United Way chief in La. still fighting Katrina

Gary Ostroske says he wanted more of a challenge in 1984, when he left his job of four years as executive director of the United Way of Gaston County.

It took nearly 20 years, but he eventually found the challenge he was looking for. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, 60-year-old Ostroske was head of the United Way of the Greater New Orleans Area – and became a key figure in the recovery. He and his wife, Mary Ann, remain there, helping the city bounce back from the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Following are excerpts of an interview with staff writer Mark Price.

Q. There's an opening at our United Way. Interested?

I think Charlotte is a fabulous city that is doing all the right things. It's got challenges. Would I be interested? Yes. I've been there before and it's a great place. But this is still home at this stage of the game.

Q. What was Katrina like?

I stayed in my home during Katrina. The hurricane itself was similar to those I'd experienced in the past. … When we heard the levees broke, we sat and wondered if it would make it up to the house. Not only did it make it up to the house, the water surrounded us and came into the house to a degree of 3 feet. The storm came on a Monday; the water came on a Thursday. I'm not sure if you've seen that movie “Waterworld,” but that's what it was like. It became a community of ships, boats and canoes. We decided on Thursday to jump aboard a ship and leave. We eventually hitchhiked to Baton Rouge, including a dog and a bird.

Q. Why are you still there?

I never follow rules, within reason, and I think there were no rules in Katrina. I was a person who fit in nicely. I felt I was making decisions as if we were at war. … I came here in '87, and I've had opportunities go to other places, but they didn't seem to have the challenges that this place continues to have.

Q. What's the greatest lesson you learned?

The bureaucracy of government continues to be a challenge. … I know the (federal government) is trying, but nobody seems empowered to make lasting decisions. They think not doing anything will keep them out of trouble. But it's better to do something and ask for forgiveness later than to not do anything at all. After Katrina, my board of directors was scattered all over America. I had to make decisions, literally, while they were trying to save themselves, their businesses and their families.

Q. Do you miss Gastonia?

I had no idea where Gastonia was before I heard there was a job there. I'm from Connecticut. … I was working as a senior campaign associate at a United Way in Rhode Island at the time. … I remember going to the library to do research and I kept seeing articles about a labor dispute, and there was a machine gun on top of a Firestone plant in Gastonia. … Was it a great place for us? I thought it was a wonderful place. I had two children there and people weren't just polite, they were very caring and supportive of us as young parents.

Q. Have advice for those of us who've yet to see a Katrina?

Know who your friends are.