Standing in a Ghost Town
I have lived in Kathmandu and San Francisco, New York City and
Paris. I have visited more than 25 countries and seen the remarkable
architecture of the Taj Mahal and Gaudi’s buildings.
And I have visited New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina.
My mother is a Holocaust survivor and I was raised to be mindful
of political unrest, bias, and racism. I have lived a life preserving
the lives of “food” animals, choosing vegetarianism
for more than 30 years. I have listened to my elders, to historians,
to politicians, as genocide has reached Europe, Africa, South
America and other corners of the world. (Apparently, “corners”
are areas that do not affect life in the United States.)
My uncle was a Holocaust survivor, too. But he died in another
Holocaust, early in the AIDS epidemic. Now, I teach about AIDS,
work in the field and conduct research presenting it domestically
You see, I learned about suffering. I heard about things I could
not change. I suffered of my helplessness to change history.
So I became a social worker. I wanted to go to the next place
of crisis and help. I hoped to create change, to help others.
On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina spent 12 hours battering
and destroying much of The Gulf Coast. I wanted to go to help
others. But, I had the great fortune to realize another dream.
I was a new professor at Ramapo College, so grateful for this
opportunity to help create change in a different way and this
work would begin in a matter of days. So, I did not go to New
Orleans, or Mississippi, or Texas. Instead, I stayed in Mahwah
and talked about what I read and witnessed on television.
I have been to many places and I live in New York City, the
epicenter of all things diverse. The New York Times and CNN
taught many things about what was and was not happening to survivors
of the hurricane. (You see, this is another issue I have. Those
who have suffered but are living are “survivors”
to me; those who died are “the victims”. I learned
this because my mother is a Holocaust “survivor”.
Her father, killed in Auschwitz, was a “victim”.)
In each class I taught, I found something relevant to discuss
about the Hurricane and the people affected. In the Life Cycles
class we discussed how such a gigantic, incomprehensible event,
could impact people at every age and stage of life. In Child
Welfare, we focused on the children and what would happen to
them. . .the pedophiles now undocumented and untraceable. In
Research Methods, we dissected simple survey polls to determine
what they really meant, whose interests were served and what
respondents might understand in choosing their responses. Later,
in the AIDS class, I talked about clinics that have closed leaving
limited treatment options unavailable to many who might otherwise
return. I talked about Hurricane Katrina and its impact, a lot.
I thought I knew some things.
Then Katie asked if I might want to go to The Gulf Coast. I
met with John and was accepted as a co-leader of a trip of amazing
Ramapo College students to witness the unimaginable.
The stories of the Holocaust I could only listen to and remember.
I had nightmares without the memories. But this was a different
experience entirely. I went somewhere other worldly. I saw things
I never could have imagined in all of my international and domestic
travels. I met people I can only admire and hope to emulate.
New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward is hell, if one believes that
hell exists. It is an empty place, barren of the living, still
hiding its dead, seemingly as it was after the waters receded.
Except. . . except the houses that blocked streets have been
removed and others, that might have earlier been salvaged, now
bear the dangers of mold and other contaminants that may never
be removed. In New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward there seemed
to be an absence of life and hope, except for a few who are
rebuilding their homes; other properties are marked “For
Sale” or “Sold”. It is the unparalleled selflessness
of many volunteers who are creating change.
Schools are closed. Streets have lost their signs. Is a neighborhood
one still if no one lives there and its avenues are without
We worked hard in Mississippi gutting houses, painting, moving
logs, shoveling muck, removing nails, walls, paneling, insulation,
household appliances, and personal effects. . . the remnants
of lives forever changed. We were volunteers. We were lucky.
We can bear witness to what has not been done in this country.
We were also able to leave. We had homes to which we could return.
Is it genocide? Is it a Holocaust? Would the response and rebuilding
efforts be different if this had occurred in another part of
this country? I do not know. I do know, however, the impressions
made on me are indelible. I will not forget how this “corner”
of my country has been forgotten. I will not forget the stories
of families whose trailers have been taken. I will not forget
trying to decide if a water damaged photo with a faded imagine
of a child should be saved as all of the others have been washed
clean of any image.
I am proud to be an American. I am not proud of America. The
volunteers and survivors have not forgotten. And neither have