Sunday, September 28, 2008

Passing into Carnival Season

With the end of September comes the realization that fall is now into full bloom. Fall means the changing of foliage and the preparation for winter-like weather in other areas of the country. The first snows of the season were already dusting the mountaintops in Alaska in advance of fall two weeks ago when I was there. But here in New Orleans fall doesn't really manifest itself until much later when most of the northern and eastern sections of the country are well within the throes of winter. While it may not be obvious as the leaves on the trees, what we do observe is the beginning of the Carnival Season. "Carnival? Isn't that in winter? " I can hear many of inquire. The short answer is yes. Carnival or Mardi Gras always falls in February or March. But the planning for the next year almost always begins immediately after it has passed. The first evidence that Carnival is fast approaching is the coronation ball season, the time that is approaching. This is the time when all of the Carnival krewes begin to announce just who will be in the royal court for the ensuing year. Over the course of the next month or so all of the kings, queens, maids and dukes will be finalized and revealed at lovely events in area hotels. It is a time when the captain of the organization has great fun in making the reveal public to the other members of his or her krewe. Meanwhile, for me it's not quite time to hear the herald calls that announce the arrival of royalty, but to listen instead for the blasts of the shofar that will signify that Rosh Hashanah is here.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Voting Early and Often

The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is fast approaching and will be here Monday evening at sundown and all day Tuesday. This period is a time of intense introspection and culminates with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The ten inclusive days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe and, like the Lenten period for Christians, it is a time of privation and marked by deep prayer. In many ways the election process in New Orleans and throughout the state as we prepare for the presidential election is much the same. A slate of candidates to determine some very important elected officials is ongoing. The First and Second Congressional Districts are up for review by voters. Recent First District winner Steve Scalise (R) is ready to take on a Democratic challenger, either Vinny Mendoza or Jim Harlan. Meanwhile, Second District incumbent William Jefferson (D), under indictment along with a number of family members, hopes to remain in office despite an overcrowded field of challengers including New Orleans City Councilman James Carter; state legislators Cedric Richmond, Byron Lee and Troy Carter; and former newscaster Helena Morena. Also to be determined is the new New Orleans District Attorney. There is no incumbent in that race due to the resignation of Eddie Jordan some months ago. Jordan's interim successor, Keva Landrum-Johnson, held on long enough to secure a judgeship and then also resigned. She has been replaced by Robert Freeman, who will give up his interim post when the new D.A. is selected. Choices range from former assistant district attorneys Ralph Capitelli and Linda Bizarro to Judge Leon Canizarro. Voters, like their Jewish counterparts, are thus undergoing a period of deep introspection and asking forgiveness from the Almighty as they prepare to cast their ballots next week. We are all hoping that the new choices made at the polls will not reflect badly on us and that we will enjoy an upcoming year of promise and renewal. I took the opportunity to vote early today at City Hall, deciding several judgeships and my Democratic choice for Congressman. It was fairly easy and took less than 10 minutes. These primary choices will decide who will be on the ballot when the final selections are made on the first Tuesday in November. The days will be crucial as Louisiana joins the nation is deciding who will lead our nation over the course of the next four years.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Master Debater?

So, who won tonight's debate? I would love to hear from you all with your thoughts about who made the best points, countered best and who you feel emerged as a clear choice. But I don't believe that happened. Both candidates are very well prepared and the process ensures that there is very little unscripted material that can slip through. Both of the distinguished Senators have been steeled in the Senate, a proving grounds for debaters of the highest magnitude. They are both very good or else would not have achieved the nomination of their respective parties. There is little chance that McCain or Obama would make an utterance like President Ford did in the second of his three debates with then-Governor Carter about "no domination of Eastern Europe" by the Soviet Union. If anything, the debate seemed short on foreign policy discussion, which is what its focus was intended to be. It wasn't until the issue of the Iraq war was raised-- some 37 minutes into the event -- that foreign policy truly began to be discussed. But for the voting public to have the two candidates face off is, as Martha Stewart says, a good thing. In just 40 days one of these two men will become the man entrusted with the seat of our government. The more information we have as voters, the better off we all are. I think we are headed into more debates with the same results on the presidential side. When it comes to the one vice-presidential debate, however, I am somewhat skeptical that Sarah Palin will be able to hold her own with Joe Biden, who has a reputation as a bulldog in the Senate. The risk that Biden has, of course, is that if he is seen as attacking Palin too severely, he might risk the wrath of voters who feel he was too harsh on the lady. However, if he doesn't pounce on her for her inexperience in government, he may risk losing face and could lose points. It's truly a no-win situation for Biden, who has to walk on eggshells in order not to make a faux pas. It should be interesting to say the least. For those of you who are interested, let me know your feelings in the poll being conducted at right for the next few days.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

New Orleans arts scene thrives

The last week has been a hurly-burly rush of all things cultural in New Orleans. In many cases I barely had enough time to catch my breath running about my regular business and then dashing to a nightime event. On reflection much of what I saw and heard left me breathless. First of all there was Beethoven and Brahms. The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the nation's only self-run and self-sustaining symphony orchestra (still not back in its home facilities since Hurricane Katrina), opened its 18th season with the first of the nine Beethoven symphonies (to be presented in order throughout the year) along with a spectacular Brahms Piano Concert 2 played with renowned pianist Jorge Federico Osorio. I knew it was going to be a special night when a closed curtain greeted the crowd at Loyola University's Roussel Hall. At performance time the curtain parted and members of the percussion section began drumming the opening section of John Corigliano's "Promenade Overture." The short piece introduces the various instruments and sections of the orchestra one at a time. As each player is introduced, they take their place on stage and continuing playing. It was inspired by Haydn's "Farewell Symphony" in which performers leave the stage one by one or in sections until no one is left. What a delightful way to open a season. It was refreshing and somewhat hip for a classical music event and, no doubt, the choice of energetic music director and principal conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto. The next night across town the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, a small but dedicated arts organization now in its 31st year of continuous operation, presented the first of two performances of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." It was a spectacular production starring Hiroko Morita as Cio-Cio San in the title role. Not only was Morita incredibly beautiful, but being a native born Nipponese who was classically trained in both her native country and Puccini's native country of Italy, prepared her for a magnificently turned-in role. Artistic director and maestro Dennis Assaf lorded over the music and it filled the small auditorium with the sweet sounds of tragedy. I was astonished at how good the production values were. Sunday night it was time for the special last show of a Hurricane Gustav shortened run for cabaret singer Amy Alavarez and pianist Jefferson Turner in "He Loves and She Loves: The Gershwin Music We Love" at Cabaret Le Chat Noir. All of the Gershwin favorites and a few that are not as well-known, but nonetheless, beautiful were presented. From "Fascinating Rhythm" to "I Got Rhythm" to "The Man I love" and "Our Love Is Here to Stay," Alvarez and Turner's program had it all. The show ran a little over an hour, but during that time I was magically transported back to an era that oozed sophistication and charm. Alvarez's sweet register and Turner's masterful playing made it one of the best cabaret shows I've seen this year and a contender for the new Best Cabaret Performance category at the Big Easy Theatre Awards for 2008.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Winds of change

From looking at the pictures that have come in from Galveston, I have become very empathetic to what those Texans are going through as they prepare to enter the island for the first time in two weeks. Ike's path of destruction was a huge column of storm surge that flattened almost everything in its path. As a victim of the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, I am grateful that I did not suffer the kind of damage they have sustained. I lost a lot, but at least I had a home to which I could eventually return. The residents of Galveston have little more than rubble awaiting their return. Besides, in the case of Katrina the flooding was manmade and, therefore, not strictly a natural disaster like Hurricane Ike. The people of Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes reeling from Gustav also were hit by Ike's storm surges, but they are resilient and are busy making plans to come back stronger than ever. On my way back home from the recent evacuation from Hurricane Gustav, I thought I would get off the I-59 and check out if Middendorf's Restaurant was open. Middendorf's is a well-known restaurant that has been open in Pass Manchac for over 70 years. Sadly, the restaurant was closed during the evacuation, so I got back on the interstate and drove home figuring I would be back sometime in the near future. The next day I packed for the trip to Alaska and was onboard the M/S Volendam a few days later when Hurricane Ike's storm surge pushed storm surge onto the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and, unfortunately, inundated Pass Manchac. Middendorf's was so badly flooded that its owners have decided to tear it down, another legendary Louisiana victim of a hurricane. It's a shame, but I hope they will resolve to rebuild.
Speaking of legends: Cynthia Dettelbach, the legendary editor of the Cleveland Jewish News and Rob Certner, the CEO of the newspaper, both announced their retirement from their positions this past Friday (link to article). "Cindy," as many of her staffers know her, has been the editor of the paper for the past 28 years and has worked there for the past 30 years. Rob has put in almost 11 years of dedicated service to the paper as the CEO and I owe both him and Cindy my heartfelt thanks for allowing me the opportunity to write for the paper as as staff reporter as well as to handle a host of computer support work as the web producer and IT adviser. Michael Bennett, the present publisher of the Cleveland Jewish News, will assume the additional title of editor next year, when Cindy departs the paper for good. Bennett, who came to the CJN after working with the Cleveland JCC and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, logged a number of years as a reporter with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He was named as publisher about 15 months ago. No news on Rob Certner's plans, but I am certain he will be doing something important after he leaves the paper. He was the finance director of the City of Cleveland Heights for many 12 years before assuming his original position of general manager of the CJN in 1998. A few years back his role at the paper was updated to a business model in which he served as CEO and Cindy took on the position of executive vice-president. He recently served a one-year term as president of the American Jewish Press Association. I wish both Cindy and Rob the very best of success in their future endeavors and wish good luck to Bennett in his new duties.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Leaving that dam ship

Alaskan mountain majesty

My last view of an Alaskan glacier from the Alaska Railroad train

September 14 and 15

The last morning on the M/S Volemdam (that dam ship!) was literally only a few hours. Bags had to be in the hallway by midnight, which meant that whatever clothes one intended to wear the final day(s) had to be carried by hand or put out in advance. The night was rainy and dreary. It was if Alaska was crying that I would be leaving her behind soon. A final breakfast line for early departing passengers was opened at 5:00 a.m., but by the time I got through the very long line, I had all of ten minutes to down the food. We docked in Seward, Alaska at 6:00 a.m. and in just a few moments I boarded a car of the historic Alaska Railroad. Originally begun as a private concern, the Alaska Railroad was taken over in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson and completed by President Warren G. Harding in 1923 at a total cost of $60 million. The first leg of the train runs between Seward and Alaska's largest city, Anchorage, a journey of 114 miles. The remainder of service continues another 356 miles to Fairbanks. And what a train. The cars are constructed out of large plexiglass that afford unparalleled views of the Alaskan countryside. While we didn't see any moose, we did spy some mountain goats and eagles along the way. The Alaska Railroad is run along a single track over formidable ground. Each five-mile section of track is cleared for forward progress. If another train is approaching, one gets the right of way and the other pulls off onto a side track until it receives clearance. Each car has its own food service and drink area, while a club car allows for other amenities like espresso, cappachino and smoothies either with or without alcohol. The service was excellent and the four and a half hour trip was most enjoyable. Over the course of the short morning trip the scenery that was viewed was absolutely incredible. We arrived in Anchorage at 11:30 a.m. and were whisked to the Sheraton Anchorage, which served as a courtesy area for all disembarking passengers from the Volendam who were heading off to the airport. The luggage from the ship was already at the hotel, having been trucked from the ship. It was time to check out the sights of Anchorage.

Anchorage Trolley

A city trolley tour of Anchorage cost only $15.00 and lasted nearly an hour. The tour went to the airport near the center of town that boasts the largest number of private aircraft on a per capita basis. According to the tour conductor, one in 26 people in Alaska have pilot's licenses. Near the end of the tour, I elected to hop off and check out the Anchorage Art Museum. There was supposed to be an admittance fee, but as I approached the front door, I was surprised to learn that it was Hispanic Americans Appreciation Day and no fee was required. To which I replied, "Muchas gracias!" The museum had a wonderful collection on Alaska native life and a special exhibit on the Iditerod, the famous dog sled race. Several pieces of art were featured and it was the only way I was able to "see" Mount McKinley in Anchorage (not visible due to low clouds):

An oil featuring Mt. McKinley
An oil painting of Mt. McKinley

I dined at Orso Restaurant in downtown Anchorage, the site of the most powerful earthquake in the nation's history in 1964. Since those 44 years, the city has rebounded and proved to be quite resilient. By the time that evening fell, it was time to get to the airport with luggage in tow. My flight started in Anchorage at 9:22 and was due to fly all night to Dallas, three hours ahead of Alaska time. With just 15 minutes between flights from landing in Dallas to boarding a plane headed to New Orleans, it was 9:00 a.m. when I was back in a post-Ike and post-Gustav environment. It all looked the same, but I knew that wasn't the case. Parts of Mandeville and several sections of Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes hit hard by Gustav were revisited with floodwaters during Ike's close passage. Alaska seemed a world away and indeed it was.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Taking the College Fjords

Magnificent Harvard glacier "calving"

September 12

The final day of sightseeing in Alaska aboard ship proved to be one of the most awe-inspiring. It was a journey to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. If ever there was a testament to global warming, it is Glacier Bay, which was visited by Captain George Vancouver 200 years ago. Vancouver, for whom the Canadian city was named, observed that Glacier Bay was a huge bay blocked at its northern terminus by a huge wall of ice. Over the course of time since then, the glaciers have retreated leaving 65 miles of new inlets and waterways only accessible by large vessels like the Volendam. U.S. Park Rangers came on board the ship and guided passengers into historical and geological explanations of what we were witnessing for ourselves. The largest grouping of glaciers is found in Glacier Bay at an area named College Fjords because all of the glaciers were charted about a hundred years ago and named for different institutions of higher education such as Harvard, Yale and Wellsley. The sound of a glacier "calving," or dropping large chunks of ice (or icebergs) into the salt water is not unlike a clap of thunder that follows a lightning strike. The difference is that just after the booming crack lets out a large chunk of white or blue and white ice can be seen plummeting to the sea in a powerful splash. Sometimes the icebergs are quite huge, but most of the times the pieces that flake off the glacier are relatively small like the size of a small room or a bed. Thousands of these floating pieces of ice line the way toward the glaciers and resemble floating markers that signal one of nature's most incredible marvels, albeit one of its slowest moving forces. Passengers on the decks watched in awe and listened as these giants moaned and cracked througout the day as salt water incursion caused the hundreds of years-old ice to crash to the sea. The day was quite chilly and many availed themselves of ample supplies of hot chocolate to steel themselves from the constant barrage of high winds and low temperatures. This was Alaska at its brutal best and the weather that seemed in the morning to be too cloudy or threatening broke through in the afternoon yielding incredible sights and sounds that will be remembered for a lifetime.
As evening fell, it was time for Shabbat. The ship provided two challahs, some terrible kosher wine and a nice sponge cake in order to bring in the Sabbath. There was time to welcome the Sabbath Bride in a fashion with some very Reform prayerbooks and I appreciated the overture by the cruise line to accomodate the few Jews who were on board.

September 13

The last full day of the cruise was spent packing and saying goodbye to the wonderful crew aboard the M/S Volendam (that dam ship!). We were treated to an afternoon Indonesian Tea Ceremony by the wait staff, all of whom hail from Indonesia. The final meal was a "Master's Chef Dinner," where everyone got to wear chef's hats and enjoy a repast appropriately capped off with baked Alaska for dessert. The last night I helped my teammates win the "Name That Tune" contest which featured children's songs. Was there any better indication that I suffer from Peter Pan syndrome? When I finally made it to my bed for the night, the Indonesian stewart for my cabin had made one of the delightful towel animals they make for guests. He had made a lobster, a clam, and a dog among others. But he had not honored my request for an elephant. That night he did:

My elephant "towel animal"

Friday, September 19, 2008

Helicopters and Trains

Atop Mead Glacier outside of Skagway

September 11
By the time that we docked at our last destination -- Skagway, Alaska -- the third stop in as many days, I was a bit disappointed. The reason was that I had booked an Alaskan four-glacier helicopter tour for the afternoon the ship was docked in Juneau. As it turned out, all air excursions were canceled due to low cloud cover. So, I hastily rebooked another air adventure -- a helicopter landing on one glacier -- before the excursion office closed on Wednesday afternoon. If things worked out, I would be on a morning flight to just one glacier at a little bit of a reduced rate, but with a bit more time spent on the glacier itself. That morning I steeled myself for what would be the third helicopter ride of my life, the first and second being airlifts out of the Grand Canyon. The bus picked up our party and we arrived in time to be one of the first six helicopter parties to fly out onto Mead Glacier, about 25 minutes flight away from the heliport. Because of my weight, I was chosen to sit in front of the vehicle, while the three ladies on the trip sat behind me. We followed the other five helicopters rising majestically in the air like proud birds rising above the landscape and then moving at breakneck speed some 2,000 feet above the Alaskan Inner Passage. Wow! What a ride! At such a height it is almost impossible to take in all of the beauty and splendor of the countryside, but it was nothing short of overwhelming. By the time we flew towards the incredible Mead Glacier and landed there, my senses were on overdrive. A glacier is a dirty place and, yet, the water that pours off of it is incredibly pure. I was actually able to drink glacier water while there, cupping my hands and making a perfect drinking cup to hold waters half a millenium old. It may not have been the Fountain of Youth, but it tasted very good, albeit very cold. By the time that our 25 minutes had been used up, we had been exposed to all manner of glacier features including the deep crevasses and moraines, which make the glaciers appear soiled because they carry much of the fine, powdery material that is deposited and moved along by the glaciers as they grind their way slowly downward. Glaciers are essentially frozen anvils of ice that move from high perches and make their way toward the sea, smoothing every in their paths. They are also moved along by small rivers of water that permeate the entire structure and lubricate the giant ice formations as they move ever slowly downward. While atop the Mead Glacier, I was able to view deep crevasses carved out by rivulets and streams of melting water that cut through the structure.
Later that afternoon it was time for me to take the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, built just after the Yukon Gold Rush, the biggest gold rush ever known. The railroad constructed over the Chilkroot Pass was considered something of a modern marvel in that it reached heights only dreamed of by miners of the late 1890's. Althought the track is a smaller-than-normal gauge, the train that runs upon it is well managed and the picturesque sights along the way to the top and looking down towards the valley make for an incredible adventure. The track runs all the way into British Columbia, so everyone had to have their passports before driving back across the border into the United States after the train ride was over.The last part of our adventure consisted of stopping at Liarsville, a depiction of a Klondike gold village that would have been considered accurate back in the late 1890s. Several of the performers were quite fun to be around and afterwards we all panned for gold just like the hopeful miners did back in the day. On the way back we steeled ourselves for the final day of voyaging that would take us to the College Fjords, home of the biggest confluence of glaciers in the Alaska inner Passage, the next day.

Deep crevasses of blue hue mark all glaciers.

Deep crevasses cut into glaciers

White Pass and Yukon Railroad moving up the railway.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sailing and Whaling

A humpback whale descending to feed

September 10
One of the best reasons to cruise the Alaskan Inner Passage is to witness the cavorting and playfulness of several species of aquatic life such as humpback whales, orcas (or "killer whales" as they are known colloquially), sea lions and sea otters. All are regular players in Alaska during the summer months and the ship cruises and side expeditions on smaller boats in particular offer spectacular opportunities to view these magnificent creatures in their local habitats. There is perhaps no greater joy than watching whales play in the chilly waters of the Alaskan wilderness as they gorge themselves or mate prior to making journeys that will take them as far away as Hawaii. Upon arriving in the capital city of Juneau, the third largest city in Alaska, we were all disappointed that the splendiferous weather we had had in Vancouver, at sea and in Ketchikan seemed to be leaving us. The skies were dark and rain drizzled throughout the morning and early afternoon hours. The first stop was the Mendenhall Glacier, a beautiful example of the rivers of ice that have ground much of the Alaskan countryside over the course of millions of years. A number of calves or small icebergs could be seen bearing the characteristic blue hue that is an optical illusion. The blue is the result of the density of the glacial ice that starts out as hundreds of feet of compressed snow and becomes very dense ice. The ice is so dense that it will only permit the blue spectrum of light to exit, so the beautiful deep blue hue is characteristic of most glaciers.

Mendenhall Glacier located in Juneau

Following the stop at the Mendenhall Glacier, we boarded our bus to head towards a boat launch in what was now a steady rain. We climbed a double level boat that then headed out into the Pacific where whales and sea lions were expected to be seen. The inside was toasty warm and the crew offered us insights into these aquatic creatures, but the outside level above was quite chilly. The high humidity cut through one's clothing. It wasn't long before we were viewing eight humpback whales. To see these beautiful creatures up close is absolutely astonishing. But that wasn't all. We ran into a pod of five killer whales (orcas), a group of four females and one young male. We also spotted nearly a hundred sea lions nestled out on an island and were looking for porpoises before we had to call it a day. But what a day! Despite the overcast skies and the rainy weather, it was the best viewing the crew had seen in at least two weeks and was one of their best days of the summer! Check out the orcas below:

Killer whales are not dangerous to man, only seals and other whales

The rest of the day consisted of a few hours to kill at the Red Dog Saloon or checking out some good buys in shops located near the docks. The governor's mansion was visible from the main street in Juneau and two museums were accessible until 5:00 p.m. for those so inclined. Frankly, I enjoyed the scenery at one of the local pubs that featured free wireless access to the Internet for the price of buying one drink. It was after 5 o'clock, so I reckoned, why not?

Sailing Away, Zipping Away and Salmon Away

M/S Volendam (that dam ship!)
September 7 and 8

Unless you are a Native American or (as the tribes of Northwest America refer to themselves) a member of the First Nation, your predecessors probably came to the New World aboard a passenger ship, freighter or other seaworthy vessel. This traveling by sea is truly in the blood of most Americans, although some travel better than others. The rocking and rolling motion has always been very tranquil and settling to me, but there are many individuals who find it the least likeable part of traveling by sea. I hadn't been at sea in some time, probably close to eight years, but I still found that I had my "sea legs" as the M/S Volendam made her way out towards the Alaska inner passage. I vividly remember sailing aboard the Crystal Harmony on a voyage to China in 1996. Unfortunately, we hit Yeats, one of two typhoons that were blowing in the South China Sea at the end of September. We were heading for Okinawa, after having left Taipai, Taiwan and immediately the boat started rocking and tossing the passengers from side to side. It was so bad that passengers weren't allowed outdoors due to slippery conditions and 40-foot seas with 60-mile-per-hour winds. It was rough. Two passengers suffered broken arms and collarbones. Lots of people, particularly the older travelers, were seasick. But, except for a few little twinges every now and then, I was fine. Eventually, the ship headed straight for Shanghai, the first time that I know that a cruise vessel went from National Republic of China to the People's Republic of China. The cruise on the Volendam was a joke compared to that cruise.

Zipping along the Alaka rainforest canopy in Ketchikan
September 9

We arrived in Ketchikan early in the morning. The excursion tours that were offered by Holland America were varied. Some were strenuous. Some were more inclined toward the sedentary set, where one could simply sit and have the scenery pass in front and along the sides. I decided to take a more adventurous route and elected to enjoy an Alaska Canopy Adventure, specifically the Rainforest Canopy and Zipline Expedition. The route I chose in Ketchikan was a particularly fun and challenging zipline perched 100 feet or so above the rainforest floor. Yes, in case you hadn’t thought about it, Alaska is home to the world’s largest rainforest. Due to deforestation and development, the title formerly held by that rainforest in the Amazon region was taken over by Alaska and the Tongass National Forest a few years ago. Even though one might automatically think of a rainforest as being in a tropical environment, it does not have to be. In the case of Alaska’s temperate rainforest, much of it is protected by federal law. It is home to significant numbers of bears (brown, black and grizzly) and is the spawning grounds for a huge expanse of salmon. My zipline adventure consisted of eight runs, one of which was over 700 feet across the forest top. The fastest of the runs had participants reaching speeds of near 35 miles-per-hour. There is nothing to describe the sheer beauty of peering out from perches high above the forest floor where sightings of bears and creeks filled with salmon are common. The Alaska Rainforest Canopy and Zipline Expedition, which also included three suspended bridges, took over an hour and a half to compete. Once we reached terra firma again, we were presented with Olympic-style gold medals signaling that we had finished our tour. Later that afternoon I had a chance to tour uncharacteristically sunny Ketchikan. Ketchikan is home to 7,000 inhabitants with cruise ships bringing in as many tourists as locals most summer days. It is also home to a multitudinous amount of spawning salmon, which can readily be seen moving against streams that run through the center of “Alaska’s First City.” The history of the town is as colorful as its buildings with a historic red light district near the center. One building is dedicated to Dolly, the most well-known madam of the town. Those Alaskan nights get to be pretty chilly, so I can understand the need to share…er… uh…bodily warmth.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Vancouver first

An untypical sunny Vancouver day just prior to setting sail aboard the M/S Volendam

September 6

The memories of Hurricane Gustav were still fresh in my mind on September 5 when I returned to New Orleans. The thoughts of tires stuck in the mud, a blown front tire, blinding rain, blustery winds and long lines of heavy traffic were still very much with me when I repacked the large suitcase I intended to take with me on my Alaskan cruise. That last day was fraught with peril and there was really no time to make needed runs to the bank and to the food store to restock all of the perishable items I had removed and given away at Henry S. Jacobs Camp or consumed before leaving for the trip. I did manage to make it to Loew's to return several hundred dollars worth of storm-related supplies, but, alas, the generator was not returnable. So, I now have a perfectly fine portable generator filled with gasoline that I hope to use (or hope to not have the occasion to use) in the future. But my thoughts had turned from hurricanes to the high seas. I was ready to leave early the next morning. The M/S Volendam (that dam ship!) was to embark from Vancouver, British Columbia, truly one of the most beautiful cities in the world on Sunday morning, September 7. Unfortunately, because of Gustav, American Airlines decided to cancel the two early morning flights from New Orleans to Dallas, despite the information on the website that stated everything was scheduled and on time. This required a run to Brennan's Restaurant to sample some grits and grillades, Eggs Sardou and Bananas Foster. After all, I wasn't certain how civilized these Cannucks were going to be. The rescheduled flight put me into Canada in the early evening rather than early afternoon, so the afternoon tour of the city was rescheduled for the next morning, just prior to the time that the ship would set sail for the 49th state.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Governor Palin wasn't home

Mendenhall Glacier located outside of Ketchikan, Alaska

Ike was as probably as bad as I had feared. I am truly sorry for those people living along the Louisiana and Texas coasts who took the full brunt of the storm. Many of my friends from the area in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes took a double hit from Gustav and then Ike. I will be seeing what I can personally do to help my friends in Scouting there, particularly those in the Houma area. Regular readers may have wondered why I haven't posted more regularly over the course of the last week and I gave a hint last Friday, the last time I had access to the Internet. I had been planning a vacation before all of this hurricane brouhaha. The trip was to take place the following weekend when Gustav suddenly forced my evacuation from New Orleans. Not only had I been forced to load up my essentials for the trip to Jacobs Camp in Utica and the eventual run to Memphis, but I also had the additional consideration of having to bring all of my clothes for a week-long cruise that started in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 6. I was probably the only evacuee from New Orleans who had his formal wear, cufflinks and patent leather shoes with him throughout the ordeal. When I was able to return home, I only had a little over 24 hours to repack and make certain that I was truly prepared for the trip of a lifetime to Alaska. Yes, Alaska, the largest state in the union and the one that remains the most untamed, brutal and awe-inspiring site that one can imagine. This was a pleasure cruise and one that paled in comparison to the harsh conditions endured by thousands who first came to Alaska in search of gold during 1898. For a boy from the flat Mississippi delta lands to see the wonders of majestic snow-capped peaks towering thousands of feet in the air was breathtaking. For someone accustomed to seeing alligators swimming along bayous to see humpback whales and orcas in their native environments was impressive. Over the course of the next few days I will be recounting my travels along Alaska's Inner Passage aboard the Holland America ship M/S Volendam. Despite all of the many wonders and pleasures I endured on this vacation, it was all tempered by the thoughts of those back home who had just endured Gustav and who were hoping to avoid the new storm as well as those in the direct path of Hurricane Ike.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Another whalechaser

A humpback whale in a characteristic salute to whalechasers.

Part of dealing with the wonderful blogosphere is that one meets a world of people online who would probably never cross paths in real life. I have gotten to know a fellow blogger, who goes by the name Whalechaser. Her blog is called Whalechaser's Musings and is filled with a number of sometimes hilarious and oftentimes very well-written pieces. I find it incredible that she goes by the nickname of Whalechaser since that's exactly what I've been doing for the last several days. More on this later. Thought I'd post a picture I took the other day just for you (and her) to enjoy.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Seven Year *itch

Seven years ago we all remember where we were when the attacks on America began. It was a defining moment in our republic, a focal point from where we knew we were no longer safe in this world. This was the day that global terrorism became domestic. We had watched from afar for many years and witnessed how others in far off lands had struggled with the threat of terrorism as part of their everyday fabric. We had labored under a false sense of security. After that black Tuesday morning, we could no longer look at terror in the same way as we had on September 10, 2001. In a plan designed to frighten our citizenry and shake the foundation of our nation, the enemy used our own advanced technology against us, felling the noble Twin Towers in New York, the symbol of our financial prowess, and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the seat of our military power. Seven years ago today we shook our heads in disbelief, mourned our victims and, in a series of specific measures, set about redefining what liberties we would have to do without in order to safeguard our national security. It seems pretty clear to me that the future of our nation depends on our ability to protect ourselves. With brave men and women stationed in far away lands to safeguard its liberty, America finds itself on the brink of one of its most important national elections. It is important we remember the lessons of 9/11 and keep them close at heart when we cast our ballots in less than eight weeks.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Breathing a sigh of relief

Sometime yesterday I went from major hurricane mode and consideration of having to evacuate a second time to being able to breathe a sigh of relief and relax for the first time in a week. Frankly, the prospect of being able to enjoy the weather for the first time since Gustav came roaring into town, is much appreciated. I began to think about Hurricane Betsy, the 43rd anniversary of which was this past week. Hurricane Betsy was the first storm that taught me the magnitude of what a hurricane could do and it gave me insight into how dangerous these storms could be. My mom and dad flew over the hurricane as they journeyed to Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula for a two-week vacation. They literally flew over Betsy and came back just after essential services had been restored. My housekeeper Victoria was in charge of taking care of my sister and me and we had no electricity for most of that fortnight. Many storms have come and gone in the intervening decades, but I always respected them after Betsy, even when they were just at tropical storm strength. Now that Ike has made a more westerly track towards Texas or Mexico and lost most of its power, I am ready to think about more important things like the presidential campaign or the recovery effort going on in Houma or maybe about the onset of fall. In any event I am now ready to keep my mind affixed on any of these events as long as I can keep my attention off tropical storm activities.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Disasters of both kinds

Thank you, Cuba. While I thought for sure that Hurricane Ike would be moving into the Gulf of Mexico as a powerful category 2 or 3 storm before re-strengthening, your jagged and mountainous landscape provided just the resistance needed to tame the storm into a category 1. Of course 73 deaths were attributed to Ike in Haiti and we’ll probably hear about the death toll in Cuba within another 24 hours. But as was the case with Gustav, any lessening of strength is something for which we should all be grateful. While many in New Orleans and along the Louisiana Gulf Coast have kept a wary eye on Ike as the storm churned in the Caribbean, others in the nation are looking to Washington, D.C. to witness an unnatural disaster. I am speaking of the incredible bailout by the federal government of FannieMae and FerdieMac. Thanks to lobbying on behalf of mortgage and banking interests who needed it to save their financial necks, the United States assumed the assets and liabilities of those two giant lending institutions that will cost taxpayers anywhere from $200 billion to as much as $500 billion. As the late Senator Everett Derksen was wont to say “A billion here and a billion there…pretty soon you’re talking real money.” So, which will have the most impact on our lives? The natural disaster that could cause levees to fail or the unnatural bailout of two financial institutions who were run so shabbily that the government had to come to their aid after creating financial havoc in the lending industry? Only time will tell, but either way we’ll need a lifesaver to hold onto or else risk being sucked into the vortex of financial doom or social upheaval.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

I don't like Ike and neither should you

A possible one, two punch from two major hurricanes within a week of each other? That's preposterous. That's ridiculous. That's exactly what could be happening right now. The likelihood that Ike will strike Florida is fairly certain. Experts are suggesting it could be the most powerful storm to strike Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. People in New Orleans will recall two facts. When Hurricane Betsy hit Miami in 1965, it started on a track that eventually hit New Orleans. When Hurricane Andrew struck the southern peninsula of Florida, it followed a similar track. With those historical markers stated, let me now give you my gut feelings. All through the Gustav crisis, I kept eyeing Ike. It developed very quickly and reminded me of Hurricane Camille in how compact and destructive it seemed to be. Because it already is or is about to hit areas devastated by Gustav and Hannah earlier, this storm has the potential to inflict major loss of life in the Caribbean. But closer to home there are several things that are clear. To mount another major evacuation in another few days on the scale of what we went through with Gustav seems unlikely. Like the boy who cried wolf, Mayor Nagin's call for everyone to leave the city for the "mother of all storms" might come back to haunt him. People may reason that nothing happened before, so why not ride out the storm. That's a dangerous assumption and one that police and Homeland Security definitely don't one people to take. Like it or not, a good number of people in Southeast Louisiana don't have the means necessary to evacuate and stay away from their homes for extended periods of time. I am holding my breath a bit on this one. As Ike makes its way towards the Gulf, we'll get a better sense where the storm will eventually make landfall. The forecasters were dead on track for Gustav. Their suggested path of the storm has it in the Gulf by Thursday, a horrifying thought indeed.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Getting over Gustav

There's still plenty of folks in New Orleans who still don't have power, but you can see progress is being made. I was reminded again of the many months following Hurricane Katrina, when I would return to the city on a sporadic basis from my home base in Cleveland. Every single major intersection in the city had stop signs. Many of those same busy intersections were again without power after Gustav and stop signs were hastily erected to prevent accidents. Incredibly, in a city marked by horrible drivers, the low technology worked. Normally disagreeable red light runners would slow, stop and give way to slower vehicles at the all-way stops. It was one of the good things that came out of the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. No one was going any particular place very fast, so why bother driving like a maniac? It all seemed so clear then. The winds of Gustav may have created more damage than Katrina over a larger area in the state. Of the 64 parishes in Louisiana (every other state calls them counties), only two suffered no damage from Gustav. That's an amazing fact. The hardest hit area continues to be where the storm came ashore, including Grand Isle and Cocodrie, and north of that point in Houma. Many residents who have chosen to return will face lack of power, potable water and sewerage service for several more weeks to come. School districts are having to deal very harsh conditions for students as many facilities are now destroyed. In the end many students will have to be bused or will have to be driven to more remote locations while the recovery effort continue. In the meantime, city and state officials continue to make progress as we all cast a wary eye on the other major storm in the Caribbean, Ike. Hurricane Ike is a dangerous category 4 storm churning up seas with 140 miles-per-hour winds. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced several locations that are in need of repair before Ike gets much closer to New Orleans. Some of these projects are already being undertaken, while others need to be started immediately. The biggest danger seems to be in Grand Isle, where 85% of an 8,000 square foot area on the island's eastern area disappeared after the storm passed. We are all busy getting things back in order, but not all of the boards placed along windows have come down. It would seem silly to take them down only to have to put them back up in another four days time when Ike could be threatening offshore oil operations and moving towards landfall somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. For those interested in looking at statistical data in a graphic presentation as to the impact of Gustav's storm surge, here's an excellent link prepared by the Times-Picayune, whose award-winning reporter and author Mark Schliffstein has been on top of his game again. 

Friday, September 5, 2008

The drive home, part two

A long line of cars headed into New Orleans at the merger of I-55 and I-10

Thursday morning I arose and loaded up my vehicle, iced down the remaining food items and left the camp around 10:30 a.m. Despite advice from a couple of people, I decided to take a chance and use Interstate-55 for reentry into New Orleans. Traffic was steady and flowing with only a few pockets of what I would term slowdowns where we creeped along at 25 or 30 miles an hour. The only major bottleneck was at the point where I-55 joins Interstate 10. I was there just in time to see the long line of blue flashing Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's deputies cars escorting a long caravan of yellow school buses filled with hundreds of our very own criminals to Orleans Parish Prison. It certainly made one proud.
A quick trip to Kosher Cajun Delicatessen and Grocery allowed me to enjoy a bowl of steaming matzah ball soup and a triple salad combination of tuna salad, potato salad and cole slaw. It was quite good and, as it turns out, necessary to prepare me for the rest of the drive.
The trip from Jefferson Parish into New Orleans seemed normal until I got off the exit for Howard Avenue near my home. It was then that I noticed quite a number of downed trees, especially palms and a few pines. Several oak trees had also been toppled by the force of Gustav's winds. As I approached Vendome Place, I noticed the tin roof from a truck leasing business was lying in the front of a next door residence:

There was the usual amount of debris on the streets, especially tree limbs from oaks that find their way into city streets and sometimes impede traffic flow. Luckily for me there were no large limbs blocking my way and I proceeded down Vendome. I spotted an unlucky victim of Gustav, a column on the portico of a home that was now pointed out toward the street:

I proceeded up Vendome to where it intersects with Fountainbleau Drive, near my home and made the turn onto Nashville Avenue. There I found my home somewhat shaken, but definitely marked by Gustav's gusts. The carport that had survived Katrina and all other hurricanes and tropical storms for the last 20 was gone! Only the rigid poles that held it in place remained stationary. Some pieces were in the driveway, but most had been blown into my back yard. The force of the winds had literally torn the carport from the side of my home:

Now don't get me wrong. I wasn't in love with my carport, but it was useful, especially when I had to enter my home in a torrential downpour. It did have a hole put into it one New Year's Eve by a falling bullet that bounced off the roof of my car and came to rest underneath the vehicle. Yes, in New Orleans it is advisable to stay off the open air streets during New Year's Eve. But I guess what struck me was that even with such powerful force evidenced by Gustav's effect on my home, it couldn't compare with the destruction wreaked on it by the floods that came after Katrina. The hurt from Katrina was on the inside rather than that which showed so readily on the outside following Gustav. Meanwhile, many residents of Jefferson and Orleans Parish are still without power. My power is on and I enjoyed a restful night in my own bed for the first time since Saturday night. May it ever be so humble....

The drive home, part one

The drive home from Memphis was done in two stages and at great expense in both time and energy. I had made the trip from Graceland in less than 15 minutes and still had about five or six minutes to spare before the ducks did their thing. So it was that I had just left the Peabody Hotel and thought to myself how lucky I was that I had been able to take advantage of the complimentary parking in their garage for the first half-hour. But my luck was about to change. Thinking ahead, I pulled into a service station in downtown Memphis and topped off my gas tank. As I turned from the street into the Exxon station on Union Avenue, my front right tire, (one of a set of four new tires I had put on my vehicle in June) hit something -- I'm still not sure what. Having a Chevrolet Blazer makes me always think that it's almost tank-like in the way it can roll over objects. But the truth is like many other trucks, it is vulnerable to tire punctures. When I came from having to pay for the gasoline, I discovered to my horror that the tire was already deflated and rapidly losing what little air remained. It was 5:20 p.m. My gut feeling was that I was stuck in Memphis for the night. However, with some helpful suggestions from the service station employees, I called a Firestone station three blocks away. The manager who answered the phone gave me directions. If I wanted to get credit for the punctured tire, I could have changed it with the spare and then put that tire inside my already filled rear compartment, driven to the dealership and replaced the spare with a new tire. Time was moving on and they closed their doors at 7:00 p.m. I knew I had to chance driving on the bad tire and risk not getting any credit for it at Firestone. As it turned out, the puncture was on the sidewall and probably wouldn't have amounted in my getting any credit anyway. The short drive to the dealership took less than two minutes, but by the time I got there the tire was shredded. Taking advantage of the break, I improvised a cocktail with some of the ice in the large plastic bags I had taken from my hotel earlier in the day. It took them nearly an hour to change the tire and for me to get back on the road with the shredded tire inside my very overpacked vehicle for the drive home. You'll recall that I still had a brand new generator taking up most of the available space inside along with food items, clothes and plastic water bottles. Although my rear vision was a bit obscured, I felt ready for the journey when the clock neared 6:45 p.m. Almost as soon as I hit the highway, I ran into a steady hard rain that was left over from Gustav. The rain was non-stop for the next two and a half hours. I got a call from a friend who advised me that the line of cars to get back into Louisiana was 20 miles long. Apparently, Governor Bobby Jindal overrode Mayor Ray Nagin's decision to not allow residents back into their homes and ordered the state troopers to open up the interstate highways to one and all. The cars began lining up at midnight on Wednesday even though the evacuees knew that their homes might be without electricity, water or sewerage services. I had had a busy day and very little sleep, so I called Jonathan Cohen late at night at Henry S. Jacobs Camp and he advised me to get permission from his assistant Avram to have a staff cabin for the night. That was a step up from the camper cabin I had slept in during the storm, mind you. By the time I rolled into camp, it was near midnight. I put the food under refrigeration and went looking for a parking spot along the side of the road near the cabin. It was dark in that area and just after I had pulled into a likely spot, I decided it might be too muddy. I was right. I tried backing out, but the car only went sideways. My rear tires spun around, but could get no traction. I reversed the vehicle and it lurched forward only slightly. I went back and forth, trying in vain to get out of the mud, but to no avail. Only a man possessed could have done what I did next. Instead of going to sleep and dealing with it in the morning, I elected to call AAA. The operator said they would not make an appointment for me for the following morning, so I told them to have a tow truck dispatched immediately. It took almost another hour, but a middle-aged tow operator and his much younger assistant showed up and took all of 10 minutes to get me out of the mud and onto solid ground. Then it was time for sleep.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I'm going to Graceland...isn't that ducky?

The world famous Peabody ducks

Well, you didn't think I'd not take advantage of the lag time I had in Memphis, did you? Those of you who have known me for long know that there is little chance of my getting into Memphis and not checking out Graceland, the home of the King of Rock and Roll. I have never had an opportunity to visit this national landmark, but there is an odd coincidence. I was in Tennessee when the funeral for Elvis Presley was held back on August 18, 1977. Elvis died on August 16 that year and I was in Virginia enjoying a wonderful day out on Smith Mountain Lake near Lynchburg. I was driving back that weekend when I thought long and hard about making it to the memorial service. As it turned out, I decided against going there even though my mother was certain that I was making a beeline for Graceland. When I showed up in New Orleans on time and without a detour to Memphis, I do believe my mother said a prayer and thanked divine providence. There are many things to do in Memphis. Obviously, there are the tours at Graceland and then there is Beale Street, the home most associated with the blues movement in America. But beyond that hoary tradition -- and remember we do have Bourbon Street in New Orleans -- there is also a very engaging practice that takes place every day at 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m every day. That's the March of the Ducks at the Peabody Hotel. Many of you are uninformed, but the historic Peabody Hotel has been featuring its twin daily marches for most of the last 73 years. The marches are orchestrated by a "Duckmaster" or "Assistant Duckmaster" and the four mallards and one drake march to the music of John Phillip Sousa's "King Cotton March" during the morning and evening marches to or from the lobby's fountain area where the ducks hang out during the day. The ducks work for three months before another set of ducks are introduced to this strange, but very popular tradition. They begin their march on the roof of the historic Peabody Hotel and return to their "duck palace" by evening. For those of you who have not experienced this delightful tradition, I recommend a trip to Memphis to enjoy this free show.

All the Way to Memphis

Jewish New Orleans evacuees at Camp Henry S. Jacobs in Utica, Mississippi

With the decision still forthcoming from city and state officials as to how and when they would begin to let residents of Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes return, I made the decision to leave the wet and muddy environs of Henry S. Jacobs Camp and venture northward to Memphis. The steady, driving rain for most of the drive through Mississippi made driving conditions difficult. My attention was affixed on the opposite side of Interstate 55 and the astounding number of vehicles headed southward to New Orleans and lower Mississippi. It was notable for one major reason: there were caravans of hundreds of tree cutting and energy service support vehicles traveling ten or 15 trucks at a time. The state border was shut down at Louisiana by state troopers. Unless one was an emergency responder (doctor, policeman, fireman, etc.), he or she could not gain access to the state. Vehicles were being turned away in droves. And so I headed north...towards Graceland and Beale Street. Memphis is home to the largest Orthodox Jewish population in the South and many of the religious observant New Orleans community headed there for support during this evacuation period. Kosher food is plentiful here and an eiruv (enclosure) has been constructed in town that allows Jewish residents within it to carry items on Shabbat, for example. Many Jewish families stayed in Memphis during the weeks they were away following Hurricane Katrina. It wasn't a difficult decision for many of them to make again. After making the drive in intermittent rain still left from the area of disturbed weather that once was Hurricane Gustav, I arrived in the Home of the Blues. Last night with only a few hours to rest, I was invited to the home of Dr. Seth Kaufman, a pain management doctor here. Unbenownst to me, many of the evacuated New Orleans Jewish community had also been invited there. Among the guests were Joel and Natalie Brown of Kosher Cajun Delicatessen and Grocery. They announced they were leaving to make their way back to their store and their Metairie home in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. They said they had only lost power to their refrigerated food items for eight hours, which meant everything was still good. Other guests included their sister-in-law Jennifer Fertel and Dr. Ed and Channah Lang. The Brown's daughter Ruth was celebrating her birthday and several local Jewish girls and boys wearing kippahs (skullcaps) and contemporary clothing were relegated to the kitchen area while the adults dined on kosher beef ribs, vegetarian chili, baked beans with meatless sausage, grilled chicken, grilled eggplant, cole slaw, kosher hot dogs and hamburgers. No one went away hungry, because there was also an ample supply of fresh deserts baked or prepared by Mrs. Kaufman, a former registered nurse. She managed to spring on me something I had never seen before: a yellow watermelon. It was quite refreshing and I had a small portion of some passion fruit sorbet to finish my meal. I was so tired that writing became a chore. That's the reason that this post is going to be made on Wednesday, albeit very early on Wednesday.

Jewish New Orleans evacuees including Kosher Cajun's Joel Brown, center, enjoying Memphis hospitality

Monday, September 1, 2008

AVODAH Corps is here too

Joshua Lichtman, right, meets with some of his AVODAH Corps members, now evacuated to Henry S. Jacobs Camp

Joshua Lichtman, the director of the New Orleans office of AVODAH Corps, the Jewish service organization, had planned to have his orientational retreat for his nine recent college graduate members in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. When Hurricane Gustav threatened New Orleans and Lichtman found that the portion of Mississippi he and the graduate volunteers were in was also threatened and that nearby Camp Henry S. Jacobs was offering sanctuary for anyone in the area, he decided fairly quick to move over to Jacobs and make the best of a bad situation. "Tomorrow morning would have been their first date," Lichtman explained while meeting with most of his group late in the morning at the Jacobs dining room. Seven out of the nine AVODAH members made it to Jacobs. These include Ora Nitkin-Kaner from Toronto; Ariana Kolins from Brooklyn; Yaeli Bronstein from Teaneck, N.J.; David Eber from Salem, Oregon; Meredith Grabek from Paxton, Massachusetts; and Eliza Baron from Milburn, N.J. One volunteer will be dedicating herself to helping with ongoing recovery efforts across the city with Rebuilding Together. One will work with the Public Defender's Office and another, Eber, will be working with the lofty sounding Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. I asked him what all of those words meant. "They buy products in bulk and then they give them at little or no cost to residents like green technologies," he said. "They promote getting better business, not just liquor stores and fried chicken stores, but fresh products. It's everything from parks to better lighting, to getting transportation, and getting businesses to help the community."It's certainly a mouthful, but it is an opportunity to make the neighborhood sustainable, both ecologically and economically. These idealistic recent graduates are all living together in an uptown home to which they can't wait to return. If the storm continues on its present track, I can't see any reason why they can't be back in just another day or two.

Girding for Gustav

Evacuees at Henry S. Jacobs Camp watch TV news reports from WDSU-TV

There is no doubt that with the mandatory evacuations of both Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, the greatest confluence of members of the extended New Orleans Jewish community is right here at Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. Worried evacuees have been crowding into the recreation hall at the camp this morning where a large screen rear projection TV with stereo speakers has been broadcasting WDSU-TV's signal over DirectTV's Channel 361. WDSU has always been my favorite New Orleans station. After all, it was the area's first television station, founded in 1948 by Edgar Stern, one of the Jewish community's best known philanthropists. I confess that I especially like Margaret Orr, an accomplished meterologist who might otherwise strike you as a soccer mom. As Gustav approached the Louisiana coastline, she provided incredibly accurate and calming reports that literally took the winds out of the alarmist we call our mayor. In case you wondered what the "C." in C. Ray Nagin stood for, I'll give you a hint. It isn't Classy! While reasonable journalists and responsible city officials were trying to be accurate and give the citizenry expectations of what was to be, Mayor Nagin was in front of the news cameras urging that citzens should "get your butts out of town." It confirms my suspicion that he is the mother of all mayors. According to reports, news from the city is good this morning. Gustav has been downgraded from a Category 3 storm to a Category 2. My good friends in Houma are taking the full force of the storm, but it has proven to be a lot less of a "mother of all storms" and more like a kid sister. There is concern still left for St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes because of rising water and the possibility that levees could be topped. Gustav is still a very dangerous storm and the levees will continue to be tested for another 12 hours. Yet, as was the case with Katrina, it could have been so much worse. Snake-bitten New Orleanians, familiar with what Katrina did to the levees structure were not taking any chances. Sure, the metropolitan area is largely without power. But, heck, we're used to blackouts and brownouts ever since the grid went back up after Katrina. So, the waiting game goes on here in Mississippi, but I believe we may have dodged a bullet.

Where the Jews Are

The very first bands of thundershowers associated with Hurricane Gustav roll into the deserted uptown of New Orleans

I must offer apologies to Connie Francis for the title, but I do confess it seemed somehow appropriate to have a theme reminiscent of the Sixties, and the beach. After all, I'm at summer camp! I left New Orleans at 7:05 p.m., just as the first droplets of rain began to fall and the most ominous clouds you can imagine began to peer over the horizon. All day long the breeze was steady, but really only gusting every now and then. Just as my car was finally packed and I was ready to leave for Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, the wind started to pick up significantly. The air became crisp and cold and the skies darkened. Once I started winding my way onto the streets adjacent to my home, the heavens opened and the heavy rain was a more or less constant companion for me until on the interstate well into Mississippi. At times the rain was driven horizontally towards my windshield by the sheer force of the winds. It was scary, but manageable. That was the bad news. The good news was that since I waited so long to leave, there was very little traffic on the highway. What I had surmised would be a five- or six-hour ordeal, turned out to be a little over three hours, more or less normal driving time between New Orleans and the camp, which also serves as the site of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, whose executive director Macy Hart was the original director of Henry S. Jacobs Camp 40 years ago. During my days as a camper I went up to Camp Blue Star in Hendersonville, North Carolina for seven years in a row. The year before he came down to Utica to set up shop for a new Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) summer camp, my counselor at Blue Star was none other than Macy Hart. As a matter of fact, Macy was still the camp director when my son attended camp here. There are about 150 Jewish New Orleanians living at Jacobs Camp for the next few days (they hope no more than that). Although donations are being accepted, the camp's present director, Jonathan Cohen, is not charging for any essential services for any visitors. The camp is not even charging for meals. Nevertheless, it is still a remarkable gift of charity. Meanwhile, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans executive director Michael Weil has set up shop in Memphis a few blocks away from the Federation building there. Should levees be breached during or after Gustav and the evacuation becomes more prolonged, the New Orleans Federation is prepared to link with the Memphis Federation. Incredibly, the camp has Internet services as well as digital TV that is permitting visitors to be able to view WDSU-TV 6 in the relative safety of the camp. Several of the younger set have been occupying themselves by singing Karoake, something Jonathan Cohen, who likes to go by the nickname "J.C.," humorously calls Evacuroake.
So, we are in a waiting mode as Gustav will take at least another eight to ten hours to come ashore. Some of us are glued to the big screen TV in an adjacent room. Others are on their computers messaging each other. The other necessities -- cell phones and i-Pods -- are also being widely used by the younger set. Some of us old timers are consoling ourselves by singing songs with guitar accompaniment. Can you say "Kumbaya?"