The ride from the airport on Monday seemed ordinary enough — an introduction to the enormous Houston sprawl on a bright, sunny, and humid day. No signs of water anywhere — had there really been a flood? But as we drove along a road next to a large ditch, nearing the Jewish Federation of Houston building in Meyerland, where much of the close-knit Jewish community of Houston lives, I was bowled over by the enormous heaps of debris lining the side of the road.
I had seen the images on the internet, but in person it is completely overwhelming. In home after home, families had lost so many large and small familiar objects of their lives. Some homes were flooded for the third or fourth time. In fact, the Jewish Federation of Houston now has major concerns about whether this fourth flood might drive away significant numbers of community members. Talk about communal planning challenges …
We continued driving, passing a large apartment complex, and smelled the mildew even with the car windows closed — a hint of the magnitude of this natural disaster.
I came to take the reins from Deborah Joselow, UJA’s chief planning officer, who had already accomplished so much to assess need and help organize the community in a short time. Decisions were made to provide rabbis with discretionary funds for affected congregants and to provide funds to day schools for affected staff and to help ensure tuition could be paid.
These steps brought me right back to the earliest days of Hurricane Sandy, when UJA provided exactly the same type of support. In fact, the entire day was filled with echoes of Sandy.
Israel Trauma Coalition Poised to Help
I began the day with a conversation with Talia Levanon of the Israel Trauma Coalition, to determine what role they might play in building capacity for trauma support, something they had done during Sandy. I was proud to facilitate bringing this vital support to the Houston community.
I then spent the rest of the morning at a staff meeting at Jewish Family Service of Houston, though their CEO was not able to attend because her house had been flooded for the third time. Staff provided updates and helped me understand the nature and extent of need. Social workers have been completely overwhelmed since the storm first hit and the need for self-care was already apparent.
One clinician told of a person who had called from their rooftop desperate for help. Others told of seniors who didn’t want to leave their homes even though they had been damaged. I was horrified to hear that six Holocaust survivors had to be evacuated by boat, because retraumatization in natural disasters is always a concern. Special trauma support will certainly be required for survivors.
UJA Core Partners Lending Their Expertise
A holistic disaster case management system, along with cash assistance, legal services, and housing assistance is being put into place. This is exactly what UJA helped make possible in response to Sandy. Nearly five years after our superstorm, professionals at our core partner agencies are now able to use their experience to help colleagues in another part of the country. Many have already stepped up to offer their expertise, perhaps some redemption in the long-term wake of a disaster.
Yesterday, All Hands Volunteers moved into the Jewish Federation of Houston building, ready to mobilize volunteers to do essential mucking and gutting work for homeowners.
Time for Good is hoping to send volunteer groups and donors to Houston to help out.
The New York Hebrew Free Loan Society, with a few Hebrew Free Loan Societies from other communities, is providing $100,000 in loan capital to the Houston Hebrew Free Loan Association for affected individuals and businesses (pooled with an additional $100,000 from JFNA).
Social workers from Jewish communal institutions across the country are staffing “warm lines” remotely to provide mental health support over the phone for the Houston community; the Israel Trauma Coalition is at the ready; and I plan to connect several other core partners involved in the Sandy response to Jewish Family Service of Houston.
In the darkness of this newest disaster, I found light and hope in this community-to-community outreach.
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