By Leah R. Harrison
Travel back with me to late August 2005. We all knew Katrina was coming. We all watched the meteorologists project the paths she could take. None of the scenarios was good.
Katrina formed as a tropical depression over the Bahamas on Aug. 23 and grew as strong as a Category 5 hurricane before hitting the Gulf Coast as a Category 3 on Monday, Aug. 29. That day we saw New Orleans submerged after the levees failed.
In Atlanta, we watched the disaster unfold in slow motion. We saw the devastation, the people stranded on rooftops, the misery of those who had sought refuge at the Superdome. We empathized with our neighbors and wondered what we could do to help. We felt frustrated and powerless.
Then we caught wind that some of the evacuees would be heading to Atlanta, and we got busy.
In a brief conversation, Howie Slomka, who was the president of Congregation Shearith Israel, said the board was thinking of opening the night shelter, which typically opens for winter each November, to the Katrina evacuees. As a serial volunteer mom, I quietly said, “I should help with that.”
All of Atlanta was looking for a way to help. We simply needed to focus that energy. The shelter provided that place.
Synagogue member Genie Sockel verbalized what we all felt: We wanted to do something but felt helpless for “a way to channel that wish to do more.”
When she got to the shelter, she recalled, “I was just really struck by how much people had donated.”
She added, “I just felt a great sense of pride that I belonged to a community that would organize that quickly and have such an overwhelming desire to help.”
Katrina relief through the Shearith Israel Night Shelter became the largest, most intense, extensive, expansive, time-consuming, exhausting, marriage-threatening, eye-opening, awe-inspiring and rewarding two-month volunteer effort in which I had ever taken part. But I had the best seat of all: I got to see the size of people’s hearts.
Until now, much of that effort has been locked away in my memory and in the 2-inch binder used to keep track of it all.
I met with Annette Easton, a synagogue member very involved with the shelter. We strategized and made a list of needed supplies, and that day I won her respect by cleaning, among other things, the toilets.
On Sept. 5 an e-blast went out to the congregation about our needs. Volunteers, supplies and donations began pouring in. People came to wash linens and make beds, fold and sort clothes, and hang out racks so evacuees could “shop.” The items we requested, from paper goods to soup, a coffee urn and fans, arrived.
Dentist Howard Abrahams delivered laundry baskets full of toothbrushes and toothpaste. Annette recalled a family donating five TVs. One woman shopped for us at Sam’s Club, only to find she was a few dollars short. When the cashier realized her purchases were for Katrina relief, she keyed in a discount so the purchases could be made with change to spare.
Word spread through the Atlanta Jewish and then the greater community.
Housing requests through MoveOn.org and other organizations began to come in. Atlanta Travelers Aid told us 300 people were on the way. Heart-wrenching phone calls came from people driving toward Atlanta and trying to find us, only for some calls to be dropped or for cellphone batteries to die.
The needs were urgent, and our knowledge of them became immediate. The entire synagogue responded, and we were forced to circulate this note asking for patience: “Dear Shearith Israel Congregants: Working with you on our Hurricane Relief efforts is an honor and a privilege. We are inspired beyond belief by your overwhelming enthusiasm and generosity. The shelter is overflowing with your gifts, supplies and donations. Our voicemail and e-mail systems are clogged with your messages about donation and offers to help. Please be patient with us — we are trying to get back to each and every one of you. There are just so many responses!”
The community united in providing aid. Trays of kosher food arrived from Ahavath Achim Synagogue on more than one occasion. We worked with JF&CS to accommodate people. We were contacted by City Hall, CNN, DeKalb County Hurricane Relief, Federation, Georgia Parent Support Network, the Israeli Consulate and even a Girl Scout troop. The Temple Shelter was responding; Congregation B’nai Torah was hosting displaced people and offering help for anything needed.
We were informed through synagogue member Norman Siegel that six apartments at the Montclair on Clairmont Road would be given to six families for six months. We identified recipient families and asked synagogue members and businesses to “adopt” the furnishing of any of the apartments.
Specifics, such as two parents and a 9-year-old girl, were circulated to tailor donations. In addition to the shelter, we focused on fully furnishing and supplying those apartments as kitchen and cleaning supplies, linens, lamps, youth bedding, rice cookers, coffee tables, microwaves, televisions and calls to pick up all types of donated furniture poured in from all parts of the city.
The constant calls made it impossible to keep my cellphone charged.
Crews had to be organized and trucks rented to pick up furniture from church groups, multiple locations in Atlanta and outlying areas. Offers came in from normal guys, some of whom had friends with trucks, to pick up and deliver the furniture allocated to each apartment.
For example, on Thursday, Sept. 8, Doug Brown of Brown Bag Marketing, and a neighbor and friend of Shearith member Lorrie Nadler’s, sent an email: “I have a small marketing firm in Buckhead and I have told my folks that whoever wanted to join me next Monday … could do so to see how we could help you guys out.” He had already enlisted seven people and a pickup truck, and they completed a furniture and delivery route for the apartments Sept. 12.
For some reason we received lots of recliners and heavy sofa beds — the bane of any volunteer mover’s existence. Zac Pasmanick’s real estate team offered the use of its moving truck. Georgia Backyard called to have us pick up items it was donating. A rehabilitation hospital kept calling, trying to give us four hospital beds.
An account was opened to accept monetary donations. It covered expenses such as the truck rental and bought supplies and gift cards for the evacuees.
Meanwhile, the shelter continued to overflow, and the volunteers were busy funneling things back out to the apartments and others in need. Word of the relief effort continued to spread, and donations continued to arrive.
Returning to the shelter after delivering pillows, linens, laundry baskets, cutting boards, sets of plates and silverware, clothes, and cleaning supplies to the apartments, I found the doors blocked with garbage bags of new clothing from T.J. Maxx. Every day the entryway overflowed with donations, now from churches and the greater community as well as the Jewish community.
Move-in day at the Montclair for the families in the last two apartments was in early October. The last and largest one housed three generations of the Barrocas family to give them time to communicate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, submit insurance claims, deal with adjusters, work and chart courses to begin anew.
Natalie and Michael Cohen and their two children arrived first. Natalie said the largest concern was getting her parents here. Her father, Albert Barrocas, was the chief medical officer of Methodist Hospital in New Orleans, and he stayed, with wife Maxine, to care for patients and see the hospital through terrible conditions.
Albert and Maxine took the last helicopter out Sept. 2 and landed at DeKalb Peachtree Airport after many connections around midnight. It was only then, after almost a week with little to no news, that the family was reunited.
“It just goes to show you,” Albert said. “You think things are going well, and all of a sudden you’re homeless in two states.”
Six Barrocas family members lived in the only three-bedroom we had available. Pleased at the opportunity to come together in this effort, the Feldman/Bagen/Bressler family had adopted this apartment, in addition to others. After getting to know the Barrocas family, together with mother Clara Feldman, the Bagens and Bresslers made countless trips to furniture stores to outfit the apartment.
Terri Bagen recalled becoming aware of the devastation the family had suffered in losing everything. “It was a time of a lot of highs and lows because when you meet new people and at the end of the day they’re better off than they were that morning, that was kind of a high, but the circumstance and what these people had been through, I’m not sure a piece of them ever recovers from that.”
Speaking about her family’s compulsion to help, Bagen said: “Our perspective is we were feeling so impotent, and the fact that our synagogue gave us the opportunity to reach out and do was very important to us at that time. And the fact that we were able to do it as a family was … it was very important for us to do it together as our family.”
Her husband, Laury, concurred.
Bagen said her mother “wasn’t young, and she wasn’t a shopper, but she did that IKEA trip every time with us. … I can’t call it good family memories, but it was maybe a wonderful family experience for us.”
Albert Barrocas praised the Jewish and secular community support for the Katrina families, including donations and gift cards and even interest-free loans made available through JF&CS and Federation. Spots in schools were created for his grandchildren at Oak Grove Elementary and at the Marcus Jewish Community Center preschool that was at Shearith Israel. The Marcus JCC offered support and hosted events for evacuees.
The Barrocas family remains grateful for the help from Shearith Israel and other synagogues, and I get a call and thank-you card from the doctor every Thanksgiving.
In January 2006, Barrocas became the chief medical officer of South Fulton Medical Center, and he is now the CMO of Atlanta Medical Center South. The family moved into a new home in Sandy Springs in June 2006.
Shearith member Erin Chernow’s family is from New Orleans. Her father and his wife evacuated to Texas, while her cousins came to Atlanta.
She said that getting to Atlanta was like survival of the fittest. Much of the Gulf Coast was shut down, so it was easier to go west than east. Nonetheless, her cousins made it here and settled in Marietta.
“People were coming out of the woodwork with everything they had,” Chernow said. “The needs just got filled. … (It) is nice to know that in a crisis people can pull together and just do what needs to get done.”
Like her cousins, Chernow said, most of the evacuees who came here stayed. “They set their lives up here.”
The needs and urgency in Katrina’s wake began to subside. On Oct. 18, an email to the synagogue director read, “Please let everyone on staff know that we are no longer accepting donations in the shelter for hurricane relief. I know you have already put the word out to the congregation, but now we really have to officially stop accepting them! No matter how much we organize them, more keep appearing every time I go down there — to this day!” We still needed an organizing committee to go through the bags that had again accumulated in the front hall of the shelter.
On the Thanksgiving after Katrina, I was again humbled to get effusive thank-you calls from three of our resettled families. Life moves forward, but those we assisted made an indelible impact on us as we did on them.
Hurricane Katrina relief revealed the best in our community. For a long time afterward I felt guilty that, in exhaustion, I had not followed up with detailed thank-you letters for donors’ records. Only later did I realize there was no 501(c)(3) charitable organization or tax-exempt status. People opened their homes and their hearts because they could and felt compelled to do so.
We can be proud of what we did. Believe me, it was a lot.
After 10 years, revisiting what we did as a community was an emotional experience. Many more helping hands and selfless acts of kindness come to mind than are mentioned above. For all the destruction and havoc Katrina wreaked on so very many lives, she brought us together to do the best we could for those who came to our city. I am humbled and honored to have had this particular insight into all that we together could and did do for those in need.
A final thought: Ten years is too long to have gone, and my memory and handwritten binder are inadequate to catalog the depth of your combined response. For any of you who helped in the relief effort or had related experiences, please comment on this story and share your memories.