Going in After Katrina

After a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina, sometimes an aid worker helps by delivering a baby, sometimes the job is just delivering a cheeseburger — or perhaps a thousand cheeseburgers. And sometimes the simple act of providing a yarmulke to an old man can provide solace.

So it was for Rabbis Chaim Kolodny and Tzemach Rosenfeld of Hatzolah of Los Angeles, an organization of emergency-medical volunteers with particular expertise in assisting members of the Orthodox community. When they decided to embark for the stricken Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina, they wanted to be available to help Jewish victims who could benefit from their knowledge of religious practice. But they also were prepared and eager to help anyone they could, and they had no trouble locating storm victims and relief workers who needed all sorts of assistance.

“Tuesday night we helped deliver a baby,” Kolodny said. “We got there, and the lady was in her ninth month. They didn’t even have an OB kit for delivering. We had our kit.”

The Hatzolah duo helped a Maryland pediatrician deliver a healthy baby girl. Reached on his cellphone, Kolodny described nonstop, 20-hour days of paramedic work amid what he said was “devastation beyond comprehension.”

On another occasion, the two Orthodox rabbis spent $1,000 to buy cheeseburgers for shelter residents.

“It was the first hot food they had had in a week,” Kolodny reported. “There’s no running water. There are no showers. The Army Corps of Engineers keeps saying they’re going to build them…. For this country, this is not right.”

The two rabbis were among many Southland Jews who streamed into the region to help in the roles of volunteer foot soldiers, professional aid workers, health professionals or coordinators for nonprofit organizations. West Coast Chabad Rabbi Mordechai Nemtzov, for one, went to Mississippi as Chabad’s field coordinator there.

Kolodny and Rosenfeld took more than 20 suitcases filled with kosher food and medical supplies. They found themselves amid exhausted nurses and crying doctors.

“By our counts, we treated close to 280 medical patients,” Kolodny said. “We’ve slept maybe three hours in the last 48 hours…. We’re sleeping in our cars. We’re surviving on crackers and tuna fish.”

Still they can count themselves lucky in a place marked, he said, by the aroma of death — a “sweet, sickly smell, plus it doesn’t leave you.”

Kolodny was too busy in Mississippi’s rural areas to go elsewhere. “I think they’re all second fiddle to New Orleans, because it has the loudest bark,” he said. “We saw a boat six blocks inland.”

In one shelter, Kolodny said they encountered an elderly nursing home resident who overheard them talking and said, “You guys speak Yiddish?” They lit yahrzeit (memorial) candles with the man. “We gave him a yarmulke,” Kolodny said.

Kolodny returned to Los Angeles Sept. 11 to restock medical supplies. “Everything that we brought — 22 suitcases — empty,” he said en route home. “The stethoscopes that I had around my neck, I literally gave them away.”

He planned on returning to the disaster area in a few days, heading this time to Louisiana.

Rosenfeld had a personal emergency, his father’s heart attack, that prompted his return to Los Angeles Sept. 8. When Rosenfeld determined that his father would be OK, he made immediate plans to return to the Gulf Coast.

“There’s so much to be done there,” Rosenfeld said from his Los Angeles home. “You can drop yourself anywhere in that region, and you find yourself helping within minutes. I have to go back. I can’t sit here. The devastation, the sense of gloom and despair — we showed up at one of the Red Cross shelters, and the nurse had one stethoscope with a missing earpiece for 600 people.”