A Report from New Orleans about the Katrina Aftermath

Monday, September 3, 2007

Dr. William Cutter, Director Emeritus of the Kalsman Institute, HUC-JIR/Los Angeles 

I've just returned from New Orleans. My trip was part of an annual jaunt taken with a couple of friends who just like to get on a train and travel two days to anywhere. This year we decided on a destination with meaning-and that turned out to be an understatement. After clearing our purposes with friends and colleagues from New Orleans-that is, whether one could combine pleasure with the serious business of trying to understand-we set out for a journey that took us to amazing and discouraging sights, but prompted us to think more about hope. One of us is an adopted child of Israel, (that would be me), who has fretted about destruction and public suffering on all sides in the Middle East, (and who has witnessed plenty); another is a refugee from Berlin who has worked there as a prominent culture figure and has lived amidst the remnants of ruined buildings and streets. We have all seen countless pictures of other cities and of New Orleans, and we routinely note the tragedies throughout the world. New Orleans is different. An American city almost wiped out by a natural disaster that it seems possible to have avoided. 

The people we contacted in advance had assured us that visits from people who can help somehow have become a vital part of New Orleans' rehabilitation. Even people being witnesses can be a help, it seems. The city has so far lost 40% of its population, (although new young people appear to be moving in with defiant pioneering spirits), and most people we spoke with crave ongoing connection with folks throughout the U.S. The 15 or so people with whom we met universally praised the work of our healing centers (I know the National Healing Center was prominent), some synagogue groups, alumni associations and especially the Union of Reform Judaism and the United Jewish Communities-the latter two for their early and gracious responses to specific pockets of need. As people there realized what they felt to be the inadequacy of government response, and as they experienced some local embarrassment from some of New Orleans' more piquant traditions, they also realized the strength of the Jewish community when the chips are down. 

We, these three visitors, realized two critical matters that I hadn't expected: the difference between seeing dramatic and painful pictures in the press or in exhibits (as in the Met Museum's extraordinary exhibit last year), and seeing the extent of damage--block after block after block; and that such disasters have staggering implications beyond the straightforward fact of the tragedy: shortage of employees which means businesses have trouble getting up and running, which means business deficits, etc., and so on; the ecological connections: the causes in the wetland crisis, the effects in mold and pollution and illness. The vicious circle of people not coming back because others aren't coming back. The influx of new labor to fill the gaps which may not be absorbable; the increase in domestic violence, the difficulty for disabled people, the needless deaths, the decrease in the size of voluntary groups, and the financial implications for those groups. Secondary implications that don't even make the media--as in the case of the New Orleans Museum of Art where the basement weakened in spite of there being no apparent damage to the building. One could go on and on. 

But it was a privilege to meet and spend time with people of such spirit. 

What spirit has been brought forth, and what appreciation! Prominent surgeon, Kurt Gitter, insists that New Orleans is going to become one of America's greatest cities as its stubborn defiance will rebuild the medical infrastructure. Public Radio executive David Freedman echoes that sense of defiance on behalf of thousands who have New Orleans in their bones, and notes the musical intensity which now is transferred to people's determination. Rabbis Bob Loewy and Andy Busch, and their staffs, who every day face the needs of people who didn't use to be in need; Anne Friedman, our newest partner, who quietly adds assistance to assistance, as only great social workers know how to do. Alice Yelen, museum curator, who helps put together art programs for young people who need outlets to cope with their circumstances, my taxi driver (we hired him twice) who lost only his roof, and as soon as he fixed it went around town helping anyone who needed hammer and nails. I could go on and on, but it would only be indulgent. 

This was a visit to an area being re-born. Anne gave me a book by New Orleans' prominent culture critic Chris Rose entitled "One Dead in Attic" (capturing the laconic notes painted on thousands of houses that described the destiny of their residents). Rose, himself, ranging between despair and love for his place, has become the public chronicler of these two years. 

Everyone in New Orleans agreed that visitors are welcome. Visitors who are part of organized helping missions are even more welcome (they keep coming and they are constantly needed when properly deployed). People spend time with you in gracious New Orleans' fashion. 

I still can't believe what people have gone through; how friends and colleagues who were evacuated had to sit on their hands not knowing that -- when they returned -- their homes would be underwater, their walls destroyed, their streets putrefying. Or how difficult it has been for some who happened to "miss the bullet" to return and be amidst friend and family who have suffered so. 

On Friday, my 7:30 flight was cancelled. The airlines are always bad in such circumstances; in New Orleans, with less person power, and because of other factors, the chaos is almost indescribable. But, as I fidgeted and maneuvered my way onto a series of flights that would finally get me home before Shabbat, I smiled at having nearly missed one of the great lessons I almost didn't learn from these three days. Readiness is more than being prepared for an earthquake or a hurricane or even a flood. Readiness is a human condition that makes us network, makes us be grateful for our strength, that makes us appreciate our ability to recover and to help others recover from the losses that are part of our way. 


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu