Editor’s note: Many have written us asking for more information from the Chabad Lubavitch emissaries in New Orleans. Two of those brave emissaries are Rabbi and Mrs. Yossi Nemes of Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. Rabbi Nemes’s first-person account follows.
They say that hindsight is 20/20. But I’m no longer as convinced of this. At times, perhaps, if we would have known what lay in store for us, our decisions would have been different and then the good that resulted from those very decisions would be lost forever.
Last Shabbat morning (August 27) predictions were that New Orleans would be out of the way of Hurricane Katrina’s cone. But latecomers to prayers at our Chabad Center bore with them rumors that we may turn out to be right in the thick of it. First there was a ten percent chance, then 20, and by the time Shabbat was over, the probabilities were that New Orleans would be in the hurricane’s path.
By Sunday morning the authorities were strongly suggesting that people evacuate. Though many seasoned New Orleanians who had weathered numerous similar warnings in the past remained skeptical, my wife, Chanie, and I started planning our exit from Metairie.
Soon an endless stream of phone calls started from stranded vacationers and desperate locals seeking advice about where and how to go.
Some needed help charting their evacuation routes, others sought alternative shelter, and, for those determined to stay put and not willing to be convinced otherwise, we counseled them on how to fortify and prepare.
At 11:00 I walked to our ground-level Chabad Center to pack up the holy Torah scrolls and bring them to relative safety inside of our two-storey house. Some devoted congregants came by and we boarded up the windows.
The phone call frenzy picked up steam. My wife fielded the calls to our home while I dealt with calls to the Chabad Center. Soon a mandatory evacuation was announced and panic began. Thankfully, we discovered a couple of French Quarter hotels with vacancies on the third floor and were able to direct some of the vehicle-less tourists to there.
I walked to our ground-level Chabad Center to pack up the holy Torah scrolls and bring them to relative safety A pair of female tourists were kicked out of their hotel and, as the hours advanced, ran out of options. They wanted advice. Instinctively, I invited them over to our home. In the midst of arranging with a friend who was boarding up his downtown business to pick them up, they called to say that they had convinced a taxi driver to deliver them to us for about triple the regular price.
Chanie invited over a couple more girls, too.
The hours wore on quickly but the calls didn’t let up. Some elderly people had no way of leaving and needed to be walked through a virtual checklist of items that they should bring up to the highest floor. In the rare lull between calls we packed what we could. Winds started picking up. The radio reported hours of backup on the highway.
At 4:00, we discovered that leaving by car now bore a significant risk factor. By 5:00, the winds got stronger. We started preparing for Plan B. By 4:00, when we finally had a few minutes to regroup and strategize about ourselves and all those newly dependant on us, we discovered that leaving by car now bore a significant risk factor. News reports presented a dismal picture of the highways backed up with hours of traffic while the storm loomed closer. If we ended up stuck on the highway, G‑d forbid, in the middle of the storm, our chances of surviving were far smaller than if we were to be in our brick, hurricane-fortified home.
By 5:00 the winds got stronger. We started preparing for Plan B.
We filled the bathtubs with water. We brought the Torahs upstairs, along with our important documents, clothing and other things big and small.
In the end we stayed, 13 of us, on the second floor of our home. We prayed for the best but tried to prepare for the worst. We spent our time reading Psalms, asking G‑d to spare us, the entire Jewish community and all the people of New Orleans, and discussed issues of faith and G‑d’s Providence.
We also played memory games and other lighter fare.
We filled the bathtubs with water. We brought the Torahs upstairs... The gusts developed into hurricane-force winds and eventually, at about midnight, reached 110-135 miles per hour in our area, 35 miles away from the eye of the storm.
We heard huge trees snap and, through our skylights, actually saw some of them fly away like paper. Our shutters shook as the winds screeched and screamed with a deafening pitch.
This continued well into Monday. The strongest winds (110-135) continued for about six hours, during a total of almost 14 hours of hurricane-force winds (75 mph and up).
We told stories of faith and endurance.
By Divine Providence, my wife and I had only recently rediscovered some of the Rebbe’s writings about the idiom, “tracht gut vet zein gut,” meaning, “think good and it will be good.” The Rebbe would encourage people facing challenge to rise to the occasion and actually convert it by thinking positively.
Well, it was one thing for us to talk about thinking positively, but you cannot imagine the impact it has on yourself and others when you’re faced with real trying conditions. I felt in my bones that our positive thoughts had the power to get us through this, while negative ones would make us fall apart. Fortunately, with our communal positive thinking, we all stayed in very good spirits and quite optimistic, despite the circumstances. Furthermore, we kept reassuring each other that we weren’t there without a purpose. G‑d guided us to stay to help all of our callers and each other, and our fate was now in His hands.
By Monday morning, we had completely lost power, regular telephone service and running water. The intense heat and humidity were overpowering and, with no air flow, the house was stifling. Thirteen of us sat in four bedrooms on the second floor.
But we were alive! Thank G‑d, we were surviving!
Sporadic cell phone service allowed us to check up on other members of the Jewish community who stayed behind. Miraculously, those we contacted were doing fine – under the circumstances – and we just kept encouraging one another.
Finally, in the early afternoon, the winds subsided and we rushed to open the shutters and windows.
Though we could wade through the foot and a half of water on the first floor, we couldn’t go out of the house, as five feet of water were piled up outside. We also lost all cell phone service and were rendered completely incommunicado.
A medical rescue boat passed by and they screamed up to me to make sure no one in our home was in danger. I directed them to the others on the block whom we knew had stayed. They warned us not to venture into the water as there were many downed power lines and they had also seen poisonous snakes. They assured us that they would return the next day to check on everyone, but we never saw them again.
In addition to learning and praying, we spent the day conversing about all kinds of things big and small, and thanking G‑d for His miracles.
At night we noticed the water subsiding a couple of inches and we optimistically started planning our Tuesday exit.
But then our battery-powered radio reported that the water seemed to be rising and, with ever-increasing urgency, urged everyone, including those in Metairie, to leave! The entire city may soon be enveloped in 20 feet of water. Clearly, the city had not yet endured the worst.
Only three miles west from us, the water started rising and, within a matter of hours, reached 20 feet... We were unable to get out at this point and, needless to say, grew very tense.
Once the levee finally broke in the afternoon, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that the water would be headed into the city and not toward us.
But only three miles west from us, the water started rising and, within a matter of hours, reached 20 feet. We prayed that the people were okay but felt helpless to do anything for them.
Miraculously, the levees and pumps in our area held strong and we had no further flooding.
[The federal emergency broadcast system stayed on the air the entire time but the rest of the media was knocked off the air locally. I heard later that during this time Metairie was singled out by some media outlets for particular danger. But we were oblivious to it and not until I was able to speak to my mother a full day later did I discover the fear and horror that our loved ones and community members experienced when they could not reach us and had no idea of how we fared. It is the same way I feel now for those in our community whom I have still been unable to reach. Each moment seems like an hour when you wait to hear the condition of those you care so deeply about.]
Tuesday night we slept with our windows open and a view of broken power lines and snapped tree roots, some as large as our roof.
We felt very fortunate to be alive, healthy and not lacking basic provisions, and felt terrible for the many thousands who were stranded outside and lacked basic necessities. This kept things in perspective for us and made our situation that much easier to bear.
At 4:00 AM on Wednesday, no longer able to keep my eyes closed, I looked out the window, and saw that there was no water outside, only mud. The pumps in our area had started working again! There was lots and lots of mud, painted uglily and thickly throughout the street and on houses, cars, and street signs.
As I looked out the window I saw an elderly neighbor who I didn’t even know had stayed home. He was near the open window on his second floor, trying futilely to get the attention of the military helicopters hovering above by reflecting a mirror upward. From the desperation he exuded I figured that they needed help fast.
I sloshed through the mud to reach him across the street and discovered that he and his elderly wife had been without food for a full day. The woman suffered from heart problems and was in great need of hospital care. They had been unable to contact anyone.
He was near the open window, trying futilely to get the attention of the military helicopters by reflecting a mirror upward. Immediately I brought them food and drink and made sure that they were hydrated and well fed. Amazingly, she visibly relaxed and started feeling better. It seems that just the simple human interaction – along with the food, obviously – really helped her. Evidently, they were terrified that no one would find them and that no one knew they were there. Seeing me and merely knowing that there were others to help and care seemed to make a big difference.
I walked with her husband to a woman’s house down the block who somehow, amazingly, never lost her local telephone service! (She also happens to be our secretary…) He called his son, who made the necessary arrangements to come rescue them. I cannot describe what it was like to hear his voice and see his face when his son answered the phone. May all our crises have such happy endings.
I, too, was able to speak with my mother, a conversation I will never forget.
The warnings continued on the radio: Get out! The levees are still not secure and your neighborhood may be next! We started cleaning off some particularly damaged items from our wet, muddy first floor and packed our suitcases. We had no idea when we’d be able to return.
I met up with another man from our Chabad house, Shmuel Markovitch who, along with his three sons, pulled trees from the road, brought food and water to neighbors and, eventually, helped me start one of our cars. (The other one proved to be too water-damaged even for Shmuel’s amazing hands.) With 13 people to evacuate, he gave me the keys to a small refrigerated truck normally used for kosher food and insisted that we use it to leave. With his resourcefulness and self sacrifice I can only imagine how many lives he saved. (Eventually he got out and is now in Miami, thank G‑d.)
I also discovered that Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, the head Lubavitch emissary to the state, had been able to evacuate the day before, shortly after the levee broke. He was brokenhearted to leave without knowing our condition but he left behind one of his vehicles, cramming 12 people in only two cars (one belonged to his son, another emissary here), just in case we would need a car to evacuate.
[Today he is in Houston, coordinating rescue efforts there. More on that to follow, please G‑d.]
They had left with nothing, right before the storm, and we knew that they were marrying off their child in California later in the week... By the time we got it all together it was 3:00. On our way to the highway we went to the home of a Jewish family who did evacuate. They had left with nothing, right before the storm, and we knew that they were marrying off their child in California later in the week and had no chance of getting their wedding clothes and other important things. We packed two suitcases of their wedding essentials and were on our way. One minivan and one refrigerated truck full of anxious but thankful people.
Though we had only one and a half miles until the highway, and our area was not the hardest hit, the destruction we saw is indescribable. Homes utterly collapsed, rooftops that had flown across streets, streets that could no longer be called that and personal belongings, floating in the water alongside uprooted trees and cars. Some people walked the roads in a complete daze. You could sense that family upon family and community upon community had lost everything. We just prayed that the people had survived and would be able to rebuild.
The Interstate still allowed only West-bound traffic and we headed to Memphis to the home of the Lubavitch emissaries there, Rabbi Levi and Mrs. Rivka Klein.
Additional installments to follow, please G‑d.