'If anyone understands, it's you'

Hurricane Katrina victims meet with former Gaza residents evacuated from Neveh Dekalim.

A group of victims of the New Orleans hurricane that killed over 1,900 people in August 2005 met in Nitzan with evacuees from the former Gaza Strip settlement of Neveh Dekalim on Sunday to learn about each other's experiences. "If anyone understands what we've been through, it's you," said Debbie Rosen, a Neveh Dekalim evacuee resettled in Nitzan. The depression, reluctance to go out into the world and find work, and post-traumatic stress disorder are troubles that New Orleans and Gush Katif residents feel can finally be understood by people other than their own. When Rosen discussed the psychological trauma facing teens with middle-aged New Orleans evacuees, they nodded their heads. She mentioned the fact that they are living in caravans, shattered communities, unemployment and loss of parental authority, and the New Orleans residents voiced agreement. "It was the same in New Orleans," Chanie Nemes, rebbetzin of the New Orleans Chabad House which organized this trip to Israel, kept thinking. The Nemes family sat out the storm in their second-floor apartment. Two days after the storm hit, the 13 people taking refuge in their home managed to escape in a small refrigerated truck normally used to transport kosher food. The family stayed with relatives in New York for four months. One of Chabad's congregants was forced to sit on the roof of his house for more than 24 hours after four meters of water flooded his home. Because lines of communication were down, the rabbi heard that the man had been saved by a fire department boat only five days later, and danced when he heard the news. Unlike other areas, the Chabad House was flooded to a depth of only about 60 centimeters. Mold, however, spread onto all of the walls during the two weeks in which it was forbidden to enter the city, and the whole interior of the building needed to be torn out and rebuilt. Eighty to 90 percent of the furniture was destroyed, and thus the 70 congregants who gathered to pray at the synagogue on Yom Kippur that year sat on the cement floor. Saying they felt they had lost control over their lives, the New Orleans visitors explained that the hurricane had destroyed only part of the levees, but any moment another storm could come along and destroy all of their lives again. In addition, they voiced concern over an increased rate of teen suicides and mismanagement by the government of funds allocated for rehabilitation. Rosen said disengagement had been caused by the government, unlike the hurricane which was a natural disaster. Immediately, however, the visitors from New Orleans interrupted to say that in their case as well the government had a responsibility towards them. Leading professors and engineers had waved red flags at the US government since 1992, warning of a likely breach of the levees, said trip members. Some of them are part of a class action suit against the Army Corps of Engineers. When visiting Rachel Saperstein, a former English teacher and settler at Neveh Dekalim, the hurricane victims complained about the looting, the caravans, the continuing mortgages on houses destroyed, and the minimal insurance reimbursements. In response, Saperstein gave them a tour of her caravilla. She showed them the cement marks on her floor tiles, and said that the caravilla cost the government $100,000 to build, but that a real estate agent valued it at $17,000. New Orleans people interjected that the US government paid somewhere between $70,000 and $100,000 for caravans about a quarter the size. Both the Gush Katif and New Orleans evacuees agreed there was corruption, and profits made on account of those who needed immediate help. Continuing their tour, Rosen pointed out a newly opened pizzeria which is supported by the community. The New Orleans residents told of their joy at the reopening of Casablanca, New Orleans's kosher restaurant. Identifying with such things as the need to stay strong in front of one's children in the face of depression and loss of hope, the New Orleans evacuees were inspired and comforted by the interaction with the Gush Katif residents, happy to be acknowledged as hardworking but still needing attention and help. Although some, like Rabbi Yossi Nemes of New Orleans Chabad, said they were humbled by what had happened to the Gush Katif evacuees, others looked at the red roofs and flowers of the temporary housing and said the Gush Katif evacuees' situation was pretty good.