By Chanan Tigay

(JTA) – Washington may have rebuffed Israeli offers of expert assistance in the days after Hurricane Katrina, but a team of Israeli rescue personnel managed to deploy in some of the worst-hit areas around New Orleans, JTA has learned.

The 18-member team – which included physicians, mental health professionals, trauma specialists, logistics experts and a special unit of Israeli police divers – arrived in St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish on Sept. 10 and spent a week and a half assisting fire department search-and-rescue squads and sitting in on daily planning meetings that included local leadership and a complement of FEMA, police, military and fire representatives, the Israeli team’s leader said.

The team administered first aid to survivors, rescued abandoned pets and discovered victims of the storm, which ravaged the Gulf Coast.

Carting equipment ranging from axes and ropes to electrical generators, satellite phones and three weeks’ worth of food, the group arrived in the United States in civilian garb, waiting until they hit the decimated areas to don T-shirts featuring the group’s logo and other identifying garb that would mark them as uninvited rescue personnel.

“We had tools like Jack the Ripper,” said Gal Lusky, a diver who founded Israeli Flying Aid, a non-governmental organization that undertook the mission along with the IsraAID relief group. “We had plenty of stuff and we had to justify it at immigration. When we were asked what is all that equipment, we said we were going to the Jewish community to teach youth groups how to prepare summer camps.”

Asked about the Israeli personnel aid, a spokesman for FEMA said only that “there were many volunteer groups from different countries who came to Louisiana to help the people and the state.”

“FEMA wants to thank them for the assistance and the hard work they did,” he said.

Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) said he was grateful for the Israelis’ work.

“The work being done by IsraAID and their team members to help the people of Louisiana is greatly appreciated,” Jindal told JTA in an e-mail message. “They are providing support services for people who have been devastated by the tragedy, offering whatever assistance is needed as it is needed. Their presence will make the effort to get people home and on with their lives that much easier.”

Rep. Charles Melancon (D-La.) said the Israelis “performed courageously in south Louisiana when we needed them most.”

“I’m personally very grateful for their efforts and I know that those they touched will always remember the generosity of the Israeli people, who sent help from so far away,” he said in an e-mail to JTA.

Before entering the affected areas, the team had to work around Louisiana medical accreditation policies that, like those in other states, require that physicians be recognized by the state in question in order to practice. The Israeli doctors were not accredited in Louisiana and could not provide medical services without this stamp of approval.

Perry Witkin, president of the Minnesota-based relief organization Nechama, was in contact with the medical director of Louisiana’s Public Health Department, and together they were able to come up with a formula for the Israelis’ participation.

The team would be allowed in but the doctors would not be “practicing medicine, but would be there as physicians to help the Israelis should something happen to them,” said Witkin, who was on the ground along with a team from the American Refugee Committee, the Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and The College of St. Catherine’s.

In addition, he said, they could “use their skills in search/rescue and recovery and their emergency response skills as first-aid responders.”

Once that was hammered out, the Israeli team received a two-ambulance escort onto a ferry and from there headed into the outlying parishes, where they were received with slightly puzzled appreciation.

“The soldiers were shocked seeing us,” Lusky said. They asked the Israelis, “How come you came from so far? You have your own troubles. You’re such a small country.

“The answer,” Lusky continued, “is that we’re a small country but big friends. For us it was so obvious. America has been such a good friend for ages.”

Several days into the ordeal, the Israelis were working with a fire department team when they learned that one of the firefighters, a man named Ervin, had lived in a house on the street they were clearing. They had checked Ervin’s house the previous day, it turned out, but he hadn’t had the heart to go in and survey the damage.

“So I took him hand-in-hand to his house,” said Sarit Vino Elad, a singer-actress who works in psychodrama. “It was another ruined, muddy, ugly house – but for him it was home. He was looking at his house, at his wife’s china collection, at his dining room. His cat was dead on the couch in the living room.”

The place was badly damaged but Ervin was pleased to find that his bed, which his wife had made before evacuating, was still made, and her silk pajamas were lying neatly on the comforter.

In the attic, where the heat was especially intense, the only thing that had escaped destruction was a case of family photographs Ervin had stowed away before Katrina hit.

“He opened the box of pictures and on the top of the box was a picture of him and his wife on their wedding day – and he burst into tears,” she recalled.

The group received funding from the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Philadelphia-based investment firm CMS Companies, which first came in contact with IsraAID when it was organizing an effort to raise money for relief after last winter’s Southeast Asian tsunami.

“I picked up the phone and I called the IsraAid people and said, ‘What are you doing vis-a-vis Hurricane Katrina?’ ” said Mark Solomon, CMS’ chairman. “They said, ‘We have a team of 20 people and we’re ready to go. The problem is we don’t have any money to pay for them.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s see what we can do.’ ”

CMS raised six figures from its partners and clients, and was able to provide the Israelis with debit cards to pay for expenses.

The team received additional logistical support – cars, housing, contact with local officials – from federations in Houston, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in addition to the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Lusky said the toughest part was not finding dead bodies; she had done that before in Israel, in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and elsewhere. The hardest part, she said, was that there simply wasn’t enough personnel to remove corpses from their homes right away. Sometime they had to be left where they were for 24 hours after they were discovered.

“That person has a name, has kids, has a wife,” she said. “It’s terrible.”