Hurricane Overload: Houston Rebuilds, Floridians Unsure of When to Return

Soldiers with the Florida National Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group went door-to-door in the Jacksonville area around Ortega Island following Hurricane Irma on Sept. 11. | Photo courtesy the Florida National Guard via Flickr Creative Commons

Howard and Tammy Levene have been through a bit of a whirlwind, to say the least.

The couple, married last year, reside in Bay Harbor Islands, neighboring the large Bal Harbour Jewish community in Miami, and planned to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma’s path.

That was until Tammy Levene went into labor.

The Levenes are just a pair of tens of thousands who attempted to leave the state ahead of the hurricane. Some Floridians rode out the storm and saw less destruction than anticipated, though more than 12 million across the state are still without power.

Michelle Labgold, chief planning officer of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said preliminary reports suggested mainly downed fences, poles and roof damage.

“There doesn’t appear to be any major structural damage so far,” she said.

The 11 Jewish day schools in the Greater Miami area were all still in the process of assessing roof damage on Tuesday.

Many organizations will soon be able to return to normal operations, and residents can come home, once the power is restored.

Leon Weinschneider was scheduled to return on Thursday.

Weinschneider fled Miami for Philadelphia on a whim. He sent his wife and son to Mexico City, where his wife’s parents live, but he remained in his penthouse home in Bal Harbour.

Although his area was under a mandatory evacuation order, Weinschneider planned on riding it out — “I thought it wouldn’t land in our area,” he said — until his wife called.

“They’re saying you gotta leave Dodge,” he reiterated. She booked him the last noon flight out of Palm Beach International Airport — normally an hour-plus drive. Weinschneider got there in under 40 minutes.

She arranged for him to stay with friend Zev Guttman in Philadelphia, where they spent Shabbat at B’nai Abraham Chabad.

“So I went,” he said nonchalantly. “I would have been one of maybe six people out of 128 that stayed” in his Miami area.

He extended his stay to Chicago to visit his parents, at least until the power lines are repaired.

“Miami Beach with no air conditioning is not a fun place to be,” he joked.

Philly-resident David Kushner returned from Houston — the summer’s other hurricane-battered metropolitan area — this week, where he helped arrange almost 20 18-wheeler trucks

David Kushner from Amudim and Houston community activist Benny Weiss with volunteers from Fasman Yeshiva High School in Chicago. | Photo provided

to deliver supplies and kosher food to the Houston Jewish community devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

“They were really overwhelmed with the level of support monetarily in terms of supplies, but really even more so in terms of the manpower that came out there to help them,” he said. “It’s one thing people give donations. … It’s another thing when hundreds of people take off time from work and [give] their own energy, sweat and time to physically help.”

Hundreds from Jewish communities around the world volunteered aid.

Israel pledged $1 million in emergency aid to the Houston Jewish community, ABC News reported.

“For years the Jewish communities stood by Israel when it needed their help; now it is our turn to stand by Houston’s Jewish community,” said Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett in a statement.

Lee Wunsch, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, responded in a statement: “The unprecedented decision to support Jews in the Diaspora marks a historic change in our relationship with Israel. … The extraordinary financial support will help accelerate the recovery process and help make our Jewish community whole and vibrant again.”

As for the destruction in Florida, Kushner said the impact differs from Houston.

David Kushner from Amudim and Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe assess the damage to the Torah Outreach Resource Center of Houston (TORCH). | Photo provided

Not as many people evacuated Houston in advance as did the rest of the state of Florida, so the needs in Houston are more urgent.

“The long-term needs in Florida are going to be larger than the long-term needs in Houston, but the immediate and emergent needs that were needed right away in Houston were greater than they are in Florida,” he said.

Kushner said he is working on creating another aid campaign for the needs of Floridians, though the news of the damage is still coming in.

“We look to them to tell us what type of help they need,” he added.

Right now, Sue Kittner Huntting needs help finding gas.

Huntting, originally from Springfield, found refuge in Charleston, S.C., randomly Sept. 9 as Irma approached. But they’re not sure how they’re going to make it back home to Sarasota, Fla., as gas has become scarce.

Huntting, her husband and sister planned on staying home during the hurricane.

“The good news is you have a lot of lead time to make plans. The bad news is you never know which way these storms are ever going to go,” she said.

She doesn’t have storm shutters on her house, so they prepared, just in case, with three hotel reservations: one in Orlando, one in Columbus, Ga., and the third in Sarasota.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about not knowing,” she said. “This way at least we knew we would be safe.”

As the storm got closer, they canceled two reservations and headed for The Westin Sarasota, but then it was evacuated.

Next plan: They could stay at her friend’s house that has storm shutters, but she was also hosting her daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and dog. Plus, the storm took another shift, right toward Sarasota.

Next next plan: Huntting called Marriott Hotel Rewards because she couldn’t find any vacant rooms online.

“She said, ‘How will this work?’ I said, ‘Fine,’” Huntting said unenthusiastically. “I’ll go wherever.” They ended up in Charleston that night.

“Now our situation is there’s not much gas,” she said. They started the return trip and hope to fill up in Georgia, but booked a Valdosta, Ga., hotel in case they can’t find enough.

The Levenes, dealing with a fast-approaching birth, didn’t get as far.

They went to stay with a friend in Hollywood, Fla., where Tammy Levene also works as a pediatric surgeon and remained on-call that evening. Soon thereafer she went into labor.

“I was responding to pages, and I actually came to the hospital to see a patient, and then we realized later on that evening the pains I was having were not just from stress,” said Tammy Levene, who grew up in East Meadow, N.Y.

Though she was due Sept. 23, “dates are never perfect,” laughed Cherry Hill, N.J., native Howard Levene. (Both are graduates of the University of Pennsylvania.)

In the midst of a hurricane, Tammy gave birth to her daughter, Miriam, on Sept. 8.

Though they were a tad overwhelmed, they said they were lucky she went into labor when she did. Any later, they may not have made it to the hospital, as the roads weren’t safe.

They named their baby girl Miriam in honor of Tammy Levene’s mother and grandmothers, but they later realized it’s an anagram: The letters in Miriam spell “I’m Irma.”

“I feel that that was a purposeful thing,” she said. “My mother’s mother was also a strong, independent woman and she was the pillar for our family. She was very determined.”

“[Miriam] is going to be a strong and forceful woman,” Howard Levene added with pride.

They have yet to assess any damage to their home because they haven’t been able to get there. Howard Levene will head down to make sure they have power before bringing the baby home.

They only moved in July 28.

“We’re not even done fixing it up for baby,” he laughed. 

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