Coming up for air

Houston one year after Harvey

A resconstructed Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston (photo credit: Courtesy)
A resconstructed Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was 4 a.m. and Margaret Lewis couldn’t sleep. She looked outside into the fog and rain and gasped. Water had reached her porch. Within an hour, it was at her doorstep.
Lewis woke her husband, Mark, and their three children, then ages 10, 13 and 16. Together, they started moving their belongings to the highest places they could find. But it was for naught. Ultimately, their home and almost everything inside it was destroyed by the rushing waters of what became known as Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 storm that hit Texas on August 25, 2017 and caused $125 billion in damage according to the National Hurricane Center.
At its peak, on September 1, 2017, one-third of Houston was under water.
Mark Lewis, a trained public safety diver, rowed his family to safety in a kayak he blew up with power from his car’s cigarette lighter. Then, he turned to his wife and said, “I have to go back out there,” Margaret Lewis recalled. “Often in these kinds of situations, police will see people trying to help and say, ‘Thank you for trying, but please go home.’ Not here. Police saw people in boats and kayaks and said, ‘Rescue whoever you can see. The police themselves were overwhelmed.”
One year later, the Lewises are still not back in their home.
“My oldest is leaving for college and he will never really get back into his home in the same way,” she said. “The other day, my middle one said, ‘Mom, do you ever get scared when it rains?’ She is a sophomore. When it rains, you have a whole city of children who wonder if it’s going to happen again.”
She continued, “It is a combination of really wanting to get back to normal and pretend that everything is OK, then being caught every once in a while, and realizing that we are really not OK yet.”
Speaking by phone to The Jerusalem Report, Lewis broke into tears revisiting the painful and humbling days after Harvey, when her family was “buoyed by the community” in every way.
“That first Friday night, a woman named Nancy called, and she said she had Shabbat dinner for me and my family. She wondered if I could come to the synagogue before 3 p.m. or if someone should deliver it,” Lewis said.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston helped the Lewis family replace some of its furniture to fill a small high-rise apartment in which they are living until their home is ready. It also coordinated additional grants and offered mental health support.
“I recognize that my grandparents came over as immigrants from Germany in 1939, poor, with nothing, and organizations like Jewish Family Services helped them get on their feet,” said Lewis. “The next generation became donors. And now, here we are, recipients again.”
Lewis said when a JFS caseworker told her that she could receive assistance, she was speechless. “My husband looked at me and said, ‘Just say thank you.’ It has been a tremendous lesson.”
The Lewis family is one of more than 2,000 Jewish households that were impacted by Harvey. An estimated 50% of households in the Mid-Brays/Meyerland area – where most of the Jewish community lives – were flooded.
Seven major Houston Jewish institutions suffered excessive or catastrophic flood damage, including two of the largest synagogues, a day school, Jewish Community Center and senior care center. Institutional damage alone was estimated to exceed $50 million.
Immediately following the storm, the JFGH and the Jewish Federations of North America set up the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. They raised $23.7 million to provide direct assistance to families and rebuild institutions, as well as for long-term initiatives to ensure connection to Jewish life and resilience for future flooding. JFGH CEO Avital Ingber said the federation received donations from more than 12,000 donors for hurricane relief – more than it receives in an average two years – which does not include donations that poured into federations across America.
The State of Israel provided a $1 million grant, which was used to rebuild Jewish institutions, including the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC. According to Ingber, this was the first time the government of Israel had given emergency funds to a US Jewish community.
“Houston has a strong, long-standing relationship with the State of Israel,” Ingber said. “But none of us could have imagined this… Even as Harvey was hitting, none of us understood the magnitude.”
The federation allocated some $18.9 million, purposefully holding back $4 million for the community’s continuing needs. Ingber said that while the community has worked through and completed most of the urgent rebuilding phase, the full recovery process could take five more years.
Ingber said many residents are still out of their homes and suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, making the situation even more trying.
Ingber said the federation today is focusing on sustaining Jewish life, as families choose between sending their children to Jewish day school, preschool or summer camp, or using their funds to rebuild their homes and lives.
“We are providing scholarships for every type of Jewish organization to provide continuity of Jewish life, so we don’t end up with a lost generation,” she said.
Together with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, JFGH distributed more than $350,000 in summer camp scholarships, above and beyond the normal. For the 2017-2018 school year, the federation gave out $650,000 and is now evaluating how much it will need to provide this coming school year.
According to JCC CEO Joel Dinkin, his JCC sustained $2.5 million in damage, membership dropped 10% and the center was down $1.6 million in revenue from being completely closed for seven weeks and operating at partial capacity until June 2018. He said the fitness center and the early childhood center were both flooded, the latter displacing some 220 children aged five and under.
Ingber said, “It has been challenging,” is an understatement. But from the first days and until today, the Houston community – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – has proven itself to be resilient, cohesive and strong.
For example, Houston’s largest synagogue, Congregation Beth Yeshurun, was hit hard by the floods. A church opened its facility to the synagogue, which held its High Holiday services there. The YMCA of Greater Houston allowed members of the flooded JCC to work out there.
A second JCC that was not flooded offered blankets, water and even clothing. The day school provided kosher dinners for weeks. And a local temple partnered with a camp to offer child care while parents focused on putting pieces back together.
People took to the streets stripping homes. Lewis said anyone who could wield a tool did so.
“In our neighborhood, some guy showed up and said, ‘My name is Kevin. I have a saw. What can I do?’” Lewis recalled. “You welcomed strangers into your home. We were all just so grateful for people to help.”
Those who could not physically assist distributed sandwiches and water.
“The Houston community worked together – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox,” said Ingber. “People don’t realize what a vibrant Jewish life you have in Houston… It is a really close-knit community.”
Help from Jewish communities across North America and the world came flooding in, too. Ingber only accepted the CEO job two months before Harvey struck.
“I didn’t know a lot about Houston or flooding, but I knew that my entire life I have been part of a system and that system is the Jewish Federation,” Ingber said. “I instantly started reaching out to those people for help and guidance, and quickly we had federation volunteers and professionals putting in long, hard hours.”
JFNA’s Young Leadership Cabinet put an Amazon list together, and overnight it sold out.
Grief and trauma counselors from the Israel Trauma Coalition came to Houston to train school administrators and teachers on how to help struggling students and parents. More than 130 people have been trained so far and more were being trained ahead of the school year. An estimated 18% of Harris County residents are still suffering post-Harvey psychological distress.
“Our brothers and sisters all around the world were there to take care of us,” Ingber said.
Yael Ross expressed similar sentiments. She was eight months pregnant with her first child when Harvey hit, and she and husband, Scott, were on a babymoon in Denver.
“We were sitting in the hotel lobby watching the news, monitoring our security cameras, and we saw the water coming in,” Ross said. “We had no idea though how much water we had gotten.”
By the time the Rosses returned to Houston, volunteers were already at their house, stripping the floors and the walls.
“They knew I was pregnant, and they wanted to make sure we had a place to come back to,” Ross said. “Everything we had prepared for the baby – the crib, the changing table – everything was outside the house, broken, on the sidewalk, ready for the trash.”
The Rosses tried to find a rental, but each complex they walked into had a months-long wait and Yael was due in a few weeks. Ultimately, they moved in with family until two weeks before their son was born, when a friend in real estate found them a small apartment.
“I remember one night lying in bed with my husband, and I realized we needed to get a car – the car had been flooded too,” Ross recalled. “We had so much uncertainty about what was coming next.”
A grant from the federation and funds from a crowdfunding campaign a friend ran on the Ross’s behalf afforded them a year of rent, so they could keep their baby healthy and figure out their next move.
“I worked for non-profits most of my life, but I never realized how hard it is to admit vulnerability and say, ‘Yes, I need help,’” Ross said.
The Rosses named their son Leo Alexander; Alexander means “brother’s keeper,” said Ross, “in honor of all the keepers and protectors that came for us.”
Only in recent weeks did the Rosses decide to sell their home at lot value and purchase a home outside the flood zone. Though Ross said, for her, Harvey is not yet behind her.
“I get a lot of anxiety when it rains,” she said. “The other night, my baby was asleep… There was rain and thunder… Because of my fear of the rain, I went to get my son, and I woke him up.”
Jeanne Samuels, 94, was also flooded during Hurricane Harvey, and many of her and her late husband’s photographs and memorabilia from the World War II era were washed away.
“I lived in my home for 53 years and throughout all the hurricanes and storms, water never went over my curb,” Samuels said. “But when Hurricane Harvey came, it was of biblical proportion.”
Samuels escaped from her home through the backyard and took refuge in a neighbor’s two-story home. Her own home was waterlogged, and she has still not been able to move back. Instead, with the federation’s help, she and her granddaughter – whose home was also destroyed – are living together in a small apartment.
Despite her age, however, Samuels said she will stay in her neighborhood and move back into her house.
“I’ve lived in Houston since 1933,” said Samuels. “It is my home and I have no thoughts of leaving it.”
She continued, “The Jewish community is suffering, there is no question about that. But there is also no question that this is a very resilient community. We’re going to rebuild, and we will be fine.”
The Federation of New York gave Houston some support and information from the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which hit in October 2012. Now, Houston is working on creating a playbook for other federations for the future. Houston has hosted a couple of fly-ins for leaders of federations around the country, so they can take back what is going on to their own communities. One thing Ingber heard time and again was that it could be a natural or man-made situation and they would need help.
“One of the things is that we unfortunately are writing the book as we go,” Dinkin said. “Working with staff, after one year, we try not to talk about Harvey much – we want to look forward and that mentality has helped immensely.”