Israelis slip past feds, into New Orleans, to help during chaos

new york | Washington rebuffed Israeli offers of expert assistance in the days after Hurricane Katrina, but a team of Israeli rescue personnel managed anyhow to deploy in some of the worst-hit areas in and around New Orleans.

Physicians, mental health professionals, trauma specialists, logistics experts and a special unit of Israeli police divers arrived in St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish on Sept. 10. The 18-member team spent a week and a half assisting fire department search-and-rescue squads and sitting in on daily planning meetings that included local leadership and a complement of FEMA, police, military and fire representatives, the Israeli team’s leader said.

The team administered first aid to survivors, rescued abandoned pets and discovered more victims of the storm, which ravaged the Gulf Coast.

Carting equipment ranging from axes and ropes to electrical generators, satellite phones and three weeks’ worth of food, the group arrived in the United States in civilian garb, waiting until they hit the decimated areas to don T-shirts featuring the group’s logo and other identifying garb that would mark them as uninvited rescue personnel.

Asked about the Israeli personnel aid, a spokesman for FEMA said only that “there were many volunteer groups from different countries who came to Louisiana to help the people and the state.”

“FEMA wants to thank them for the assistance and the hard work they did,” he said.

“The work being done by IsraAID and their team members to help the people of Louisiana is greatly appreciated,” said Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.). “They are providing support services for people who have been devastated by the tragedy, offering whatever assistance is needed as it is needed. Their presence will make the effort to get people home and on with their lives that much easier.”

Before entering the affected areas, the team had to work around Louisiana medical accreditation policies that, like those in other states, require that physicians be recognized by the state in question in order to practice. The Israeli doctors were not accredited in Louisiana and could not provide medical services without this stamp of approval.

Perry Witkin, president of the Minnesota-based relief organization Nechama, was in contact with the medical director of Louisiana’s Public Health Department, and together they were able to come up with a formula for the Israelis’ participation.

The team would be allowed in but the doctors would not be “practicing medicine, but would be there as physicians to help the Israelis should something happen to them,” said Witkin.

Once that was hammered out, the Israeli team received a two-ambulance escort onto a ferry and from there headed into the outlying parishes, where they were received with slightly puzzled appreciation.

Several days into the ordeal, the Israelis were working with a fire department team when they learned that one of the firefighters, a man named Ervin, had lived in a house on the street they were clearing. They had checked Ervin’s house the previous day, it turned out, but he hadn’t had the heart to go in and survey the damage.

“So I took him hand-in-hand to his house,” said Sarit Vino Elad, a singer-actress who works in psychodrama. In the attic, where the heat was especially intense, the only thing that had escaped destruction was a case of family photographs Ervin had stowed away before Katrina hit.

“He opened the box of pictures and on the top of the box was a picture of him and his wife on their wedding day — and he burst into tears,” she recalled.