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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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New Orleans has come a long way since Katrina

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A typical house in the French Quarter [M.Stavsky photo]

Psychologists say that when people experience a profoundly traumatic event, they form a new timeline within their lives, relating experiences from their past as happening either before or after the trauma.

On Aug. 29, 2005, the city of New Orleans experienced just such an event. Hurricane Katrina blew through, breaching numerous levees and flooding countless thousands of homes and businesses. Every city resident who experienced Katrina, from the French Quarter shop owner to the plantation tour guide, recalls events from their past as having happened either before or after Katrina. The cataclysmic event in some ways defines every New Orleaner, much the same way as victims of war bear their scars for years afterwards.

New Orleans, though, has come a long way since that fateful summer day seven years ago. Much of the city and surrounding communities has been rebuilt from the ground up. Numerous government agencies came together to repair and strengthen the vital levee system that protects the city from flooding. They were tested recently during hurricane Isaac and passed admirably. In all, many factors have allowed New Orleans to emerge from the floodwaters with a renewed dedication to reassert itself as the top tourist destination along the Gulf Coast.

Upon arriving in New Orleans, the first thing you’ll notice is water. Everywhere. Since it is situated at the confluence of the Mississippi River, Lake Ponchatrain and the Gulf of Mexico, and at a marshy several feet below sea level, you can’t help but wonder how the city has kept from sinking deep into the ubiquitous Louisiana swamps over the last several hundred years. But somehow the city has persevered through floods, fires, wars, cholera and yellow fever outbreaks that at times decimated nearly half the city’s residents. Always optimistic and ready for a party, New Orleans lives by the Cajun motto “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (Let the good times roll).

The first stop for any traveller should certainly be the city’s historic French Quarter. Because it was built on slightly higher ground than most of the city, the area was spared much of the devastation from Katrina. While the nonstop party scene is legendary, history buffs will marvel at the early 18th-century architecture, as well as the numerous historic houses in the area. A must-see is the nearby St. Louis Cemetery #1, with above ground crypts dating back more than 200 years. It’s the eternal resting place for many of New Orleans’ most famous residents.

Shopping buffs are sure to find a bargain at the historic French Market and Jackson Square areas. The French Market, founded in 1791, has been at the heart of French Quarter commercial life for more than two centuries. While wandering through the area, make sure to stop in for an order of calorie filled, deep-fried beignet at the now kosher Café Du Monde.

Another must-see in the French Quarter is the magnificent, and some say haunted, Hotel Monteleone, built in 1886. It is renowned for its luxurious “Author Suites” dedicated to the many famous writers who’ve stayed there including William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. Numerous glass cases display the treasures collected by the hotel over the years.

Families travelling to New Orleans should make a point of visiting the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and Insectarium, located a short walk from the French Quarter near the trendy Riverwalk shopping district. And just a brief shuttle bus ride away is Mardi Gras World, where many current and past Mardi Gras floats are constructed and stored.

In 2000, New Orleans completed the World War II museum, formerly known as the National D-Day museum in the city’s Warehouse District. With interactive exhibits detailing the Allies victory, the museum fascinates and engages adults and children alike. The exhibit on Nazi medicine, Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, is exceptionally powerful, but perhaps not suited for young children. Be sure to catch the Tom Hanks narrated 4-D film Beyond All Boundaries about the D-Day invasion in the adjacent theatre.   

New Orleans’ Jewish community was hard hit by Katrina, and has still failed to recover its lost population. Numbering around 10,000 before the hurricane, the community now stands at around 7,000, and is mostly centred in nearby Metairie. The local Orthodox synagogue Beth Israel, however, having been devastated by Katrina’s floodwaters, has made a remarkable comeback and just recently completed a brand new, beautiful synagogue.

Post-Katrina, the old Beth Israel synagogue was inundated by floodwaters and had to be abandoned. The sifrei Torah, siddurim and Chumashim were ritually buried, leaving a congregation bereft of its shul. In a show of achdut (togetherness) rarely seen in other cities, the Reform Gates of Prayer synagogue quickly took in the despaired congregation and agreed to share a wing of its building with Beth Israel until the new building could be completed. The agreement remained in place for almost seven years.

 “It saved us”, said Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Beth Israel. “Our congregation could never have continued without their help.”

Beth Israel built their expansive new building next door to Gates of Prayer, breathing new life into the 100-year-old congregation.  The words above the Aron Kodesh (Ark) in the new synagogue, translated as “Mighty waters cannot extinguish our love” quoting from Shir HaShirim (Song of Solomon) 8:6, attest to the determination of the congregation. Beth Israel’s custom of singing Adon Olam to the tune of When the Saints Go Marching In cements the shul’s place within the future of New Orleans.

Michael Stavsky acknowledges the assistance of the New Orleans Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in arranging his family’s trip to New Orleans.

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