Chabad Search and Rescue Effort Grows


by Baila Olidort - LUBAVITCH HEADQUARTERS, NY

September 6, 2005

Chabad's Rescue and Relief mission is working round the clock to locate and rescue hundreds of individuals who haven't made it out of New Orleans. Of the 35 individuals thus far rescued, most were elderly with medical conditions, some of whom were found dehydrated and in precarious circumstances.

Early Tuesday morning Chabad RR deployed additional relief workers from New York equipped with satellite radios, gas powered phones, chainsaw axes, and thousands of non-refrigerated self-heated meals for the rescue teams and survivors. More will be sent as the needs are assessed, says Rabbi Mendel Sharfstein who is coordinating the effort for Lubavitch Headquarters.

Several Chabad yeshiva students will also be deployed to southern Mississippi to visit some of the ravaged Jewish communities. “We will need to hire our own security personnel to protect the students as they do their work,” says Sharfstein.

Rabbi Zelig Rivkin and other New Orleans Shluchim on Chabad’s crisis management team are fielding hundreds of calls from relatives who are trying to have their loved ones rescued. Many are frustrated by their inability to get an elderly parent to leave, and have turned to Chabad after other efforts to remove them were unsuccessful.

“We are providing rescue workers with specific leads and direct information that we received from people concerned about their loved ones who have not made it out,” explains Rabbi Rivkin. “We are verifying medical conditions to help relief personnel work with them to ensure that they will be removed from their homes, where they are in certain danger.” Chabad’s Rescue and Relief is providing counseling for those who refuse to leave, to get them to agree to do so voluntarily.

On Tuesday, Chabad’s Rescue and Relief teams succeeded to coax an elderly individual with an emergency medical condition out of his home after repeated attempts by other relief personnel have failed. After coordinating with the 82nd Airborne Division and several other rescue teams, the elderly man was finally removed and taken to Baton Rouge where he will be stabilized. From there, explains Rabbi Sharfstein, “we will fly him to his relatives who have been in constant contact with us.”

This is typical of the rescue missions that are being addressed on a case by case basis, in the midst of what relief workers on the scene describe as a very difficult situation. “It is very literally a matter of life and death,” says Sharfstein who is in constant contact with Chabad's rescue workers on the ground. Compounding the situation is the violence—many relief workers are being shot at, their vehicles stolen and "they must have law enforcement protection to allow them to proceed,” he says.

Further impairing rescue efforts by other teams were a lack of funds, an absence of accurate information and a support system. Relief workers were running out of food, and did not even have money for gas, prompting Ari Gruenzweig, Director of TriState Search and Rescue and one of the directors of Metro NY Search and Rescue, to turn to Chabad which has its people who know the terrain well, and could guide the relief workers. “Chabad has a lot of resources and information,” said Gruenzweig, explaining that working with Chabad would facilitate a far more effective rescue effort.

The New Orleans Chabad representatives were working off a mental list to contact people, but today relief workers managed to get into Rabbi Rivkin's house to retrieve a hard copy of Chabad's community list. Relatives of people still missing in New Orleans are contacting their local Chabad representatives nationwide, for help. A tracking and posting system on the Lubavitch.com homepage allows people to post information for Chabad’s RR to help locate and rescue missing people, and to find out about those who have been located.

While the immediate focus is on search and rescue, Chabad’s RR is also now working with authorities to retrieve the dead. “These are people who died alone, in very sad conditions,” says Sharfstein. “Their relatives are anxious, and we’d like to retrieve their bodies and give them a respectful Jewish burial as soon as possible.”

Initially, Chabad had intended to concentrate its efforts on working to relieve the dislocated after they were rescued. “But,” says Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of the educational and social services agencies at Lubavitch Headquarters, “as we developed strategic plans for the rescue mission, we became increasingly aware of how chaotic the situation is, and how important it is for rescue personnel to focus on information and leads that were coming to our Shluchim, to direct them in locating those in danger for their lives.”

Specific plans for post-rescue efforts are also in the works, and in Chabad communities nationwide, especially those cities that have taken in large numbers of evacuees, a comprehensive relief aid is in place to help find apartments, jobs and immediate if temporary solutions to the widespread dislocation.

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