Rotary Club of New Orleans Rebuilds

The Rebirth of the Rotary Club of New Orleans

Many in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, will remember Mardi Gras 2006 as a symbol of resilience over natural catastrophe and governmental failure. For many, Mardi Gras showed that New Orleans will stand on her feet again, and Hurricane Katrina could not stop the city from celebrating its world famous carnival. Like Mardi Gras, the Rotary Club of New Orleans, USA, has reason to celebrate its rebirth. "We were knocked down, but not knocked out," said club president Charles Young.

The storm - Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, and suddenly the club, which had met for 25 years in the Fairmont Hotel on Canal Street, was in limbo. The club's phone number was disconnected, and its members scattered across the country.

Young, as did other New Orleanians, took what they could fit in their cars and headed out of town as the hurricane approached. Together with his wife, his daughter's family and their many pets, including a parakeet, Young evacuated to Lafayette, a town approximately 130 miles from New Orleans. After the hurricane hit and the levees broke, he soon realized that he would not be coming home anytime soon. Young remembered that he kept in his glove compartment of his car a tattered RI directory. He used it to contact the Rotary Club of Lafayette, Louisiana.

Wearing the only pair of long pants he had packed, Young attended the Lafayette club's weekly meeting in the first week of September. After listening to his account of escape from tragedy, Lafayette Rotarians asked Young how they could help. "I told them one of my daughters is staying in a New Orleans hotel room with her husband, her son, one dog, two cats, and three gerbils," Young says. Minutes later, Young held the keys to a local member's pool house in his hand, without a deadline to leave.

Soon after, Barbara Collins, executive secretary of the New Orleans club, via cell phone tracked him down in his Lafayette rental home. She reported anxiously awaited news about fellow Rotarians. Young then started to look for ways to contact his fellow club members. Finally , after gaining access to a computer, Young used the club's Web site directory to e-mail and call the other club members. "I will never evacuate without a laptop, a broadband card, and access to e-mail again," the 63-year-old says without a hint of irony. The Youngs' flight from hurricanes, however, was not over. Hurricane Rita forced the Young family to flee one more time, this time to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The Youngs finally returned to New Orleans at the end of September to find that their house, which was in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, had been sitting in flood waters for three weeks. They knew they had lost their home of 31 years. It was a fate they shared with thousands of other New Orleanians.

Not in it alone - Members of the New Orleans club found strength through each other. When a core group, organized by former club president Richard McCarthy III, met at a downtown restaurant on 2 November for the first time since Katrina struck. "It was a great experience to see familiar faces," Young said. "Rotary provided a wonderful safe haven."

The New Orleans Rotarians had been through a lot. Henry Lowentritt, a club member, lost his audiovisual equipment business and had to let his 12 employees go. Lowentritt remembers that very little business was discussed at that Rotary club meeting. "It was a time of happy reunion and fellowship, but also news of others who had not fared so well. [There was] so much uncertainty, but every event indicating a return to normalcy was a measure of New Orleans' survival and recovery."

Young was determined to keep the club alive, even though he knew there would be huge challenges. "We had to start from scratch," he said. Club members waived dues for October, November, and December and set the first Wednesday in December as a target date for the first official post-Katrina club meeting.

After only a three-month hiatus, caused by what a club newsletter calls a "not-so-nice lady named Katrina," the Rotary Club of New Orleans resumed its scheduled weekly meetings on 7 December 2005, at 12:12 p.m. - the club's traditional start time as a nod to its history. In 1910, the club was the twelfth club to be chartered. The club is carrying on, but, for now, with fewer members. Some of the nearly 200 pre-Katrina members may never return to the city. But nearly 50 loyal Rotarian regulars gathered at their new headquarters at the Loews Hotel in downtown New Orleans that Wednesday in December.

Rotarians give back - Rotarians worldwide cheered on the club's rebirth. Financial aid arrived from Rotarians as far as England and France. One Canadian Rotary club, said Lowentritt, collected nearly 12,000 books, which its members hand delivered to New Orleans' Rotarians for distribution in schools.

Money is still flowing in from clubs across the country, and Rotarians in New Orleans are busy distributing it to those in need. But the fight to keep the club going and financially sound when its members are struggling to rebuild their businesses, homes, and family lives, continues. Yet, despite the hard times, Rotarians are helping their community get back on its feet.

They're cleaning up and restoring Warren Easton High School on 3019 Canal Street, in the Mid-City district, which housed Rotary Interactors before Katrina shut it down. School officials have assured Rotarians they'll re-open Warren Easton High in the fall if the club completes its restoration.
"We had to go through a lot of housekeeping at first," Young said, "but we try to stay true to our colors. We're doing things only Rotary can do."

Individually, Rotarians are also reaching out to less fortunate New Orleanians. President-elect Susan Simon invited two displaced hurricane victims to live with her. Both in their 40s, the two women don't have family in the city and are still waiting to have their homes rewired for electricity.
"It's been fun," Simon says of her extended household. "It's like having your girlfriends around all the time." Another club member, Lowentritt, helped local jazz musicians receive financial aid from French and U.S. Rotarians.

As far as club membership is concerned, Young is also optimistic. He says membership is now at 65 percent of pre-Katrina days, and it's growing. "We've recruited three new members in the past two weeks," Young said. "We're gaining momentum."

Collins added that weekly meetings are sold out until April, thanks in part to the impressive array of high-powered speakers who already appeared or scheduled to speak.

If Mardi Gras 2006 serves as a time to evaluate efforts to rebuild the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans Rotarians can proudly say they are part of it.
Into the future - As Charlie Young waved to the crowds from atop a float during during one of the last Mardi Gras parades, he thought: "We have finally turned a corner."

For Young, Lowentritt, and Simon, Mardi Gras represents a deeply rooted family and hometown tradition, and they're pleased New Orleans was able to celebrate it.

But the celebrations aren't meant to fool the world that everything is back to normal, said Lowentritt. Life may not ever be what it was before Katrina came to town. At 63 years old, Lowentritt, whose business was ruined, is now looking for a new career. His fellow Rotarian Young is building a new home, despite recently suffering a heart attack.

Meantime, the topic of discussion for the meeting the morning after Fat Tuesday was levee reform. The Rotary Club of New Orleans is back in business, with more business than ever on its hands.



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