Seeking Insight Five Years after Katrina: My Trip to New Orleans with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Seeking Insight Five Years after Katrina: My Trip to New Orleans with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

By Suzy Stone, Rabbinical Student, HUC-JIR/Los Angeles

As many of you know, this is the fifth year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  With that in mind, many Jewish organizations have descended upon New Orleans with the hope of understanding what life in the Big Easy looks like five years after the fact. In part, this was the goal of the Religious Action Center’s (RAC) Commission on Social Action (CSA), which met in New Orleans from October 23-26, 2010.

As student representatives from HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, Jordana Chernow-Reader and I had the unique opportunity to be a part of this amazing group. The CSA is comprised of approximately sixty lay leaders, rabbis, and organizational affiliates from across the Reform Movement. We were led by Rabbi David Saperstein, Associate Director Mark Pelavin, Chairperson Dr. Cheryl Gutmann, Legislative Director Barbara Weinstein, and a whole host of other RAC staff and legislative assistants.

As a part of the Commission for Social Action we had the privilege of meeting with top government officials, national non-profit organizations, and local community organizing activists, as well as journalists, scientists, and academics from many different fields. In addition to educating ourselves on the key issues facing the Gulf Coast, we spent time in committees working on resolutions geared at addressing some of the more pressing social justice issues facing America as a whole.  Part of the CSA’s role is to create and draft resolutions that will later be proposed to the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) at the upcoming biennial.  Some of the issues we faced as a Commission during this trip included a resolution on ethical consumer credit lending practices, supporting the notion of on-going Middle East Peace talks, supporting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as well as others.


Here are a few highlights from our trip:

The BP Oil Spill:

  • While I knew that Hurricane Katrina had affected New Orleans in distressing ways, I did not realize how devastating the BP oil spill had been on the lives of New Orleanians.  Almost seven months after the disaster, the residents and activists that we spoke with made it very clear that the long-term effects of the oil spill were going to have a much more harmful, and long-term impact on the environment and the economy than Katrina ever had.
  • Our first speaker at the CSA was Admiral Roy Nash, who was the on-site coordinator and liaison between the U.S. Coast Guard and BP.  He reminded us that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill started after an explosion on the rig on April 20, 2010.  While the U.S. Coast Guard was able to save 118 lives, 17 others were injured and 11 people were left dead from the explosion.  Besides the human tragedy, however, Admiral Nash was hopeful about the recovery efforts. He explained all the different ways in which the Coast Guard helped limit the span of the oil spill through techniques such as skimming, burning the oil on the surface of the ocean, using containment booms to keep the oil located in one area, etc.  That being said he commented that the oil spill was a “$10-11 billion mistake.”  The spill was finally capped on July 15th and it was not officially sealed until September 19, 2010.
  • According to Mark Schleifstein, writer for the New Orleans Time-Picayune, the BP Oil Spill is 7-10 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. Scientists are still discovering the environmental impact from the Exxon Valdez spill which took place nearly 20 years ago.


Cancer Alley

  • Long-time environmental activist Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club brought us to a region in New Orleans known as Cancer Alley.  This region refers to a corridor of concentrated oil and gas refineries, which span the 85 miles from New Orleans to the capital in Baton Rouge. This area was coined “cancer alley” in the late 80’s because of the increased rate of cancer among its citizens.  In the late 80’s, the issue became obvious when 15 people were diagnosed with cancer all of whom lived within two blocks of a refinery.  Since then, the Centers for Disease Control report that Louisiana has the second highest rate of cancer in the United States. 
  • Over and over again we kept hearing that the environmental problems in New Orleans are America’s problems.  For example, 30% of all domestic gas purchased in the United States comes from Cancer Alley and 50% of the United State’s oil refinery ability comes from Louisiana.  Furthermore, 30% of all domestic seafood comes from New Orleans Parish and 41% of all U.S. water (as well as waste) drains into the Mississippi.
  • Patty Whitney, a community organizer for Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, reported that Thomas Jefferson once said that whoever “controls the Mississippi controls the entire continent.”


Katrina Recovery

  • Did you know that while Katrina has become synonymous with the Big Easy, that hurricane Rita, Gustav, and Ike had a more devastating effect on most of New Orleans and the outlying areas?  For example, Hurricane Gustav hit 4/5ths of the structures in Terrebonne and LaFourche Parishes when Katrina had hardly touched any of them.  And when Hurricane Ike was arriving, people were rebuilding their homes and did not even have radios to let them know that Ike was coming.
  • For New Orleans, the biggest damage was done when almost 100 levees broke after Hurricane Katrina.  While the 9th Ward has gotten much press attention for being neglected during and after Katrina, St. Bernard’s neighborhood in the 7th ward is so underserved that it has not even got the same media attention for being underserved.  If there is one organization out of the many that made an impact on me during this trip…this was the one.
  • Last year alone, 90,000 out of 220,000 people in Terrebonne and La Fourche Parish applied for food bank assistance.


Suzy Stone is a fourth-year Rabbinical Student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Originally from Minneapolis, MN, she received her B.A. from Brandeis University. She is currently working as a rabbinic intern at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles working on community organizing. In addition to serving as a student representative on the RAC’s Commission on Social Action she is also a Wexner Graduate Fellow.


Helpful Online Resources:

The Oil Spill

Cancer Ally Activism

Gulf Coast Activism

Katrina Recovery


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve 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 Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, 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.