JTA / June 4, 2006
By Larry Luxner
NEW ORLEANS — For the last eight months, Joel Colman has lived in a 30-foot FEMA trailer parked on the grounds of New Orleans' Temple Sinai.
It's convenient to his job — after all, Colman is the synagogue's cantor — but just a tad claustrophobic.
"Quite frankly, living here there's not a lot of separation between work and not work," said Colman, whose house was severely damaged by last year's Hurricane Katrina. "This space gets very small after awhile, and this is a special FEMA handicapped trailer with a three-foot-wide entrance," said the 48-year-old cantor, proudly showing off the mezuzah affixed to the trailer's entrance."If I need to use the restroom, I can go. But if you've got three or four people living in one of these, it must be crazy."
Colman, whose wife Jackie is temporarily living in Detroit with their teenage son while the family home undergoes repairs, knows he's one of the lucky ones. He only had to wait a few months for his $70,000 trailer, which is parked at Temple Sinai because there's not enough room on his front lawn.
Yet Colman won't be so lucky if even a weak hurricane strikes the Gulf Coast.
Like everyone else here, the Jews of New Orleans worry that the 2006 hurricane season — which officially began June 1 — could bring more unpleasant surprises.
"There's a lot of fear," said Roselle Ungar, interim director at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. "The beginning of every hurricane season is always marked with trepidation. But this year, things are different. People are really talking about where they'll go, how they're going to secure their homes, what to take with them."
Ungar said another evacuation of New Orleans is not a question of if — but when — "and when we have to evacuate this year, the authorities will require people with mobile homes to leave much sooner than the rest of the community."
Especially vulnerable are people like Colman, who are stuck in flimsy FEMA trailers not built to withstand hurricane-force winds.
"The trailers are a huge issue. No one believes they'll stand up to anything, not even in the wake of a 25 mph wind," says federation spokesman Adam Brownstone. "People aren't meant to live in them for a long time, but obviously people have, in the absence of housing and delays with insurance and getting contractors. All that has inhibited people from moving back to their homes."
In fact, says Brownstone, only 65% of New Orleans' 9,500 Jews have returned to the city in the nine months since Katrina's devastation.
While that compares favorably to the 50% of residents in general who have moved back to the Big Easy since Katrina, it still represents a loss of nearly a third of the city's Jewish population. Most of those who have not returned remain in the cities they initially evacuated to — Houston, Baton Rouge, Memphis, Miami and Atlanta.
"The evacuees are spread out far and wide," said Eric Stillman, former chief of the New Orleans federation, and now president and CEO of United Jewish Communities of Broward County, Fla. "They were originally in an area stretching from Texas to Florida, and as time has gone by, they've literally gone further afield into every state."
The dramatic drop in population has affected every Jewish institution in the city.
"We're losing really important members of our Jewish community," said Saundra K. Levy, executive director of the Jewish Endowment Foundation. "I have a board member whose practice was at Mercy Hospital, which was flooded. He's moving to Waycross, Ga. Another was a professor at Tulane for 30 years. He was let go."
Dina Gerber, director of Jewish Family Services of New Orleans, said that before Katrina, JFS had 19 employees. Five left after the storm, and of the 14 that remain, nine are not living in their own homes — either in trailers, renting apartments or living with parents.
"I only have five employees who are in the same houses as they were before Katrina," said Gerber. "Of the five who have left, I've replaced two people. Before Katrina, we gave out $24,000 a year in financial assistance. Since Katrina, we have overseen the distribution of more than $1 million to individuals in the Jewish community."
JFS also has over 300 subscribers for its Lifeline program for elderly Jews, but the subscribers Gerber is seeing now are more frail than ever.
"We feel it's a reflection of the shortage of adjunct medical care that's available. Sitters and nurses' aides are very hard to come by," she said, adding that her own 93-year-old mother felt she couldn't return to New Orleans after Katrina.
"One reason is that so few of her friends came back. She's now at an independent living facility in Atlanta," Gerber said. "More than a year ago, JFS sponsored a mission to Cuba. It is striking how in just a few short months, things can be turned upside down."
On the other hand, while a number of area Catholic and Protestant churches have closed for lack of funding, not a single Jewish institution in New Orleans has had to shut its doors — except for Congregation Beth Israel in suburban Lakeview, an Orthodox synagogue that was severely damaged by Katrina's floodwaters.
"Everybody who lives here is passionate about bringing the community back," said Levy. "We're thinking it'll be a five- to 10-year period, but at the rate the federal government is going, it could be 25 years."
Levy, formerly director of the New Orleans Historic Landmark Commission, said the immediate future looks extremely uncertain.
"All this federal money is coming in, but I haven't seen a lot of it," she told JTA. "People are hanging on by threads. Some people took their flood insurance money and left, because they just didn't have the heart to see their houses again."
Levy said some of these houses — particularly those in the devastated Lakeview and Metairie suburbs — were worth anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million. But even many of those people now face financial ruin.
"Let's say you had the maximum $250,000 in flood insurance, but a $500,000 mortgage. You still have to pay your mortgage," Levy explained. "And there's a lack of housing. That's why rents are extraordinarily high. It's very hard for people who are just making a living to be able to afford apartments. They're at least 20-30% higher than before, and sometimes more than that. We are rapidly becoming an expensive city to live in."
The exodus of Jews from New Orleans has also hurt the budgets of local synagogues and other institutions that depend on annual dues from their members. Fortunately, donations from groups like United Jewish Communities (UJC) and the Union for Reform Judaism have kept the community afloat for the time being.
"Our salaries are being paid through UJC funds, which in and of itself is important," said Brownstone. "You can't run the community if you can't turn the lights on."
On May 25, local leaders gathered at the Goldring-Woldenberg Jewish Community Campus to receive $2.4 million in UJC funds. Federation officials immediately distributed this money for immediate use to cover shortfalls in operating budgets.
On June 1, the first day of hurricane season, the federation added a new section to its website advising local Jews how to get ready for future storms. The site has links to the American Red Cross, FEMA, the City of New Orleans and the Louisiana Department of Emergency Preparedness.
"We're doing a lot of planning now, and we're trying to push people to do a lot of their own planning," Brownstone explained. "So few of us really planned in advance [for Katrina]. Now, the entire city is gearing up for hurricane preparedness. The newspapers have been full of articles on disaster kits and evacuation routes. We're doing all those things we should have done a long time ago."