to their own personal crisis….many who returned are living in FEMA trailers (those will be taken away soon) and where will those that want to stay and rebuild live?? Many still have not heard from insurance companies……many jews refused assistance…they said we give charity, we don’t take it, until their rabbis told them that they must take help, even the rabbis were taking foodstamps….

We visited the upper middle class community of lakeview…apparently the forces of Hurricane Katrina rendered equal-opportunity devastation to all…..and we also visited the 9th ward, an area that received the most media coverage and was a poverty-stricken area that is now decimated. The 9th ward was just reopened, but lakeview had many fema trailers on the streets, a sign that residents are returning. However, a number return and then realize they cant stay—there are no schools for their children, or no community services. Where does one begin to rebuild?

We visited an historical Black community in New Orleans, and met with the members of a com’y action group there. They are working on a house that they want to renovate for volunteers to stay in, and thereby let returnees move in to the permanent housing that is now occupied by volunteers…Returnees cant move in to their own homes—they have to be renovated and decontaminated from the mold that has grown. People who have habitable homes are sharing their space, but others are renting out space at astronomical costs—rent gouging….

Hotel rooms are scarce because like everything else, there is no one to work in the hotels, hotels cant be repaired because the flood tables are late being issued—so insurance cant be issued because the codes for construction cant be defined without those tables….hotel rooms are occupied by workers and volunteers, and these are really too expensive to expect more volunteers to come down.

Anyone and everyone can help. My own son Amos spent spring break in Houma, 1-1/2 hors SW of New Orleans in the Delta, a Cajun stronghold. He helped to reside two homes that people were living in. Imagine how good he must have felt, to see the immediate benefit of his help. I am very proud of him….Now, what can we do??? Debbie and I hope to meet with the Social Action Committee here, and brainstorm with them. Letters need to be written to our congressmen and president, to make certain that money is allocated for the long run. We will also send items to the local newspapers to report on what we have seen. Donations to the URJ have been very wisely appropriated. I observed checks being given to the temples, and to a credit union that works in Central City, another poverty area. As jews we are responsible for each other, but we can also help anyone in need of help.. These grants of money provide the hope that these communities need to begin to rebuild, which is a very long road….The URJ used two funds, a dedicated hurricane relief fund and the SOS fund, which helped synagogues cover uninsured claims. This is just the beginning of the road to rebuilding New Orleans.

What can be done?? We have many ideas and are looking for more creative ways to help the recovery. New Orleans WILL be rebuilt. The courage is there, the desire is there, and the indomitable will of the jewish people is alive and well.

Lastly, we have copies here of a prayer for the victims of Hurricane Katrina that can be added to our Passover prayers, another situation that we cannot forget.

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