Sitting in Maryland, missing New Orleans

Houses swamped by floodwaters following Hurricane Katrina. (Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA )

Houses swamped by floodwaters following Hurricane Katrina. (Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA )

BALTIMORE, Sept. 8 — Rob Nathan’s frozen-food export company was busy loading a ship in Gulfport, Miss., when Hurricane Katrina hit. Paige Nathan, Hillel’s New Orleans executive director, was getting ready for 2,000 Jewish students to begin the school year at universities like Tulane and Loyola. The couple and their two young sons lived in a beautiful New Orleans home and were enjoying their lives there. But their lives have taken an unexpected detour. On Labor Day, the Nathans were looking forward to moving ahead with their lives, even if it meant staying for a while with Paige’s parents, Sue and Sheldon Dagurt, in their comfortable Pikesville, Md. home. Getting Matthew, 8, and Daniel, 5, settled and in school was the first priority. Rob Nathan can do his sort of work with a cell phone and laptop, so his career isn’t an issue. And Paige Nathan, like most New Orleans residents, is in a wait-and-see mode. Meanwhile, the couple isn’t sure of the status of its house, but they’re fairly certain it didn’t receive a serious hit. They left home with three changes of clothing and some pictures. As of Monday, their bank was still out of touch, as was their insurance company. Most importantly, they weren’t sure when and if they’d ever return to the community they’d come to love. “I feel like it’s happening to someone else, it’s happening to ‘those people’ in New Orleans,” Paige Nathan said. “No, that’s us. It’s like our 9/11. “I’m 43 with two kids, and today I feel like 16 living in my mother’s house.” The Nathans at first weren’t going to leave New Orleans. They were able to stay in the condo of Rob Nathan’s employer, which was equipped with generators and other facilities meant to withstand a hurricane. The condo was located five blocks from the now infamous Superdome. But with only 15 minutes of power left on the generator, the family left, heading to Houston before coming to Baltimore. Rob Nathan described the neighborhood they abandoned as having an “eerie calm” to it. The family left as it was just beginning to flood. “You’d see a convoy of military trucks and fire trucks heading into the city,” Rob Nathan said. The Friday night before, Paige Nathan attended a Bar Mitzvah at the Touro Synagogue in New Orleans. She remembers looking around and daydreaming about holding her oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah there. Then she remembers thinking about the welcome brunch she would have at the Hillel for parents of college students. “We didn’t think any differently than any other hurricane scare,” she said. Then she started hearing that the university would be closed until the following Tuesday. Then it became Thursday. Now, nobody is sure when Tulane will reopen. “I think the students are still in shock,” she said. “Some of them are doing the things they need to do to keep their lives going. A lot of students are thinking they’ll return for the next semester.” Personally, she and her husband hope to get back when they can to assess damage to their house. There is also a feeling of loss, a missing of Jewish New Orleans. “I felt more Jewish in New Orleans than in Baltimore,” Paige Nathan said. “It’s a tight-knit community, incredibly welcoming. It’s a small and mighty Jewish community.” Rob Nathan said he wonders how many people will return. Rob Nathan said he wasn’t surprised that so many of New Orleans’ poor found themselves stranded in the flood-ravaged city. “You just knew it was going to happen,” he said. “In past hurricanes, it was only people with special needs who were to go to the Superdome. You knew that many of them weren’t going to go anywhere. The local governments there don’t have a lot of money. So with many of the poor, there were no real plans to get out. Poverty is a life of lethargy. And the federal government can’t instantly solve the city’s problems.” The couple has made a point of avoiding news reports as much as possible. They’re working to make sure that this is almost a long-term vacation for the benefit of their children. For now though, as Paige Nathan said, “I’m just sad about a life we had that died as we knew it.”

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