Chabad Hurricane Relief

Thursday, September 29, 2005


My Trip to New Orleans - 9/29 9:14 PM

I have not posted for a week, because I spent the last three days in New Orleans. It was an incredible experience.
I arrived in at the New Orleans Airport on Monday, at around 9 AM.
The airport has a quiet feel to it, almost like everyone there is at a funeral. I walked outside, and caught a cab to New Orleans. I asked the driver if he good get us into the city today, and he said "Maybe, we might get lucky."
As we pulled out the airport, I started to get a good look at some of the damage from the storm. Around the airport, you see only the wind damage, and it is substantial. Many roofs have pieces missing, a lot of aluminum roofs are ripped off completely, and there is a gas station with the entire fill up stand fallen on a side. As we drove nearer to Metairie, I saw some stores open, and I went into Walgreens, to buy some supplies for cleaning out the fridge and freezer.
The thing about the Hurricane is that it pervades everything. Even the items that Walgreens displays are hurricane related - lysol, gloves, protective masks, bleach, etc.
We tried to get into New Orleans through Earhart Expressway, but it was closed, so we went down Jefferson Highway. As we passed Ochsner hospital, a line of cars was in the street, waiting to enter New Orleans.
We waited for about 20 minutes on line, and we finally got to the checkpoint. There were four National Guardsmen, waiting at a checkpoint, in the sun. I showed my ID, and the cab went through.
As we crossed into New Orleans, from Metairie, things changed. In Metairie, all the streets are clean, in New Orleans, all the side streets have tree limbs and power lines down, and even the large streets, like Claiborne, have trees lying in the middle of the road.

We pulled up to my house, and I paid the taxi, and walked up to the house. (My house is a raised house, about three feet above grade. However, when I bought the house, I enclosed the garage, and turned it into a sitting room, where I keep my bookcase, couches, and computer. It is accessible down a short stairway, from my front room. The garage is on the level of the outside. I had heard that the level of flooding on my block was low, and I was hopeful that my house had not been flooded.) I opened the door, and was greeted by a very musty smell. I looked to my right and saw a devastating sight. The floor had been flooded, to a level of about 14 inches. The couch, the desk, the recliner, were all covered with mold. For some reason, the books were all lying the middle of the floor, having fallen out of the bookshlef. It was bizzare. I could not understand what happened. Had someone broken in, and knocked the books out? I walked down the stairs, in the choking smell of mold and mildew, and looked and the computer covered with a brown film. The brown film covered everything, and sheets of it extended from furniture piece to furniture piece. As I looked at the bookcase, I realized that, somehow, the floodwater had broken the bookcase, causing all of the exterior shelves to fall out. I looked down and saw my copy of the Book of Shmuel, glued to the side of the computer desk, about 12 feet fromthe bookshelf. Apparently, it fell into the water and floated across the room, where it stayed when the water dried.
The smell of mold was very strong. I walked over to a large pile of fallen books and picked one up. It was called Galuth Melodies, and it is a collection of stories, that my son just started reading. I lost it at that point.
I went into the utility room, which was also flooded. The smell of mildew mixed with the smell of the rotting freezer, and the buzzing of the flies that filled the entire house. I started picking up flooded items from the floor, and a frog leaped out and hopped behind the washing machine.
At this point, I felt cmopletely overwhelmed. I walked outside, and called Sarah, to tell her of the situation. The cellphone service was very spotty, we could not really hear eah other. I walked back inside, and picked up the phone in the kitchen. There was a dial tone!
We had a conversation, in which I described the situation. I told her that I needed stay for a couple days and clean up.
I then went back outside, and got on my bike, and rode toward Tulane. On the way, I called a developer who was helping me with the plans for the New Student Center. He told me that he had a crew that was doing demo and mold remediation in Metairie, and, if they would let him in, he could come to my house tomorrow and do the job there as well. I went to my parents' house and picked up a car that was there.
I spent the rest of the day going to different houses of people in our community, some had bad flooding, others, minor damage.
I then went back to my house and started cleaning up. It was a slow process, and the heat was brutal - there was no AC. Occasionally, I would get back into my car and drive around, just to cool off.
At about 5:30, I was ready to give up. I drove down the block and found one other person, two streets away. He had been in the city for over two weeks, and we talked about cleaning up, water, mold, looting, and other lovely New Orleans topics.
I spent the next day and a half cleaning up the house, removing books and preparing them for burial, and talking to people who were just as devastated as i was. That is the most amazing thing about the area right now. It is as if everyone is attending the same funeral. Everyone has a disaster story. One person lost his entire house, under water to the rafters. Another had business assets destroyed in the flood, with no insurance. I watched a video that someone took of Chalmette, and the images were staggering. An RV with its front two wheels on the rood on someone's house. A chair that floated up to the ceiling and is stuck in the rafters. An entire house caked with mud.
On Wednesday, the day I left, my neighbor, Uzi Kehaty, came back to look at his house. Thank G-d, he had no flooding, but a little wind damage. The night before, Adam and Michele Stross came back, and are staying in their house. They came over to my house on Wednesday, and were staggered by the sight of eight pails filled with ruined Jewish books.
The overwhelming feeling that you get is the sense of chaos in the city. Our cities require a tremendous amount of order. When a city is empty for four weeks, and experiences what New Orleans experience, that order is lost. Asher Barah Elokim La'asos - The Midrash comments "G-d created the world, to be fixed." The world is a place of chaos, and humans impose order on that chaos. When that imposition stops, the chaos comes back. There is a strong metaphor here, somewhere.
The other feeling that hits is when I got back on the plane to New York.
We stopped in Memphis. The plane from New Orleans to Memphis was still the funeral. Everyone was either a New Orleans resident, or a rescue and relief worker. Suddenly, in Memphis, the world went back to normal. Hurricane Katrina was no longer the number one thing on everyone's mind.

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