Israeli Volunteer Hailed as a Hero in Texas

Raphael Izraelov, a 28-year-old Israeli, is being hailed as a hero for his work with victims of Hurricane Katrina.

With Texas bracing for Hurricane Rita, the Red Cross has put Izraelov in charge of survivors with "special needs" - hundreds of people with various kinds of disabilities and mental illnesses, and solitary elderly people.

Izraelov never imagined when he took a first aid course in the Israel Defense Forces - the only training he has in this area - that he would receive such a responsibility.

"I can't judge how a large organization works, I'm just a volunteer," Izraelov told Haaretz.

But Karen Dewitt, a volunteer from a local law firm, describes Izraelov as a local hero. "I feel he brought his experience from the Israeli army here," she said.

Izraelov hopes the lessons of Katrina were learned and will be implemented for Rita.

"Clearly Israel would have run things completely differently. We always look eight steps ahead. Here they don't see things that way, they prefer to get clobbered for their mistakes and then correct them."

The convention center in Austin, home to thousands of Katrina refugees in recent weeks, is to be evacuated today. The local government has opened two other shelters for the newcomers from the coastal towns of Texas.

New Orleans horror

Izraelov was born in Jerusalem and wandered throughout the country in his childhood due to family crises. His father was a known criminal who alternately disappeared and reappeared in his family's life. When Izraelov was in the army, he went looking for his lost father and found him several months later in a morgue in Eilat. His father had died from an overdose after living in Eilat as a vagabond.

After his military service, he managed a construction company and carried out projects in the United States. At the end of the `90s, his mother became ill with cancer, and he returned to Israel to take care of her until she appeared to recover. Then he went to the Far East, where he met a Texan named Sarah Mugab, who volunteered in slum and prostitution regions in Thailand. The love affair was cut short when Izraelov learned his mother was sick again. He returned to Israel and stayed with her until her death.

In 2003, Izraelov joined Mugab in Mali, Africa, where she was a volunteer with the American Peace Corps.

In March, Izraelov and Mugab traveled to Austin and were married.

When they heard of the destruction in New Orleans, Mugab was on a visit to the West Coast and Izraelov was advised to go to Houston, where the first refugees were taken.

Izraelov said nothing prepared him for Houston. "I took babies out of buses that just arrived from New Orleans, from the bridges or the Superdome. They could not wait for the selection and registration, we ran with them straight to the doctors."

In the Astrodome, Izraelov heard of the horrors of the days of waiting in New Orleans. "I heard everything that happened there with the shooting and rape from the people directly involved. People arrived after ... eight hours of travel, after waiting for rescue for five days. They're in shock, they simply feel they've reached heaven."

Three days later, they heard that about 5,000 of the refugees were being transferred to Austin. Returning to Austin, Izraelov fitted in immediately with the local volunteer work.

Izraelov has not decided yet whether to continue with the Red Cross. His immediate hope is "that my dreams stop bothering me. At night, I continue taking care of people. The people I saw during the day pass before my eyes. They need to be watched, so that they are not forgotten," he said.