Adam Bronstone barely slept at night.
After evacuating New Orleans and heading west to Houston on Saturday to avoid Hurricane Katrina, he had a lot on his mind.
“You’re worried about where it’s going to hit,” said Bronstone, director of communications for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. “You’re worried about the place you live in; the place you work; the synagogue I go to, which is near the lake; the federation office, which is on a beautiful campus that’s only three years old and is also near the lake. I worry about where I’m going to be next week.”
Bronstone is among the 10,000-12,000 Jews from New Orleans and its environs who are believed to have fled the city to stay out of harm’s way. He has taken up residence with a friend who works at Houston’s Israeli Consulate. Other consulate employees have taken in refugees from the hurricane as well, he said.
Katrina slammed cities and towns along the Gulf Coast on Monday, hitting portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida with racing winds and an engulfing downpour. By Tuesday afternoon, reports indicated that nearly 80 people had died as a result of the storm, most in Mississippi, and the state’s governor said he expected the death toll to climb. In New Orleans, levees overflowed and pumps failed, leaving part of the city under 4-5 feet of water. There were reports of bodies floating in the floodwater. The storm tore off a large section of the roof of the Louisiana Superdome, the football stadium where some 10,000 people had taken shelter. According to an Associated Press report, neighborhoods along part of Lake Pontchartrain were flooded, forcing residents onto their roofs.
While many of New Orleans’s Jews headed west to Houston — which under normal circumstances is a five- to six-hour drive but traffic made some people take more than 10 hours — others landed in Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Florida and elsewhere. About 75 of those who ended up in Houston gathered for a special prayer service Monday evening at Houston’s Congregation Emanu El. Eric Stillman, executive director of the New Orleans federation, said it was comforting to pray, share and reflect with a group of people experiencing the same sense of uncertainty as he was.
“It was wonderful,” he said from his hotel room in Houston. “The frustrating thing is that none of us really knows when we’ll be able to go back to New Orleans and see the condition of our homes, our Jewish agencies, our businesses, the community as a whole.” Stillman had been monitoring the situation back home on television and over the Internet, but didn’t know anybody remaining behind in the city who could update him on the condition of specific sites. Phone calls to several synagogues in Mississippi and Alabama went unanswered Tuesday.
Jewish organizations in the region and beyond pitched in to help out those affected by the hurricane. A Jewish camp in Mississippi was opened to New Orleans residents fleeing the storm. Nearly 150 evacuees, including some disabled adults, took shelter at the Reform movement’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica.
B’nai B’rith activated its disaster relief fund to collect money for Katrina’s victims and United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations, and established an emergency mailbox to accept donations to aid both the Jewish and general communities affected by the storm. UJC also is encouraging federations and affiliated communities to open independent mailboxes to raise money. Barry Swartz, UJC senior vice president, said the organization has a system in place to offer expertise to local communities in need.
“As soon as we knew it was heading toward the Gulf, we were in touch with the members of the federated communities and the network of independent communities,” he said. “We gave them advice in terms of preparation. We’ve been doing this for years, so they’re used to it and we’re used to it.”
The Union for Reform Judaism also opened a disaster relief fund. As soon as damages are assessed, the group said, it will decide which organizations are best equipped to aid victims, and will make donations to these groups.
Three Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries remained in New Orleans to help residents who couldn’t leave the city. Among them was Rabbi Yossi Nemes, who had received a panicked phone call from a visiting Jewish family that had been evicted from their hotel, which was shuttering up against the storm, a Chabad spokesman told JTA. The family couldn’t make it to the Superdome quickly enough to miss the storm and, concerned for their safety, contacted Nemes — who decided to stay in his own home and take in the visitors. Nemes could not be reached by telephone, but according to the spokesman, 13 people were staying on the top floor of his home; the first floors were flooded.
At the North Louisiana Jewish Federation in Shreveport, in the northwest corner of Louisiana about 60 miles south of Arkansas, there haven’t been many appeals from Jews in need. Area hotels are booked solid, said Howard Ross, the federation’s executive director, but no requests for shelter or synagogues have come in. In fact, Ross said, the only hurricane-related request they received was from a Jewish man looking for love.
The note “came over the Web, through our feedback,” Ross said. “A message saying, ‘I’m in Shreveport; I was forced out of New Orleans. I’m a single, 57-year-old man, and I was wondering if there are any singles events.’”