By Gail Norry
For most of us, Hurricane Harvey was a captivating news story at the end of August. We thought it was catastrophic, maybe contributed to help its victims, and then moved on with our lives. However, when 19 trillion gallons of water falls on your community, you can’t just move on. When the majority of the Jewish community lives in a 2-mile radius that was in the eye of the storm, your entire world changes. This time, when at least 2,000 homes, businesses, synagogues, day schools, Jewish community centers and the Jewish Home for the Aged all flood, life is changed forever.
Many people are still out of their homes. Nearly six months later, families of five are living in two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartments away from their usual neighborhoods, enduring longer commutes to school and work and living at a distance from other loved ones.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Houston on a mission with the Jewish Federations of North America. I was completely unprepared for what I was going to experience. I have been to Israel during war, seeing homes that had just been struck by rockets. I’ve visited post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans on several occasions. However, I had never been to a community where every single person had been personally affected by such a tragedy.
Flooded has become a verb. Over and over we heard things like, “I flooded, my kids flooded, my 88-year-old parent flooded, and I couldn’t get to them for three days.” The stories were endless, often accompanied by fresh tears. The pain is still so evident.
We were invited into Yael’s home. She greeted us with her baby, Leo, in her arms, in a home that was stripped down to the studs; her wedding dress hung in the background. At 32 weeks pregnant, she and her husband, Scott, were on their babymoon when the hurricane hit. They had just finished renovating their home, which also served as the office for his videography business. All of his equipment was in the house.
This was the neighborhood Scott grew up in, around the corner from his parents and near the Jewish day school where they intended to send Leo. Now, everything has been called into question. To move back into their home would require a $200,000 investment to raise it 6 feet off the ground, and that’s before the cost to remodel. With a flood insurance cap at $250,000 and no guarantee they may even receive that amount, it’s a losing proposition.
They have decided to sell the land at lot value and move from the neighborhood. They are also not likely to send Leo to a Jewish day school. Many families are not only forced to move away from the community in order to live outside the flood zone, but many can no longer afford to send their children to private schools and summer camps now that their economic security has been undermined.
Not only have individuals and families been devastated, but almost every Jewish institution has been affected. The Orthodox synagogue has decided to demolish the majority of its building. It plans to rebuild elsewhere, but due to the fact that the congregants walk to services, it has to find land in the same area. The Jewish Home for the Aged, Seven Acres, had 300 residents and evacuated its entire first floor. In one case, it took four people to move an elderly person upstairs during the flood. It was later forced by the health department to relocate many residents and is still unsure if it will ever be able to house people on the first floor again. The home’s social workers field calls on a regular basis from families asking when displaced residents can return.
The other senior homes are just not the same, and they certainly don’t have kosher food or programs to celebrate Shabbat and holidays.
The one thing we heard repeatedly in every location we visited was “thank you.” The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, in conjunction with JFNA, was there from the beginning. They quickly got a check for $1,000 to affected Jewish day school and early childhood families, and gave discretionary funds to rabbis for immediate needs. Additional financial support has been made possible to Jewish Family Service by the Jewish Federation.
As a national system, we have raised $20 million to date, which is helping places like the JCC to rebuild and reopen part of its facilities. However, they believe it will take $50 million to address all of their communal needs.
Kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh, each of us is responsible for one another. Our mandate is to care for Jews all over the world. We have rescued the Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, but we typically haven’t been needed to help other Jewish communities here in the United States. This is different. We are needed to help them rebuild.
They are Houston Strong. They are resilient. And they are a wonderful Jewish community. However, they cannot do it alone. Please consider additional financial support. You can donate online to support recovery efforts. Repair the World has also just announced an effort to run volunteer programs in Houston. You can find out more at werepair.org/act-now-houston. Every community has its challenges, from demographic issues to hunger relief and connecting the unaffiliated, but Harvey put Houston’s problems under a magnifying glass.
They have the hope and the community to rebuild. We are the fortunate ones. We didn’t have to live through it, but we can do our part and show them they are not alone.
Gail Norry is a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.