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Committed or crazy? A return to New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 15 (JTA) — There’s a joke going round New Orleans now: To choose to live in this city, you need either to be committed to its recovery or you just need to be committed. After spending the past school year in Baltimore where my son attended Jewish day school, I returned to my damaged home and my damaged city in late June, and I am still unsure which category of the joke applies to me. Depending on what part of the city I am driving through or whether I just read a newspaper article describing any of a litany of New Orleans’ problems — such articles are given front-page coverage in The Times-Picayune, whereas a new feature, “Signs of Recovery,” appears infrequently in the back of the paper — I am either energized and optimistic about prospects in this city or downright depressed. At times, I do feel like you would have to be crazy or at least in serious denial to choose to stay in this city. Crime is creeping up to pre-storm levels, even though the population has been halved; the justice system is in shambles with a judge threatening to release 6,000 prisoners if they do not receive a court hearing by Katrina’s anniversary at the end of August; the health care system is in worse shape, with only one-quarter the number of doctors and half the number of hospitals; and the mental health system is basically nonexistent for a community in which half the people are thought to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Mayor Ray Nagin continues to disappoint and dismay; his promised “100 Days” of action since his election are nearly three-quarters over, with little evidence of action, and his proposal of a comedy night at a casino and a fireworks display to mark the storm’s anniversary shows a supreme lack of taste and understanding of how to commemorate that day of loss. Parts of the city are still without phone service and electricity and functioning streetlights, and a community rebuilding plan is just getting under way. After taking on four feet of water in Katrina, my home shows a similar lack of progress. Despite numerous promises from our contractor, our first floor looks just like it did after my husband and several workers gutted it in October: The walls are stripped to the studs, and the floor is bare concrete. But in some ways, life post-Katrina is much sweeter here. Perhaps because we know we cannot depend on government but only on each other, I have finally met my neighbors and am involved in our neighborhood organization. Bonds are much closer between friends because we have all experienced loss; synagogue members are more committed to its well-being because so many played a part in its reopening and religion just seems so much more important now. And there are little victories to savor every day. The first time we received our New Yorker in the mail, 10 months post-Katrina, was cause for celebration. The reopening of a favorite restaurant is another occasion to raise a glass. Even a newly functioning streetlight brings a smile. It is quite heady to know that merely deciding to stay makes a difference, let alone pitching in to help the recovery. We are all chalutzim, pioneers, who are part of history in the making. Katrina has been the ultimate catalyst of change, both on the personal and institutional level, and many of those changes have been for the good. A plethora of creative charter schools have replaced the woefully inadequate public schools, and some government agencies are now taking advantage of 21st-century technologies. Katrina has pushed people on to the next stage of life, maybe a few years ahead of the usual schedule, but in the intended direction nonetheless. Young couples are deciding to have babies earlier, empty nesters are moving out of too-large homes into condos, and others are going into new business ventures that had never gone beyond the idea stage before. Young couples who have plenty of energy but not much money are moving into gutted homes in neighborhoods they could not have afforded pre-K and fixing them up. As a result of Katrina, we will be renovating our gutted first floor into a rental apartment, now that our three daughters are at college or beyond and only our son lives at home. We most likely would have come to this decision without Katrina, but probably years down the road. But dramatic changes, no matter how positive, are never easy, and the approach of the anniversary of Katrina, combined with the fear of another hurricane, has greatly increased everyone’s level of stress this August. This stress is evident not only in the tragic case of the Times-Picayune photographer who went on a driving rampage earlier this month, damaging some parked cars and injuring a police officer, before begging the police to kill him. The large number of fender benders, the outbursts triggered by inattentive salespeople, and the tears that still accompany the memories of Katrina are also markers of stress. But New Orleanians have always known how to live with sadness; what else is a jazz funeral but a celebration and affirmation of life. And we Jews certainly have had much practice in this art. In the haftorah, the added portion, from Parshat Eikev, the Torah portion that we read a few weeks ago, Isaiah comforts the Jewish people with these words: “As for your ruins and desolate places and your land laid waste — you shall soon be crowded with settlers.” May this be true for New Orleans. Gail Naron Chalew is a writer and editor rebuilding a life in New Orleans.