What did we learn from Issac?
Last week we endured another challenge to our lives as members of a stubborn community that has for hundreds of years clung to an unusual bend in the Mississippi River. Certainly, there have been many other threats before to our way of life. In the early days of New Orleans fires, famine and yellow fever outbreaks thinned the ranks of our citizenry and made life difficult, to say the least. We learned to rebuild, to stay strong and to persevere in the face of such challenges. Eventually, we established capable fire departments, provided for each other’s sustenance and learned from scientists how to avoid disease. But through it all were hurricanes. They were a constant threat to our way of life and one we could not avoid. A string of natural barrier islands stood as a first line of defense against tidal surges and the heavy winds associated with tropical weather systems. Direct hits from Audrey, Betsy, Camille, Katrina and others have broken those natural barriers to such an extent that there is little resistance left to impede the progress of nature’s most costly disasters. We know this and yet we so love what our charming and unique community offers that we stay and deal with what Mother Nature has to throw our way.
In the case of Issac it was the slow progress of a huge weather system that refused to make landfall and hovered at the mouth of the Mississippi and dumped torrents upon us. Issac brought over 20 inches of rain to Uptown New Orleans, which tested our ability to adequately pump out the continual downpour, but the good news was that the $14.5 billion dollars of federal levees constructed after Hurricane Katrina performed better than expected. There were no breaches and flooding within that system. We all breathed a sigh of relief there. Those outside of the federal system such as in Lafitte or Laplace were not so lucky.
Above ground poles have long been the standard method of delivering power, phones and cable TV to area homes and businesses. Below ground systems have never been deemed practical because of a number of factors including water seepage and the high cost of laying underground conduit in an area that is largely below sea level. We have long admired our beautiful live oaks along stately St. Charles Avenue, for example, but we did not suspect that they and other stands of trees could present a hidden threat to those poles and the lines they carry. The constant movement of swaying tree limbs very effectively sliced through the power lines and cables and powerful winds toppled poles, leaving nearly three-quarters of a million individuals without power and other services. For those without generators the wait to have power restored seemed interminably long as they sweltered in the heat in the days that followed the storm’s passage.
Unlike the city’s response of mandatory evacuations for Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav in 2005 and 2008, respectively, Orleans and Jefferson Parish officials urged citizens to stay at home and deal with what was essentially a category one, minimally strong storm. For those individuals with young children, who were aged or simply not up to the challenge, evacuation for a few days was an obvious first choice. What those that stayed and those that returned had not expected was a slow response from Entergy and Cleco, the local power companies, and Cox Cable and AT&T. In some cases bundled services meant no TV, no Internet and no phone. Couple that with a lack of air conditioning and spoiled food and most of us were downright miserable.
So, a week later as repairs are still being made and power still being restored to some of our neighbors, we should ask: what have we learned? We now know we are safer today than we were seven years ago when Katrina made her way through the city. That should give us pause. We learned as a people that we are made of stronger stuff than that we imagined. With few exceptions there were no outbreaks of crime. When we found out someone was in need, we gave them assistance and we coped with our own circumstance, no matter our discomfort. Several members of the Jewish community were in harm’s way, but they were rescued and their progress monitored by their own synagogues. With the exception of Congregation Anshe Sfard, all synagogues and Chabad Lubavitch centers held religious services on the immediate Shabbat after the storm. Shir Chadash Conservative Synagogue even managed to put on an abridged Bar Mitzvah. Kosher Cajun lost a significant amount of kosher perishables to a lack of power, but like Casablanca Restaurant, which suffered roof damage and water intrusion, was back up and running this week. We also know – despite significant losses – we have been tested as a people and that we have pulled through again as a shining example for all the world to see. That should make all of us – Jews and Gentliles – justly proud.