Survivors tell stories of storm, aftermath
By Ben Tinsley
Hurricane Katrina changed everything.
Aug. 29 marked the 10th anniversary of one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history. The storm took lives, forced thousands of Gulf Coast residents to flee for th
eir very survival, and uprooted a great many Jewish citizens who found their way to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to live.
Several of these transplants stayed and became permanent residents of Dallas while others returned to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild.
Bruce Waltzer, a retired — and noted — civil rights attorney from New Orleans, lived in Dallas with his family for about seven years before returning home.
Waltzer remembers well the fury of Katrina. For a time, it seemed as if that storm had caused the death of his 4-day-old grandson, Zachery Breaux.
Waltzer and his family were forced to evacuate New Orleans for fear of losing their lives. Young Zachery was left behind in the neonatal intensive-care unit of a New Orleans hospital.
“When we all went, we could not take him (Zachery) with us,” Waltzer said.
Family members thought they would be allowed to return to New Orleans quickly enough after the storm enough to retrieve him — which is not what happened.
“The hospital became completely flooded and it became evident our young grandson was lost,” Waltzer said.
Meanwhile, Waltzer, his wife Miriam, and other family members slogged though a grueling 30-hour drive from New Orleans to Houston in bumper-to-bumper traffic. They found and rented apartments in Houston.
At this point, Zachery’s parents — Waltzer’s daughter and son-in-law Tad and Lani Breaux — were desperate to find their young son. They contacted the head of communications for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and asked for help. That person contacted numerous officials — even some from the United States Army — to help locate the newborn. The parents also went on national television to discuss their frantic search for their child.
However, unlike many of stories of tragedy that came out of Hurricane Katrina, this one had a happy ending.
It turns out Zachery had been transported out of New Orleans, placed on a plane along with adults and children and taken to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.
Zachery was safe. And the reunion with his family was joyous.
“So we had his bris in Houston, and all of our children joined us and we went to Dallas,” Waltzer said.
This development was one of the sole bits of good Katrina news in the midst of such an incredible tragedy.
The damage wrought by Katrina included flooding of an estimated 80 percent of New Orleans when the levees to the city broke. Those killed by Katrina are thought to have drowned.
It was the 11th tropical storm, the fifth actual hurricane, and the second Category 5 hurricane of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.
Waltzer, 83, said he and his wife, a retired appellate court judge, moved back to New Orleans a little over three years ago because the rest of their family also were doing so.
Also, it was home.
“We decided it was time,” Wa
But they won’t soon forget the many connections they made in Dallas.
“Dallas was a very comfortable place for us and we enjoyed living there,” Waltzer said. “It has a great Jewish community. My wife and I were so taken aback in a pleasant way by the open-heartedness of the people in Dallas.”
There also are the Jewish residents forced to move to Dallas in the wake of the storm a decade ago who decided to stay.
Hyman and Connie Tolmas
Dr. Hyman Tolmas, 93, a former resident of New Orleans, said the first five or six weeks after fleeing Katrina, his wife Connie woke up every morning crying.
“Each morning she would say, ‘I want to go home,’ ” Dr. Tolmas explained. “She was one of many people who were stripped away from their homes in New Orleans. Imagine living some place your entire life. You’re home. Then, suddenly
you are forced to leave.”
Connie Tolmas, agreed she was in a bad place when she and her husband first moved to the Dallas area.
“All of a sudden, you’re just not home — you’re not there — any more,” she said. “But it gets better. We keep in touch with our friends from there. And the people in Dallas have been so wonderful to us.”
Dr. Tolmas, who practiced medicine for over half a century before retiring, said it is unbelievable how badly the storm savaged New Orleans.
“In New Orleans East, th
e lowest part of the city, there were 16 feet of water,” he said. “The storm wiped everything out. There were doctors practicing in four hospitals out there. None of them reopened. We went back five weeks after the hurricane and it was very depressing to see. Every block there were three or four lots where buildings had been torn down. Even n
ow, 10 years later, there are still vacant lots people aren’t using.”
Many of those who survived Katrina suffered trauma, he added. Dr Tolmas said the joy of family helps get people through the rough times.
For instance, Dr. Tolmas said, his and his wife’s oldest granddaughter graduated from NYU in May and just enrolled in the Israel Defense Forces. Their younger granddaughter attends the University of Michigan and likes to sing, he said.
The Tolmases still have a warm spot for New Orleans. But they will stay in Dallas because of the friends they have made and because this is where their children and grandchildren now live.
“We feel very blessed and very lucky to be here in Dallas,” he said. “It’s the idea of being with family. This is where we should be.”
Diane Goldstein Freed
Diane Goldstein Freed has a different kind of Katrina story — one that is quite a bit more upbeat than others.
Around the time of Katrina, Freed had flown to visit her daughter when the storm hit.
“So I never went back there to live,” she said. “My property there had sustained a lot of damage but was not destroyed. I lived with my daughter for five months before moving to The Bonaventure condominiums.”
There at the condos, she made a lot of friends.
“Three years after I moved there, a mutual friend introduced me to my future husband, Gary Freed,” she said. “We have been married nearly five years. Now I have a wonderful husband who adores my kids and grandkids.”
Born in Delaware, she lived in New Orleans nearly 28 years. Her first husband had cystic fibrosis and passed away Feb. 18, 2004.
Being in the D-FW area really moved her life forward, she said.
“Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.
When she first got the chance, Freed returned to New Orleans every three months. That has since tapered off.
Once she found her New Orleans home had not been destroyed and had only sustained wind damage, she had it fixed up and sold it in June 2006.
Then there was the strange story of her vehicle.
“I had a brand-new red car sitting in the driveway there right before the hurricane and when I came back days later it was untouched,” she said. “Not a scratch.”
While her own personal luck was better than many, Freed still witnessed and learned about the horrible fates of others affected by the storm.
“One of the tragedies of Katrina is how it broke apart families — it really scattered them,” she said.