Jewish New Orleans community rebounds five years after Katrina

(Editor’s note: The following article was run as a first-person piece in the Cleveland Jewish News in 2010 on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.)

Five years have come and gone since the debacle that was Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. While the bowl of the city filled with water and chaos ran supreme at places like the Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center, I found myself in Cleveland, a tourist turned accidental refugee.

I did then what I do now. I wrote about my experiences and that CJN cover story led to my eventual hire as a staff reporter a few weeks later by former editor Cynthia Dettelbach and former CEO Rob Certner. In short order I became an erstwhile member of the Cleveland Jewish community, covering events and conducting interviews while still keeping one eye on New Orleans as it struggled to recover.

The first year for the dispersed Jewish community was the hardest. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services were held in Houston, Atlanta and Baton Rouge by members of the New Orleans rabbinate for the benefit of displaced families there. Every synagogue in New Orleans suffered physical damages and losses due to high winds or high water. My synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel in Lakeview, was so badly damaged from floodwaters from the nearby breached 17th Street Canal that it lost seven Torah scrolls, thousands of prayer books and, given its small numbers and older demographics by observers, was deemed a likely total loss.

Elderly residents of nursing homes overcome by stress or having to deal with inhuman conditions succumbed to a variety of illnesses. Those that were stronger relocated to other cities where, surprisingly, many of them still remain today.

Immediately after the storm the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans was relocated to Houston and later to Baton Rouge before returning to its flood-damaged building in the Metairie area. Several key Federation figures, including the executive director, opted to find new positions in other less stressful areas and the search was on to find replacements up to the herculean challenges.

I continued to write for the CJN, but began to make frequent trips down to New Orleans as I began to oversee the remediation of my home and to take part in family and other social events. My mother had lived with my sister Arlene Weider in Solon for a short while, but had steadfastly returned to her uptown home by Thanksgiving.

My son, a sophomore at the University of Kansas and the master of the Alpha Epsilon Pi house there, became so distraught over the conditions in his hometown that he left the university and lived with my sister and brother-in-law for five months before he, too, moved back to New Orleans to continue his studies at Tulane University.

Throughout this period the infrastructure of the city improved. Levees were shored up, gas lines were repaired and electrical service was restored. At first estimate only 80,000 of the estimated pre-storm 450,000 people remained in New Orleans, but eventually that figure began to rise.

A master plan for revitalizing the Jewish community in New Orleans began to take shape in that second year and a new executive director, Michael Weil, was chosen to steer the Federation during this period of recovery. Slowly, the residents began to return in more and more impressive numbers.

CJN readers learned of the commitment of local efforts to help the beleaguered Jewish community hurt by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita with literal truckloads of goods shipped by Temple Israel Ner Tamid to those that needed it most. Like thousands of Jews nationwide, Clevelanders contributed to emergency funds and read of organizations like the United Jewish Communities (now the Jewish Federations of North America or JFNA), the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Orthodox Union, who provided much-needed relief.

The second year seemed to be the turnaround for the New Orleans community as the Jewish Endowment Fund dispersed monies to local Jewish institutions and a newcomers’ initiative program was unveiled by the Federation. People moving to New Orleans to help with the ongoing recovery effort would receive compensation and assistance in a variety of attractive packages.

And the people came. Cleveland Jewish educator Naomi Chase was among hundreds of professionals and committed volunteers who saw opportunities to teach and rebuild the fractured Jewish community and the larger general community in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. She served as the education director for Conservative Synagogue Shir Chadash and as the Judaic Studies director for the New Orleans Jewish Day School.

Rabbi Myrna Matsa was dispatched by the JFNA to offer pastoral and trauma counseling to affected families and to improve relations between religious communities in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Her initial two-year posting has stretched into five years now. Just last month the Forward newspaper announced her as one of the Sisterhood, a listing of the nation’s 50 most influential women rabbis.

Speaking of influential rabbis, Rabbi Uri Topolosky was hired by Congregation Beth Israel to help rebuild the Orthodox synagogue. Prior to Hurricane Katrina it was the only synagogue that had a daily minyan in New Orleans. It still does not.  However, through his efforts and the work of the Board of Directors on which I serve, the synagogue rented space from Reform synagogue Gates of Prayer for the last three years and is now in the midst of an ambitious $3-million rebuilding campaign and construction of a new shul on adjacent property there in Metairie.

In that second year I returned home to write for the Deep South Jewish News as its New Orleans editor and I wrote articles in the third and fourth years of recovery, even describing my evacuation from the city when Hurricane Gustav hit in 2008 for CJN readers (CJN, September 5, 2008).

While the population of Jewish New Orleans is still at best only 80 percent of what it was prior to the storms five years ago, the numbers of younger people involved in worship services and in the local community has blossomed. Many of these professionals are starting families and are committed to sustaining the local economy, now showing signs of sagging with the loss of construction jobs.

Five years have produced great changes in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. Mississippi casinos are now housed in permanent edifices of glass and brick and business there has never been brisker.

On the political side embattled mayor C. Ray Nagin has been replaced by Mitch Landrieu, the brother of U. S. Senator Mary Landrieu and the son of a former mayor. Mayor Landrieu has offered promise to all factions in the city, reaching out as he has struggled to balance the budget during his short term in office.

Perhaps most important psychologically is that the New Orleans Saints are world champions. Perennial losers for much of their history, the football team, whose rabid fans at the height of their anguish once wore paper bags and begrudgingly called them the “Aints,” are still basking in the glow of their win over the Indianapolis Colts in Superbowl XLIV.

I was among the thousands of joyful citizens who flocked to the French Quarter to celebrate the win in Miami on February 7. It was a sign that we had recovered. As President Obama acknowledged only two weeks ago when the team arrived at the White House, the Saints have become America’s team, serving as an example that from the ashes of despair can arise the hope of tomorrow’s champions.

CJN readers will note that the Deepwater Explorer disaster has recently refocused the nation’s attention on the fragile ecosystem and the Louisiana estuaries affected by the British Petroleum leak in the last several months. Monumental efforts have now resulted in the well being capped, but the loss of income for some businesses due to the leaking oil has been especially tough and whether they will survive is still dubious. It has been estimated that one-third of all the nation’s seafood is caught off the Louisiana coastline and the moratorium on new deepwater oil exploration threatens to idle even more workers.

Meanwhile, other studies suggest as much as 80 percent of the oil is still lurking beneath the Gulf of Mexico waters. So the cleanup campaign by B.P. and its effect on the local economy will continue for many years to come.

Indeed, a lot has happened in New Orleans over the past five years, most of it positive in the wake of the tragedy that claimed over 1,500 lives and forever changed the city known as the birthplace of jazz and for its unique celebration of Mardi Gras.

Members of the Cleveland Jewish community have been among my most faithful and ardent supporters and I wish to thank them for all they have done in the past. My time spent working as a staff reporter, IT adviser and web producer will always be among my most treasured and I look forward to continuing my association with the CJN through the next five years. L’Shana Tovah.

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