By Rabbi Charles Arian
Yesterday afternoon I spent some time online watching webcams in Louisiana as Hurricane Ida struck on the 16th anniversary to the day of Hurricane Katrina. As of this writing hundreds of thousands are still without power, homes and businesses have been destroyed and there are billions of dollars worth of property damage. Only one life has been reported lost so far. Although Hurricane Ida had stronger winds than Katrina, it also carried with it less moisture, and much money and effort had been invested since Katrina in strengthening the levee system. As daylight returns and electricity is restored, we will see the true extent of the damage.
In the weeks and months after Katrina, I read some articles that made the case that New Orleans should not be rebuilt. There were a number of reasons given. First of all, New Orleans actually sits below sea level, in a basin, and the cost of trying to make it safe from future floods was disproportionate. In addition, like most American cities, New Orleans is economically stratified with pockets of high poverty and poor access to services. Why simply rebuild in place and keep those problems? What about abandoning New Orleans entirely and building a new city, a “Newer Orleans,” in a safer location without replicating the problems of the current city?
These arguments made a lot of sense to me. I know that I made reference to some of these articles in discussions that I had and I may even have mentioned them in sermons. However, it is relevant to know that at the time I read these articles, I had never been to New Orleans.
That changed in November 2019. Keleigh and I spent a few days in New Orleans in what turned out to be our final pre-pandemic plane flight and hotel stay. New Orleans is a magical place. The culture and architecture are unique and a true melange that epitomizes the multicultural nature of this nation. Did you know, for example, that the unique and instantly recognizable French Quarter was actually built when the Spanish controlled New Orleans?
We loved our few days there and would gladly go back although, admittedly, it is a challenge to keep kosher since the residents of New Orleans love their crawfish and alligator sausage. (On the other hand, the world-famous Cafe du Monde is certified kosher.)
I noted in my talks over Shabbat that in the last couple of weeks a lot of social-media posters have pivoted from being experts on epidemiology and infectious diseases to being experts on military strategy and the history of Afghanistan. It’s easy to be an expert on subjects that one knows nothing about. It’s easy to support the abandonment of a historic city where you have never been. But when you speak not only based on something you have read but from lived experience, things become much more complicated and much less simple.
Rabbi Charles Arian posted the following on Facebook to his congregants at Kehilat Shalom on Aug. 30.