Contribution, September 25, 2006
Its a story of my experience. I have the stories of the experiences of others if you are interested, as well as images.
Object Type: Online Text
Contribution, September 25, 2006
During the 2005 summer, I had been working on a research fellowship at the American Jewish Historical Society (Lapidus Fellowship) to do preliminary research for my doctoral studies at Tulane University in New Orleans. My studies at Tulane University are on the preservation of historic Jewish sites, and the Gulf Coast area had been my laboratory of study. It was late August, and I was visiting with my family in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I heard that a hurricane named Katrina had passed through Florida and was headed across the Gulf of Mexico for the Louisiana coast. I was concerned, but didn’t think much of it at first. The previous year I had evacuate New Orleans because of hurricane Ivan, and had started to become accustomed to the routine of hurricane evacuation. I figured that if I had to, I would once again evacuate to Austin, Texas, where I friends that I could stay with. My flight from Detroit to New Orleans was scheduled for August 30th.
Come August 28th, I checked the news and learned that hurricane Katrina had swelled into a Category 5 Storm and that it was headed straight for New Orleans. The predicted damage was expected to be catastrophic. The events of August 29th came and went while I watched in horror from the TV in Ann Arbor. That evening I was at a loss what to do because the place that I had considered home for the past couple of years was under a lot of water from the broken levies. The coming semester was supposed to be very important to my academic career: I was going to finish the last of my required courses, teach my first class on the architectural history of the synagogue, and get myself organized for my comprehensive exams. While this was taking place, Lori (my then fiancé) and I were planning out wedding in Montreal. With the hurricane all of our future plans went whirling into the unknown.
As the first week past by, Lori and I began to reorganize our lives. Lori was able to get a job at the University of Michigan Hillel in Ann Arbor and reenrolled at the University of Michigan to take last my classes (I had done my Masters Degree at University of Michigan) for my Tulane University program. A history professor from Tulane University, Dr. Lawrence Powell, was invited to the University of Michigan as a guest professor for the semester, and I was invited to be his Teaching Assistant. For the semester, we ‘winged’ and designed a class on the history of New Orleans and the affects of hurricane Katrina – it was an interesting experience! I was also invited to give a guest lecture presentation at the Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation program on how hurricane Katrina had affected the historic buildings on the Gulf Coast.
While this was taking place, I was able to renegotiate a contract that I had with Arcadia Publishing. Prior to the hurricane, I had agreed to do a pictorial history book on the Garden District and Uptown neighborhoods of New Orleans. Because of the hurricane, I was unable to commence research for this book. In its place, I was able to do a pictorial history book on The Jewish Community of Metro Detroit, 1945-2005. The book was completed in March 2006 and became my first publication.
September turned into October, and October in November, I was slowly able to reconnect with my friends, colleagues, and fellow New Orleanian Jewish community members. To my amazement, we had been scattered all over the place; from rural Louisiana and Florida; to Ithaca, New York; Toronto, Canada; London, England; Jerusalem, Israel. We were able to reconnect and share our stories by internet blogs, e-mail, cell phone numbers, and good old southern-style Jewish gossip. These networks proved very effective in keeping everyone in touch with one another.
The only hard feelings I feel from this period was not towards what happened (because natural disasters happen), but how the situation fell through cracks with refugee situation of New Orleans. I have my ill feelings toward FEMA and the Louisiana State government, but my biggest hurt is with the United Jewish Communities (The Federation system). A few weeks after hurricane Katrina, I received a phone call from the local Federation in regards to fundraising being done for victims of hurricane Katrina. I was, of course, asked if I could donate money. I responded by saying that I had nothing to give, and that I was indeed a victim of hurricane Katrina with only the suitcase of clothes and laptop computer that I had with me. (At this time, Tulane University had laid me off from my position as an Adjunct Professor, which was my source of financial support there) I then asked the caller from the Federation if they could help me. They responded that they were unable to… but before hanging up pursued to hit me up one more time for a donation. Since I was a college student and not at the moment physically in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Texas, I was not eligible for FEMA financial assistance either. While I have worked a few part time positions, a year later I am still searching for stable employment related to my educational and career background. Later in November, I attended the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Toronto… partially to search for a job and partially to learn more about what was taking place in regards to the Federation’s response to hurricane Katrina. While there, I attended the plenary session on hurricane Katrina. I found the session was primarily an opportunity for a panel of Federation executives to boast and pat themselves on the back about the great job they were doing for the victims of hurricane Katrina (and I admit that they had raised a lot of money). During the session, I approached the microphone to ask the panel my question, which was:
“As you may already know, Tulane University is expecting to reopen in January, and with it will return approximately 10,000 students, faculty, and staff to New Orleans. Tulane University is presently 25% Jewish, which equals approximately 2,500 Jews will be returning to New Orleans. There is presently a shortage of housing and food in New Orleans. Has the Federation taken this into consideration of how it may be of assistance to this surge of people coming back to New Orleans, especially the possibility of a few thousand Jews?”
The panel was stunned and couldn’t give me a direct answer to my question.
While Lori was working at UM Hillel, we got word that Hillel International was organizing an Alternative Break program (for winter and spring) for Jewish college students to volunteer in the rebuilding efforts on the Gulf Coast. I was soon recruited by the UM Hillel to lead the UM contingent, which paid for my flight to the Gulf Coast in December 2005, the first time I had been back since the hurricane. I was able to arrive in New Orleans several days ahead of everyone else in order to inspect my apartment and salvage what I could. To my surprise, my first floor apartment was on higher ground and had not been flooded; though much cleaning had to be done from mold, mildew, and dead bugs. After a day and $500 at the mechanic shop, I was even able to get my car working again, but with a large dent on the roof from where a tree branch had fallen on it. While I was wrapping up my business in New Orleans, I was able to assess the situation of the New Orleans Jewish community. The congregation I belonged to and was on the executive board, Anshe Sfard, had been completed dispersed, but the building had been built on high ground in the Garden District and remained in tact. A thief had broken into the building a stole the microwave from the kitchen, but strangely left the Torah scrolls and other important ritual artifacts in place. There was also wind damage to the building that caused a leak in the roof and water damage. There is also evidence of termites. As far as I know, this building has still not been repaired a year later. The building was built in 1926 and is listed as a historic building in the Garden District historic district. I also saw the ruins of Beth Israel, Gates of Prayer, and Shir Chadash synagogues and gave some assistance to Chabad’s efforts to properly bury the destroyed Torah scrolls and prayer books. Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue seem to have weathered the hurricane with only minor damage, which I saw being repaired. After speaking with my Jewish friends and community members, I learned about their sad stories and how hard times had been for them. Many spoke of leaving, which is why I believe that New Orleans will lose 50% or more of its Jewish population. Sadly, of all the people I talked to, no one had received or expected to receive financial assistance from the Jewish Federation. To this day I wonder, what happened to all the money they boasted that they had raised?
It was January 1, 2006, and I left New Orleans for Gulfport, Mississippi to meet up with my UM Hillel students who were coming down to do volunteer work. We stayed at the Westminster Presbyterian Church with all of the other Hillel students from across the US and Canada. Feeling a sense of belonging with the Gulf Coast area, I was very touched by the show of support from the Hillel college students. Also to my surprise, was the appearance of Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who was on the Hillel staff to provide kashrut supervision and spiritual guidance. For the following week we all worked together to re-roof houses that had been damaged by the hurricane in the Biloxi area. The Hillel college students became heroes for a week, and I had an exciting moment on the 6:00pm WILX Biloxi evening news as a quasi-local who had come back to lead a bunch of college students to volunteer in the rebuilding effort. During that week, I was also able to survey the damage to the synagogues in Biloxi and Hattiesberg, as well as the oldest Jewish cemetery in Mississippi (in Biloxi) – not one stone remains in place in the cemetery. I had been familiar with these Jewish communities due to my studies, connections, and residence at Tulane University in New Orleans. While it was very depressing to see the destruction, I had an amazing time working with the UM Hillel volunteers and learning from Rabbi Greenberg.
After I returned to Ann Arbor from New Orleans and Biloxi, I heard that the Southern Jewish Historical Society was organizing a conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. I knew Stuart Rockoff, the organizer of the conference from prior correspondences on Jewish history topics in the South, and suggested to him a session on the effects of hurricane Katrina on Jewish life in the South. He liked the idea, and since I have acquired a more formal approach to studying the affects of hurricane Katrina on Southern Jewish life.
Since I moved away from New Orleans, I do travel back on occasion to meet with my professors at Tulane University as I continue with my doctoral studies in historic preservation. Lori and I were married in Montreal in November of 2005. While I hold a fond place for New Orleans in my heart, I don’t think that I could ever live there again because it will not be in my mind what I once remember it to be (especially Jewish life).
Anonymous, "Contribution, September 25, 2006." Katrina's Jewish Voices, Object #308 (February 22 2017, 1:46 am)