It’s been two and a half years since Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans a thriving city, full of life and music, into a ghost town. Just imagine your hometown being hit by a hurricane and the damage lingering for years. Your neighbors are long gone, the grocery stores and gas stations are closed, the enrollment at your child’s Jewish day school is down by 50 percent, and the FEMA trailer you were given as temporary shelter (which you still call home) has made you sick from the formaldehyde in its construction. Welcome to New Orleans January ‘008.
Life is at a standstill. You stare into miles and miles of devastation. Six Flags sits as an abandoned steel structure. Houses are roofless, many toppled off their foundations. Weeds cover debris, pools are still filled with filthy water (the houses they sat behind are gone), ballfields stare back empty and unusable, parks are barren of children and families.
Everybody’s heard of the Ninth Ward, which was featured on the news, but devastation is everywhere. The homeless live in hundreds of tents under highways, go to work, and find their way to volunteer food banks that serve thousands of meals a week. You can see the void where houses stood and neighborhoods thrived and families lived and worked together for generations. Many who fled have relocated elsewhere.
Rebuilding continues with local grassroots volunteer efforts and volunteers from other communities. For any project that contributes to rebuilding, every willing hand is welcome and needed.
I was there last week, and though saddened by whatever I saw, I was exhilarated by the opportunity to make a difference in this troubled place and by the energy of other volunteers.
My 18-year-old son Michael and I joined UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s mission to New Orleans on Jan. ‘0. We were in fact part of NOLA Klene Up Krewe 3, the largest of UJA-NNJ’s efforts so far, with 35 participants, 11 from the JCC of Paramus, and with good representation from Wayne, Wyckoff, Mahwah, Oakland, Paramus, Hackensack, Oradell, Tenafly, and Monroe Township. Nine teens rounded off the group.
Two UJA-NNJ Berrie Fellows, David Goodman of Paramus and Larry Weiss of Wyckoff, have spearheaded the three missions, with help from Stuart Himmelfarb of Tenafly, UJA-NNJ’s chief marketing officer and director of its Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, who was a mission participant. The trio sadly report the general lack of progress in New Orleans, even from their previous mission, in May.
There are signs of hope, though, and the stories that residents share are inspiring as is their appreciation for volunteers who come to help.
The Reform synagogue made famous by its damaged Torahs being carried out in a canoe is open with six new donated Torahs, the last by a bar mitzvah boy we met from Potamic, Md., who with his family joined us on a tour of affected neighborhoods. (The water-soaked Torahs could not be repaired and have been buried according to Jewish law.)
Bourbon Street is up and running and the Mardi Gras paraders have been practicing for their big celebration next week. But so much is needed, still, and will be for decades to come. For information on how to help, e-mail Himmelfarb at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jennifer Samuels, volunteer coordinator for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, at email@example.com