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Part Two: New Orleans - Four Years and Counting: Talking with Larry Weiss

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Welcome back for the second half of my interview with Larry Weiss. Is there a common theme to your trips down to the Gulf Coast, Larry?

I always let our volunteers know how special they are and how proud they should be for their contribution. I like to paraphrase what was said to me on my first trip by a local leader in the community. "Five, ten or many years from now people will look back on this time and know that we were a part of history. The rebuilding of a great American city."

Can you talk a little about how things have changed or not in the four plus years since Katrina?

Well, as far as changes are concerned I have seen many. Yet when I bring volunteers to the area and we tour, many of them react as if the storm just happened.

What do you mean by that?

It appears to me that many first timers see the French Quarter and Central Business District and question whether or not it is really that bad four years after Katrina. Then, we go to the parts of the area where recovery has been slow if at all. It is here that they react as if the storm has just occurred, when they see the devastation in these neighborhoods and the isolated conditions that those who have returned live under.
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The irony is that I can see a huge difference. However, much of that difference involves the removal of storm and flood damage. Many areas and neighborhoods are still desolate. They do not have power, schools, functioning businesses, hospitals or doctors or proper infrastructure. The neighborhoods are a patchwork of folks back in their homes on streets where many others are vacant, gutted or gone with only a slab laying in the grass where a home once stood.
However, the accomplishments are truly inspiring and, in my opinion, are a testament to the incredibly heroic efforts of the returning residents and the generosity of the American people.
There is more activity in the French Quarter and Central Business District. Many more people have returned and there are now more restaurants than before Katrina. Tourism appears to be getting healthier. The major universities have a much closer and active volunteerism relationship with the broader community. The local public school system, which was not a model of success before Katrina, has been dismantled and is being reconstructed in a much more progressive way. Initiatives to keep graduating students and attracting new residents to the area are evolving and showing some success. The use of green technology in the building of homes, and the ancillary benefits that this provides, is evident in some neighborhoods.

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I could go on and on about what is good that is happening. I think it helps to look at the positives and to be inspired, as opposed to dwelling on the negatives and feeling sad. The progress also makes you feel as if your small contribution is helping to foster success. But don't get me wrong, there is a lot of work to be done. It's still a difficult place to live and I don't have to contend with those difficulties in the course of my life.
I guess the end result when I compare my most recent visit to that of my first is that I do not see National Guard troops patrolling the streets. I do not need to watch what I eat, or think about getting a tetanus or hepatitis shot before arriving. I do not see hotels and office buildings downtown with drapes fluttering outside of broken windows. I do not see the French Quarter empty at 8:00 PM. I am no longer told not to go into overgrown yards because they have not accounted for all the missing. We no longer eat in Salvation Army tent camps. I do not see as many people living in trailers.
Now, when you go into the city there are people in the streets. Restaurants are busy and bars are full. Music can be heard and mayhem is just around the corner. Oh, and the Saints are back and they're undefeated!

The locals are such avid sports fans, it's definitely good for morale that the Saints are back ( and undefeated). How did you come up with the specific projects we volunteered at?

The process for choosing the projects was partly a result of David's and my priorities and interests. David is really into the social aspects and I'm the tangible hammer-and-nails guy. Armed with the knowledge that hunger and the psychological damage from Katrina was huge, David gravitated toward organizations that targeted those issues. That is how we connected with Just the Right Attitude, Tulane University's Center for Public Service, Tulane Hillel and Chabad, to name a few.
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I linked up with St. Bernard Project, Habitat for Humanity, Beacon of Hope, and others. It was here that we have worked on houses, cleared yards, cleaned streets, hauled trash and painted. We also worked with Hands On Gulf Coast in Mississippi on a playground and park project that David found.
Many of the groups that we connected with were via referrals from national organizations that David and I simply contacted during the planning of trip #1 that we knew were involved with the initial recovery. We then followed up.
We have been very determined to include an educational aspect to our trips. We feel very strongly that it is just as important to help people as well as to know who you are helping. We want our volunteers to feel a personal connection and to leave with more knowledge than they arrived with.

That is why we have had a variety of speakers such as Stuart Rockoff from the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi; Dr. Scott Cowen, President of Tulane University; Jordan Hirsch, Executive Director of Sweet Home New Orleans, an organization that assists musicians and artists; Michael Weil, Exective Director of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans; and Steve Richer, President of the Southern Mississippi Convention and Visitors Bureau. There have been others, but I think you get the idea.

Instead of winding down, your volunteer trips are gathering speed, now happening twice a year, rather than once. Why don't you get tired of going down there?

After the first trip, I figured that I was done and would then concentrate on my other philanthropic and community involvement. It also took me a few weeks to regroup from what I had seen and experienced in New Orleans. After David and I made a presentation at a UJA board of trustees meeting, people began to ask when we would be going back. There was apparently a great deal of interest and many folks were telling us that they had wanted to go and volunteer but did not know how to go about it. Our efffort would provide the vehicle for this to happen.
David and I compared our calendars along with Stu Himmelfarb from UJANNJ and we decided that April 2007 would afford us enough time to get the trip in place and in a bit of selfishness also provide a convenient excuse to be there for the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. As I mentioned earlier we must support the local economy!
When you ask why I don't get tired of going it's quite simple, really. I get such a feeling of fulfillment in the work that we do. I get inspired by the people that I meet as well as those that I reconnect with. I enjoy being one of the people who facilitates the active, hands-on involvement of folks from our area in this cause. Each time I leave, I deal with the emotion of the despair of the event. I also feel the exhilaration of our small contribution in the effort to rebuild the city, the region and the lives of all involved.
We have met many people and David and I have made many new friends. It's an honor to help them. I am grateful that they allow me into their homes, neighborhoods, schools and communities to work with them.

How many people get to do what we have done? How many just talk about it and never act? We are rebuilding one of the great cities in the history of our country. I'm humbled to be a part of it.

Well, it does feel great to be able to help in a concrete way. It was a "wow" of a trip. I still can't get it out of my mind. Thank you for making it happen. It was a pleasure speaking with you, Larry. I look forward to next year's trip!

Larry works for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management in Paramus, NJ. He and his wife Rachel live in Wyckoff, where they raised two sons.

Part one of my interview with Larry


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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