Category Archives: Hurricane Katrina

Gutting it Out in NOLA

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Our second and final day of work has finished – our respective groups came very close to finishing the gutting of our two houses in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. This was a true workout – using crowbars, hammers, sledgehammers, and sometimes just our own hands to peel off moldy drywall, haul out household possessions, and strip the houses down to their wooden skeletons. The pics above and below gives you some idea of what the work looked like. The second pic down shows the final product: nothing left but the wooden studs. By the end of the day, we were exhausted, sore and bathed in sweat, but all of us were filled with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. (Who knew that slamming a sledgehammer into old drywall could be so therapeutic?)

When we finished, each of us wrote our names and a message on the wooden interior frame (see the second pic from the bottom) before closing out with a short prayer. That’s me and JRC member Jerry Herst in the bottom pic. If you look over our heads, you’ll see a makeshift street sign. That’s right, our house was on Hope Street…

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Home This Was

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Just ended Day 2 of JRC’s Tikkun New Orleans journey – I think our entire group would agree that it’s already been an intense and powerful experience for all concerned. We arrived in NOLA yesterday morning and spent the day visiting various institutions, meeting with leaders who have been on the front line of the post-Katrina efforts. This included a Les Hirsch, President and CEO of Touro Infirmary – a major NOLA hospital that successfully evacuated hundreds of patients after the hurricane. (Amazingly, Mr. Hirsch took over the job at the hospital only one week before Katrina hit.) We also visited Tulane University and were hosted for dinner at the venerable Touro Synagogue. All along the way, we heard from community leaders who had compelling and often inspiring stories to tell about they navigated through the crisis and were helping to spearhead the ongoing relief efforts in their hometown.

During the afternoon, we also had the sad opportunity to tour the more devastated areas of the city, including the Lower Ninth Ward, which was completely decimated after the levees broke. Touring this area, it was difficult to fathom that these neighborhoods were actual, living, breathing communities just two years ago. Just miles and miles of overgrowth, dotted with foundation slabs, concrete stairs leading to nowhere, and utterly destroyed homes. I took the above picture yesterday – I believe the graffiti says it all.

Today was a working day – courtesy of the wonderful, devoted folks at the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry. We split into two groups and set to work gutting two homes in the Gentilly neighborhood in the Seventh Ward. This once solidly middle class neighborhood was hard hit by Katrina and whole sections of this part of town are still largely abandoned. We donned our Tyvek suits, strapped on fask masks, grabbed implements of demolition, and set to work gutting the homes. (See the pix below). Lots of sledgehammering of moldy, rotting dry wall and hauling debris out to dumpsters. The intent is to eventually strip these homes down to the wood studs to prepare them for eventual rehab.

During the course of the day, we had the opportunity to speak with residents of the neighborhood and hear their stories. One of the things you learn quickly in post-Katrina New Orleans is that everyone has a story to tell. We’re discovering that a big part of our job here is simply to listen and bear witness. In this day and age of 24 hour news cycles, short media attention spans and crises du jour, we too often allow ourselves to move on to the next big story. But for the citizens of New Orleans, the story isn’t over by a longshot.

In listening to these stories, we have experienced a myriad of emotions: frustration, anger, sadness, wonder – but in the end, the most notable reaction for us has been inspiration. It is impossible to spend any time at all with the citizens of New Orleans and not be moved by their fierce and passionate devotion to their home community. Though this city has been abandoned by any number of government institutions – and though the ongoing volunteer relief effort is an inspiring story in its own right – it’s clear to me that the true heroes of New Orleans are those who have decided to stay and fight for the future of their city.

There’s much more to say, obviously. In the meantime (to quote Paul Simon) tomorrow’s gonnna be another working day and I’m trying to get some rest…

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Tikkun New Orleans

new_orleans_sign.jpgMy next few posts will come from New Orleans, where I’ll be accompanying 33 JRC members on a service project we’ve dubbed “Tikkun New Orleans.” Over the next five days, our delegation will witness the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina first hand, learn more about the heroic efforts taking place on the ground, and personally participate in a rehab project in an East New Orleans neighborhood. Together, we will enter a home that has been closed since the day after Katrina, go inside, clear it out completely, and strip it down to its very studs to prepare it for eventual rehabbing.

Today, in preparation for our journey, we showed Spike Lee’s devastating Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke” at our congregation. Just breathtaking. By any standard, our nation’s abandonment of the Gulf can only be called a national disgrace. Two years after Katrina, more than half of New Orleans remains devastated. Whole neighborhoods stand as abandoned as they were the day the water’s receded. A third of its pre-Katrina residents have relocated. Other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi are still struggling to get to their feet. On a local, state and federal level, the betrayal of these communities has been simply staggering.

As has been widely reported, the only real post-Katrina relief efforts taking place in the Gulf region are coming at at the hands of volunteer agencies and religious organizations. I’m enormously proud that JRC is participating in this relief effort that is now entering its third year – and I look forward to sharing our experiences with you during the coming week. Please stay tuned…

Parashat Bo 5767

hurricane.jpg“And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” — Exodus 12:13

Why does God need the Israelites to mark the doorposts of their houses with blood? Being omniscient, wouldn’t God automatically know the difference between an Israelite and an Egyptian house? Rashi famously answers this question by pointing to the words “a sign for you.” According to this interpretation, the blood on the doorpost is less a sign for God than it is for the Israelites – presumably as a reminder of God’s redemptive power.

Taking Rashi one step further, we might regard the blood on the doorpost not only as an internal sign for the Israelites, but as an external sign for the Egyptians as well. After all, by marking their doorposts in the way, the Israelites were publicly identifying themselves and their households throughout Egypt. Marking their homes with blood was thus be an act of proud defiance – the Israelites were, in a sense “wearing their oppression” openly to the outside world.

Ironically, however, blood is not only symbolic of oppression and death, but of life force. Indeed, according to the Ancient Israelite world view, sacrificial blood was regarded as having saving power. By marking their homes with their pain, the Israelites were also saving themselves – initiating a process that would lead to their eventual redemption.

Post Script: The notion of publicly “wearing one’s pain” was recently explored in a powerful way by one contemporary artist. In 1996, a Jewish museum in Berkeley, CA displayed a mezuzah filled with artist Albert Winn’s HIV-infected blood on a temporary doorpost. Winn commented that displaying his blood was his personal way of “making sense” of his illness while raising awareness about HIV/AIDS on World AIDS Day.

Post-Post Script: The CBS News reported last summer on a fascinating phenomenon occurring in the Gulf Coast region: the dramatic increase in tattoos bearing storm-related images. According to the report, many Katrina survivors are having images of “hurricane swirls, crumbling buildings, names of the dead or broken hearts gushing floodwater” displayed permanently on their bodies. One tattoo parlor owner suggested that these new tattoos were a kind of therapy for the wearers:

“A big part of their lives has been lopped off,” he said. “This is a way to reclaim that and say, ‘I’m proud of who I am, where I’m from, that I’m here.”‘

Andrea Garland and her husband, Jeffrey Holmes, say their matching “RIP Lower 9” tattoos are tributes to the Lower Ninth Ward residents who lost their lives and homes when the city’s levee system failed, inundating the neighborhood with floodwater…

“This is an event that’s never going to leave us,” she said. “It’s something that’s dramatically affected and changed our lives forever.”

For Jeffries’ friend Tim Lawrence, placement of his storm symbol tattoo was just as important as the image itself. The 31-year-old, an assistant manager at a French Quarter hotel, got his on the back of his neck — his way of putting the storm behind him.

“I’ll always have a hurricane at my back,” he said. “I never want to have one in front of me again.”