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'The City Is Much Better, but It Will Take Years'

August 31, 2006 By:
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Volunteers associated with the Post Hurricane Katrina Mitzvah Project of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans work to fix up damaged homes.
For the foreseeable future, Bonnie and Harris Blackman will have to do their cooking inside the Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer that sits outside their home in Metairie, La., about 25 minutes from downtown New Orleans.

But they've got a couple reasons to celebrate; their first floor now actually has walls instead of exposed sheetrock and wooden framing. And finally, the entire house has power.

The Blackman residence sits just a few blocks south of the now famous Lake Pontchartrain. Since returning to their home several weeks after the hurricane, the couple has generally been living on the second floor.

"I've definitely learned a lot about construction," said 53-year-old Bonnie Blackman, a member of Reform synagogue Temple Gates of Prayer, also in Metairie. "Everybody has come back on my street. The city is better. But it will take years; there are whole neighborhoods that will never be rebuilt again."

Such is life in a New Orleans suburb, even one in far better shape than many parts of the city proper. Aug. 29 -- this past Tuesday -- marked the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which overwhelmed the New Orleans levee system, submerging 80 percent of the city and resulting in one of the worst natural disasters in American history.

Since that time, the Jewish community -- much like the Big Easy itself -- has shown slow, steady signs of recovery, even as the area's long-term future, as well as the fate of neighborhoods such as Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward, remain uncertain. And like the Blackman household, the Jewish families have learned a whole host of lessons about reconstruction and rebuilding.

In December, four months after Katrina struck, officials at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans estimated that 40 percent of the area's pre-Katrina Jewish community -- which was estimated at about 10,000 individuals -- had returned to the region. Today, that figure is closer to 65 percent of the Jewish population. (Granted, with the exception of Lakeview, Jews primarily live in areas like Uptown and Metairie, which were spared the worst of the damage.)

"Talking about the Jewish community coming back, I'd give it an 'A.' Talking about the city of New Orleans, it's neighborhood by neighborhood," said Roselle Ungar, interim executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. "It's definitely better here than in the first couple of months."

In July, the Jewish Community Day School opened for the first time since Katrina struck. But instead of roughly 100 students, it now has 23 students, and is only going up to third grade.

Michael Wasserman, federation vice president, said, it may make more sense ultimately for the day school to combine with a nearby Chabad Lubavitch-run day school that has roughly the same number of students.

There are signs that life is getting back to normal. For instance, back in May, the FEMA relief site at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center-Uptown finally closed, giving back to the center much-needed indoor space for summer camp.

And on Aug. 26, the Jewish community experienced one of its most hopeful days of the past year. Congregation Beth Israel -- the Orthodox congregation whose building was virtually destroyed when the 17th Street Canal flooded -- officially received a new Torah scroll that had been donated by a Los Angeles synagogue. (Beth Israel has not decided whether it will spend millions to fix their building or relocate, as the future of the surrounding neighborhood is still very much up in the air.)

The ceremony took place at the Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, where the Orthodox shul has been holding services for the last several months.

Gates of Prayer itself suffered more than $1 million in damages, though temple educator Phillip Gaethe said that the building is 99 percent repaired.

That same day, Chabad Lubavitch of Louisiana broke ground on a new, 4,000-square-foot student center near Tulane University, which has roughly 2,500 Jewish students enrolled. The project was delayed for more than a year by the hurricane.

"We will invest what we need to invest in order to do the job. We're not the only ones who are being optimistic," said Rabbi Zelig Rivkin of Chabad.

But even as residents try to get on with their lives, the trauma of what happened, and the fear that it could happen again, is never far from the surface.

Harriet Kugler, for one, said that the tension became palpable once residents heard about Hurricane Ernesto -- which at press time was nearing Florida.

Kugler -- whose Metairie home for the better part of a year hosted a half-dozen family members, whose own residencies had been made inhabitable by the flooding -- admitted that once she and her husband heard about Ernesto, they made hotel reservations in three cities, two in Alabama and one in Texas.

"I think people will just panic when a hurricane gets into the Gulf," said Kugler, who works at the Jewish Community Center in Uptown.

Here in Philadelphia, Mayor John Street and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, as well as roughly two-dozen Gulf Coast evacuees, took part in an emotional ceremony at City Hall on Tuesday to mark Katrina's anniversary. It is estimated that roughly 1,000 Gulf Coast evacuees live in the Philadelphia region, though it's not clear how many are Jews.

Rosalie Minkin, a 67-year-old psychotherapist, was among the evacuees at the ceremony. Her Garden District apartment was damaged by the storm; she's now living in an apartment in the art museum area.

"It seemed like we were living in a really bad movie. I kept asking: Is this real?" said Minkin, who had moved to New Orleans from San Francisco five months before Katrina hit to be closer to relatives.

Those family members have since relocated to Detroit. She hopes to stay in Philadelphia indefinitely.

Minkin, who was raised in an Orthodox household, did return to her apartment a month after Katrina, but was only able to salvage some records and paintings; most of her belongings were covered with mold. She noted that virtually everything in her new apartment was purchased with "FEMA money."

Even though she was new to the city, seeing it utterly devastated, and having to leave with only a suitcase full of clothes, was a trauma she's had difficulty getting over: "The experience will stay with me for the remainder of my life." 

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