NEW ORLEANS, LA – When Greek-Americans and Greek throughout the world think about Greek communities in the United States, New York City’s Astoria, Chicago’s Greektown, and Florida’s Tarpon Springs most readily come to mind.
But in many respects, it is the Greeks of New Orleans that have an unsurpassed history in American society in terms of longevity, and also in having rallied to emerge from the most dire of circumstances.
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, John Dennis Georges, CEO of Louisiana-based Georges Enterprises, which includes ownership of Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper, the Advocate, tells TNH how he headed what became a herculean effort to rebuild New Orleans’ Greek community in the aftermath of that devastating natural disaster.
The Greeks of New Orleans comprise the oldest Greek Orthodox community “in the Western Hemisphere,” writes the Holy Trinity Cathedral – which last year celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding – on its website. Constandinos Vennis, President of the Cathedral’s Board of Trustees told TNH that Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans on August 29, 2005, completely wiped out his house, “which was just two blocks from the Church. The whole area around the Church was basically a wasteland, and 85% of the city was affected.”
Angela Tsatoulis, born in Nafpaktos but a resident of New Orleans since 1970, was in Greece when Katrina hit, but her children were in New Orleans. “They evacuated to different areas and then finally ended up in Panama City, FL. My children, Antoni and Katerina, traveled back to New Orleans after they were told it was ok,” she said. “Our home, the home I raised my children in, was under eight feet of water for thirty days. When the water was finally pumped out of the city, my husband, John, and my children went to the house. Our home had water up to the ceiling. Everything was damaged, everything. My children’s childhood photos. my wedding album, my wedding dress, the only remaining wedding photo of my husband’s parents. My grandson’s earliest memorables – everything was gone.
“Everything was covered in a thick, grey sludge. Looters had already rummaged through our home,” she said. “You could tell because bags with photos were opened up and thrown on the ground. Obviously, they didn’t find what they had hoped to find. My daughter and son saw my husband cry for the first time.”
But Katrina tore apart their restaurant, too, which was located in the middle of the French Quarter. Police said they could not escort the Tsatoulises to their business, but they could try to get there on their own. “And if we went, we’d better have protection, meaning a weapon,” she added.
“It was without power for thirty days. Can you imagine: freezers and coolers full of food being without power for thirty days? It took us months to get rid of the odor. We had to remove the floors and the ceiling because of the freezers upstairs in our store room. at the time we knew we had days of work ahead of us, those days turned into weeks and then months. we opened the doors of the restaurant just in time for Mardi Gras 2006.
Holy Trinity’s 150th Anniversary celebration co-Chair, Barbara Stavis Wolf, told TNH about the efforts to help the community by Georges and Father Anthony Stratis. The Metropolis of Atlanta, the Order of AHEPA, and the Daughters of Penelope Grand Lodge were also instrumental in helping to raise funds for the families most in need, she said.
Wolf was one of the lucky ones, because her home did not flood – though he was without electricity for weeks, and without a landline telephone for several months.
Despite those hardships, she acknowledges that “my damage was minor in comparison to those whose homes were flooded and totally destroyed.”
Georges provided the most extensive details about Katrina to TNH. Georges Enterprises was founded in 1916 by his maternal grandfather, Gus Pelias, who later turned over the company to his son-in-law Georges’ father, Dennis. A native of Arfrara, Dennis joined the Greek guerilla movement against German occupation in World War II, fought against the communists in the Greek Civil War, and in the Korean War as a member of the Royal Hellenic Air Force. In his swift call to action to rebuild the community, Georges thought of what his dad might have done – who had died three years earlier, in 2002. “How did my father overcome German occupation?” he asked himself, rhetorically, comparing the Nazi atrocities in Greece to Katrina, and concluding that as bad as Katrina devastation was, it would be much easier to confront and overcome.
RISING TO THE OCCASION
“I’m a business leader,” Georges said. “And my priority was to secure my family,” and then go about the business of rebuilding. Because Georges Enterprises is in the business of food distribution, he said “not only did I have to reopen my business, I had to help my customers reopen theirs.”
To get to the Church itself, Georges described, “you had to get to the flooded area, get in a boat, and go a couple of miles in.” Georges met Archbishop Demetrios in Baton Rouge, and they went to the church together to remove certain important items, such as the Holy Communion chalice.
There was water in the church, but fortunately, Dennis Georges had been “a stickler for building it higher,” Georges said about his dad. And so, everything was higher off the ground to begin with. “The parking lot was higher than the street, the Church was higher than the parking lot,” etc. That difference of just a few feet is what ultimately saved the structure, Georges said.
“Then the (USS) Iwo Jima arrived, and the captain was a Greek (Richard A. Callas),” Georges said. The sailors helped with the rescue efforts. They were also able to help the Greek shipowners get their vessels back into the water.
Then, Georges used one of his company’s warehouses to establish a temporary location for Holy Trinity, so that the parishioners could continue going to church without having to drive over an hour to the next-closest church, in Baton Rouge.
Georges discussed the various organizations to which Wolf referred that sent funds for relief, and Georges through the community organized their allocation. “And we rebuilt everything in 90 days – it was a miracle.”
On January 6, 2006 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presided over the annual Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs, FL. The next day, he flew in to Louisiana to deliver the Doxology at the rebuilt Holy Trinity. Everything was built anew or restored – including the Patriarchal Throne. Fittingly, it was Georges’ nameday (St. John).
Georges also helped rebuild his children’s private school, which was underwater.
With full cooperation of the Church Board, money was given to people who lost their homes, even before the insurance money arrived, Georges said. “Everyone cooperated – there was no fighting, no division. No bureaucracy, no red tape. Everyone worked together and we got it done. The government was an absolute failure,” he added. “The private sector did everything. We were the beacon of hope” for New Orleans after Katrina.
Nonetheless, Georges does not consider himself a hero. “I had a job to do. Rebuild my church, reopen my business, rebuild my children’s school.” And, of course, his home, which was in complete shambles.
New Orleaners as a whole are like Greeks, he said “proud of where they come from,” and the majority didn’t want to leave New Orleans for good. “Some did, but most came back.” And all in time for Mardi Gras, less than six months later.
WHO WAS TO BLAME?
What about all the stories in the press that the government (whether federal, state, or local was to blame? Once the government rescuers came to New Orleans, Georges says, indicating that they were late to the scene, “they were incredible. My issue was, why did it take three days?” Georges described how from his evacuated area he contacted the White House, spoke to high level officials, and told them “you need to get down there.” He attributes the confusion to lack of coordination among the federal government, the governor – “ a good person but not strong” – and the mayor who was in a hopeless situation because of a lack of resources. As for personal help for the victims, Georges said “we Greeks are not people who want handouts. I didn’t take a thing from government.”
Vennis added that “nobody could have anticipated the scope of the damage until after the fact. The bigger issue for many was not the bad response, it was the faulty levels that were built not to specifications per the original designs.”
It was like war, Georges said. “You can’t talk about it. If you try to politicize it, and blame one politician, that’s not what it was about. It wasn’t political.”
Georges was part of a select group that met with then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue regarding how serious New Orleans was about rebuilding the City – where the Saints played football. The commissioner was impressed with what he saw and heard. The Saints stayed in town, and won the Super Bowl three seasons later. “It was an emotional sparkplug for the city,” Georges said.
10 YEARS AFTER
“I am pleased to report our community has come back strong, Vennis said. “Our Sunday School, Greek School, and youth are thriving. Our Greek Festival last year hosted over 30,000 people in three days.” And the community has helped those outside its own confines. “Last year we donated to Children’s Bureau of New Orleans and many of our parishioners are always helping out or donating to our local community and in Greece. We even had a parishioner that helped establish an Orthodox Church in Africa.”
It really would have been something if Dennis Georges had lived to see his son as the driving force behind the rebuilding that the father led for so many years. “I once told him,” Georges says, “that Alexander the Great conquered the world at age 22. He replied: ‘but it was [Alexander’s father] Philip, who built the army.’ I would have liked to have told him: ‘I rebuilt in 90 days what it took you 40 years to build,’” he said, with a laugh. “It would have been a great father and son moment.”