Key UJC staffers are visiting communities struck by Hurricane Katrina, seeing the storm’s impact up close and how UJC and the Federations of North America are aiding relief efforts. UJC Senior Vice-President of Communications Gail Hyman reports how our system is working in a diary, which will get updated online. You can also read first-hand accounts from around the country of how federations and communities are helping, in Letters from the Front.
On Sunday, September 11, I flew to Houston to help the New Orleans federation staff and their host community, the Houston federation, with their communications needs.
I rented a car at the airport and asked the agent for directions into town. He apologized for not knowing his way around since he was from New Orleans. I asked him how he was doing and he replied, “I’m doing okay. I lost my house but my wife and kids are okay. And I have a job.” I thanked him for his help and walked away wondering how a person with no home and no belongings, manages to go about the normalcy of life and somehow deal with his own enormous loss. I was already humbled by the power of the human spirit in the face of such calamity.
A tired but cheerful Lee Wunsch, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, briefed me on what the Houston and New Orleans federations had been through these past weeks. Lee described a triage effort of epic proportion as Jewish hurricane evacuees poured into Houston and reached out to the federation and its agencies asking for help.
Lee’s team invited the New Orleans staff to set up their offices and within hours they established an emergency center to respond to a hurricane unlike any other.
The next day, I saw what community is all about. Eric Stillman, executive director of the New Orleans federation was in Houston as well. We had both arrived the day before from Baton Rouge. It was my first trip across that air corridor, but Eric made several trips already since disaster struck. As Eric said, “I am the executive director of the New Orleans displaced federation community. I will be on the road between Houston and Baton Rouge, and on to Memphis, Atlanta, Dallas and several other places where my community is now dispersed.”
The New Orleans federation “command center” housed at the Houston federation was already busy but much calmer than it had been just days earlier. People were on the phones, meeting evacuees, arranging housing and shelter, furnishings and sharing resources with displaced victims. Baskets of clothing and goods marked for donations filled a large table. In one corner, donations were being processed. In another corner, a New Orleans professional was updating a database of new contact information for Jewish residents of New Orleans. The list is constantly updated as people report back about where they are or where their friends and family have moved so the federation can keep in touch and connect with its members.
I encountered so many moving stories. I met Stefanie Allweiss, a displaced New Orleans resident who wanted to find out about High Holiday services that are being planned for the New Orleans community in Houston. Stefanie is the executive director of employee relations at Tulane University. Her husband is an attorney. Their three children were spared the direct impact of the hurricane. Stefanie and her husband left New Orleans with their dog on Saturday night, having locked their house and taken only clothing for a “few nights” and anticipated a quick return. They usually go to Houston when hurricanes hit New Orleans. But this time they found themselves without a home and with Tulane closed for the semester, their lives are in limbo. Yet, Stefanie says she is lucky to have landed in Houston, “a place with a sense of community. Having a Jewish community is very important to me,” she notes.
A strong and caring Jewish community is important to many who are now in Houston, Jews and non-Jews alike. Lee Wunsch introduced me to Raymond Bailey. Raymond called Lee on Monday asking if any beds were available for his family who were finally moving into their new home.
Raymond met Lee for the first time last Friday at a ceremony coordinated around the arrival of thousands of donated backpacks sent from San Diego’s Jewish Academy. UPS donated a plane to bring the packs to Houston to give the thousands of New Orleans children now living in the Astrodome. One of three UPS volunteer truck drivers who put the backpacks on their trucks in Houston was Raymond Bailey—a New Orleans evacuee himself, now living and working in Houston.
While Lee was moving quickly to find beds, linens and other used furniture for Raymond and his family, I spoke with him to find out how he and his family found their way to Houston to become one of Lee Wunsch’s most memorable experiences. Raymond Bailey has been a UPS driver in New Orleans for 24 years and has lived through many hurricanes. But as the news Saturday grew more alarming, he told his wife, Katrina, they had two choices head to the attic with their three boys (ages 8,10 and 14) or wake the children and leave. They decided to leave. One Katrina and her family escaping, and another less kind one about to arrive.
The family drove through the night arriving in Houston early Sunday without a place to stay. The Hilton of America Hotel offered them a room for $69 and kept that rate for several days after the storm but eventually had to revert to their regular rates, forcing the Baileys to move on. Raymond eventually found temporary housing and contacted his UPS supervisor who offered help to the family and also asked Raymond if would be willing to volunteer to meet the San Diego plane and take the backpacks to the Astrodome. Raymond was glad to help, arriving in time to load the truck and meet the students from the San Diego Jewish Academy and Lee Wunsch, all of whom distributed the backpacks.
Now, Raymond was calling from the realtor’s office asking if Lee could help locate beds and furnishings. A chain of circumstance and caring come full circle.
By the time Raymond finished telling me his story, Lee and his staff had either found or given from their own garages, four beds, a sofa, chairs, lamps, linens, a kitchen table and a television. A volunteer truck and driver delivered the furnishings on Wednesday when the Bailey family moved in to their new apartment.
Raymond and Katrina know they have lost their home in eastern New Orleans. It is gone. But I am certain that with their positive attitude and the caring people in Houston beside them, they will be okay.
Finally, as my last day in Houston came to an end, I participated in a meeting of the Houston and New Orleans federations. By now, UJC’s Rob Hyman had arrived. He will be in Houston to help Eric Stillman and his team as they continue to work on the New Orleans and Gulf Coast regional recovery plan. Along with the staff were three Yeshiva University interns assisting in the ongoing recovery. This meeting was a “hand-off” of the Hurricane Katrina response work. The Houston federation was now passing the baton to UJC, the interns from Yeshiva and to the New Orleans federation. As we sat around the table, I was struck by sadness. It was a sign that life must go on and for those who dropped everything and worked so hard doing this important work, it must have felt strange to now let it go. And for the New Orleans staff, it was now time to shift into the next phase of this ongoing crisis….but for each of them there is so much personal pain and uncertainty they must confront. Once overwhelmed with helping other displaced New Orleans residents, it was time to look inward and onward.
Lee’s staff arranged for Rob, Lee, the Yeshiva team and me to visit the evacuees at the Astrodome. We arrived as the sun was setting and we saw children playing on an improvised outdoor playground and teenage boys playing basketball on makeshift courts set up to make life as normal as one can make a concrete stadium complex livable.
We met with representatives from the Red Cross, FEMA and the state of Texas disaster planning teams. They explained how this facility was made operational in less than 20 hours: ready to receive more than 12,000 evacuees and provide them with food, clothing, shelter and medical care for an unspecified period of time.
When we visited, the Astrodome was home to just 5,000 people. But for us, the sea of faces, the makeshift “homes” each family had cobbled together out of cots and blankets, babies playing on the concrete floor, the elderly bundled in grey wool blankets trying to sleep on canvas cots under bright lights with no privacy, was too heartbreaking for words.
I am on the plane going back home now and am filled with memories and stories of one of our greatest national tragedies and yet the Jewish federation community can be so proud of our response. What I saw, and what our team has done these past weeks, in Houston, in Baton Rouge and across the region, is truly God’s work. In just a few days, I have learned about the capacity of human kindness, about the strength of people to get through difficulties so unimaginable that one cannot fully prepare for them and yet, somehow get through them. I saw that in Baton Rouge and in Houston this week. I know it happens every day in Israel and in Kiev and St. Petersburg. And that we are all part of a caring family that rises to the challenge and constantly exceeds our greatest expectations. I am certain that out of all this hardship good will prevail. I remain hopeful that those who have suffered so much loss will eventually be okay. I am also certain that for those of us fortunate to be part of the helping community, that we have gained so much-- a clearer perspective on who we are and why we do what we do.