Dr. John Estrada: I was and still am with LSU Health Science Center, on the faculty of pediatrics. Back then, I just didn’t pay that much attention to the hurricanes. I had been here since 2001. A friend from Gulfport, Miss., was taking a plane from New Orleans to Los Angeles, and he left his car at my home, because [New Orleans] was the closest airport. He called from L.A. and said, “Evidently, there is a hurricane going by. And I realized I don’t have gas in my car.” I said, “Don’t worry, I will fill it up.” That is when I realized that this was serious, because when I went to the gas station, [there was a long] line of people getting gas to leave town. That was the most telling sign that I needed to prepare for something.
BBM: How did you end up in the shelter in Ville Platte?
Estrada: I drove to Ville Platte [to escape the hurricane.] This area is very interesting because it was settled by French people who came from Canada. They were persecuted in France and in Canada, also. It is called the Cajun Land, for Acadia. These people are very resourceful, independent, very welcoming. It is really a distinctive culture. They have incredible music.
So I had befriended some people there, and I thought it would be a good thing for me to spend a week with my friends. I didn’t take anything. I didn’t secure my house. I took from the second floor of my house some boxes that had old pictures of the family that were given to me by my sisters. I thought this is valuable, and at least I don’t want to lose that.
My housekeeper [stayed] in [New Orleans.] She called on Tuesday and said, “Dr. Estrada there is something very abnormal. There is water coming like a river.” That was kind of my connection, my first indication that the levees had broken. That is when I paid attention to the TV. By this time, people were calling from all over to find out if I was OK. On Wednesday, somebody came to the house [where I was staying in Ville Platte] and said they need a doctor at a shelter. I thought, “I can go there for a few minutes. I’d be back before lunch.”
It was Labor Day [weekend], and many of the doctors had gone on vacation. When I arrived at the shelter—it was in a school that had a big gymnasium—there were around 500 people there. I came to find out that they had gotten these people from the [New Orleans] Superdome. They had been on buses bound for Houston. But many didn’t have the means to prepare or to leave town. They knew that the [local people in Ville Platte] were very generous and very open and very welcoming. And they didn’t want to go to Houston. They basically forced the drivers to drop them in these towns in Cajun Land instead of going to Houston.
So picture this: These were small towns that didn’t have the resources to handle this situation. Yet they were flooded with people from New Orleans. I realized that many of these people needed medical attention because they had left without any medications, without many essentials. We created a kind of a triage system to take care of the most needy. In a few minutes, the director of the hospital came, and he was very alarmed because he thought we were going to refer these people to the hospital, and he just didn’t have the capacity.
We started taking care of them. Soon enough, they opened a park to accommodate [them]. The pharmacies in the towns offered to help. These people [staying in the shelter] could not fill out their medication [prescriptions]. The governmental and nongovernmental relief agencies have a bureaucracy. They have a system to dispense help that is sometimes very cumbersome. The people could not access any help from relief agencies. The [local] pharmacies could not provide for them. They are mom-and-pop operations that could go broke.
BBM: How did you get in touch with B’nai B’rith?
Estrada: One of my friends, Steve Rogers, is Jewish. He called and said, “What do you need?” I said, “I need money to give to these people to pay the pharmacies for medications.” He said, “Let me call B’nai B’rith.”
Soon enough, they call, and there is a check for $10,000 that we can deposit. So I talk to the the local parish priest and ask him to receive the money, because I didn’t want to be the custodian of the money. And soon enough we established a bank account.
The donation of $10,000 was more important than anything.
That was really very powerful, to realize that the government agencies with all their power were not able to help the people. This, to me, is disaster relief: the generosity of your neighbor, of your friends, of your family.
We were so successful in this triage system that we set up in Ville Platte. By this time, the shelter had really accomplished its initial mission, but there were still people coming. We set up the same system [in another town]. They had heard what we had done in Ville Platte. We were really busy. I didn’t have the time to listen to the news. I had a group of two nurses. And we were like a little team.
BBM: What is New Orleans like today? How have the disaster relief efforts by organizations like B’nai B’rith helped the city rebuild from the devastation of the hurricane?
Estrada: New Orleans is a unique city. It represents what is authentically fun in food and music. The initial news about New Orleans was that the city was going to be shut down for five to 10 years. In a few months, though, we had a Mardi Gras parade. And today, it seems the city has blossomed, thanks, I believe, to federal money and volunteers like Teach for America and to volunteers from Jewish organizations who came to help.
So in conclusion: The demographics have changed, with a lot of people who have actually moved in to help in the rebuilding. New Orleans matters, and it matters because it can teach the meaning of help, the meaning of neighborhood and the meaning of being together. But it also can teach you the worst that human beings can show in moments of distress. The good, the bad and the ugly, that’s what New Orleans represented in the midst of disaster.