The Ancient Order of Hibernians is to establish an emergency fund, proceeds of which will be made available for general relief, or specific aid to AOH members and their families in the worst affected areas.
“New Orleans is a major location for us. We have a large division in the city and two more outside. There are hundreds of members in the area,” said AOH National President Ned McGinley.
The French Quarter and Irish Channel area of downtown New Orleans has a significant Irish business presence, mainly restaurants and bars.
One bar owner, Jim Monaghan, described a scene of utter devastation when contacted by the Echo shortly after Katrina blew through.
Monaghan said that he felt very lucky.
The owner of the pub Molly’s at the Market said that Hurricane Katrina – responsible for a death toll in the hundreds and possibly thousands – had caused complete devastation for many in and around the city.
But, he added, his and many of the other bars and restaurants in the French Quarter have been spared from the worst flooding and destruction.
In a telephone interview from a second story office above the pub, Monaghan said it would be days, or perhaps weeks, before a true accounting of how many people were killed and how many billions of dollars would be needed to repair homes and businesses.
“There is just stunned silence on the streets and the only word that really describes it is devastation,” said Monaghan.
He and his wife Alana and their 26-year-old daughter, Tierney, took to the office above the bar to avoid the water below.
“There’s some flooding here, but not like in other areas of the city,” Monaghan said.
His relatively sanguine assessment would be overtaken within hours as flood waters rose in the city as a result of breaks in the levee system.
Monaghan’s father, also named Jim, was from Sligo and started the bar that is known for attracting the Big Easy’s politicians and journalists. It is located around the corner from the French Market.
According to Monaghan, the French Quarter has a slightly higher geographic elevation that has helped its historic buildings survive other devastating hurricanes such as Camille and Betsy that battered the city in the 1960s.
“The French Quarter is the main tourist draw and they’ve put in the best pump system to keep it going and that’s why our 200-year-old building is here,” he said.
With high water and search and rescue operations by the U.S. military and disaster teams spread out from New Orleans into Louisiana and both neighboring Mississippi and Alabama, Monaghan said there was not much that could be done on the ground right now. He did not expect that he, or many of the millions of residents in the flooded areas, would have electricity for days or even weeks.
But Monaghan is not going to simply wait for relief. He plans on dishing up some himself
“We’ve made it through after being in the center of a hurricane, so now it’s time to take care of our neighbors,” he said.
This was not the moment to take advantage of customers who may not be able to prepare their own meals, or obtain fresh food.
“So far, a lot of our food in the freezer is still frozen, but as it thaws we’ll cook it in the upstairs kitchen and then we’ll give it away,” Monaghan said.
Giving it away was also on the mind of Ned McGinley.
From his home in Pennsylvania, McGinley spent the hours after Katrina’s strike against New Orleans checking on the safety of members, most especially past AOH national director Judge Jim McKay, who lives with his family in New Orleans.
McGinley said that the McKay family had moved to a more northerly location in Louisiana and were likely safe but that their home in the city was close to where there had been breaks in the city’s levee system.
“They are safe but their home is probably inundated,” McGinley said.
He added that by this weekend the Hibernian national board would be putting together an aid plan and would begin working to assess the needs of members in the stricken areas.
“We raised a lot of money for the tsunami victims, but this is personal,” McGinley said.
“There’s so much Irish history in New Orleans. We’re having our national convention there in 2008,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Irish Embassy in Washington and the consulate in Chicago, which has primary diplomatic responsibility for New Orleans, are on standby in case any Irish nationals in the affected areas need assistance.
No calls had been received at the Chicago consulate by presstime.
“But we are aware of a small number of Irish citizens in the affected areas,” said Consul General Charles Sheehan.
Sheehan said that the consulate was attempting to contact a handful of people, slightly under a dozen. They were moistly religious or J1 students, he said.
“We are heavily dependent on people back in Ireland letting us know that there are individuals they want to contact,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan said he was acutely aware that there was a great many people in New Orleans and along the Gulf coast who were of Irish descent.
The coastal area, he said, was historically one of the most Irish parts of the South.
New Orleans is, indeed, one of the most Irish in the United States.
Census returns in 1850 revealed that one in five of the city’s population had been born in Ireland and during the 19th century New Orleans maintained its standing as the second largest port of entry for Irish immigrants after New York.
The “Irish Channel” in the city’s “second municipality” was where many of the new arrivals initially concentrated and was the location for the construction of St. Patrick’s Church on Camp Street.
The church dates to 1833 and is a national historical landmark.