By Larry Gordon
On Sunday afternoon, it was 91 degrees and the sun was shining brightly in Houston, Texas. Not far away from the epicenter of where Hurricane Harvey hit, the Mets were in the midst of losing their fourth straight weekend series game to the Astros inside baseball’s first climate-controlled domed stadium.
The news is moving away from non-stop coverage of the devastating storm and flooding in Houston, in which 60 people lost their lives. The media is on to the next big thing; maybe it’s Kim Jong-un in North Korea, or perhaps it is the weather—such as the latest movements of Hurricane Irma—which has demonstrated an uncanny ability to draw views like few other stories.
In Houston on Labor Day, Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky was busy coordinating relief work for thousands of members of his community, where he began his service as a Chabad shliach eight years ago.
At present, there are 15 shluchim couples and 11 branches of Chabad in and around the Houston area. While national organizations from around the country and around the world were mobilizing to set up their unique relief efforts for a Jewish community that requires assistance, Chabad was already there, doing what they do every day—reaching out and assisting the community in so many ways.
“Unlike many of the organizations now here, our men and women were already on the ground dealing with storm-related issues from the start,” said Rabbi Zaklikofsky. The rabbi’s shul is in the Bellaire area of Houston, a part of the city that was impacted by Harvey to a lesser extent than areas on the water like Galveston and Corpus Christi.
“We knew the hurricane was coming as per the forecast, but almost no one here was able to anticipate the severity of what happened next,” the rabbi said. He explains that it rained and was windy on Friday night, August 25. The next morning, he said, the shul was open and all the regulars made it fairly easily to the Shabbos-morning minyan.
But then, he adds, that evening, as Shabbos was ending, the rains reappeared with an unusual ferocity, accompanied by high winds, and it seemed like the rain just did not stop.
Now in the aftermath of Harvey, it is time to clean up the mess and do what we can to help people put their lives back together again—and many of us here in New York who endured the ravages of Sandy almost five years ago are aware of the scope of that undertaking.
Aside from the physical devastation and damage wreaked by the storm, there is also the emotional anguish that comes with being displaced and having your life as you knew it uprooted—a type of suffering that is not immediately discernible to the human eye.
Earlier this week, a group of some 15 volunteers from Israel, members of ZAKA, arrived in Houston to pitch in and help out. ZAKA is probably best known for the key role they play in the aftermath of terrorist attacks or road accidents where there are always painstaking and difficult tasks that need to be performed in order to honor the dignity of those who lost their lives.
David Rose, the executive director of ZAKA International, told us that the mission of ZAKA is to help out anywhere in the world where their volunteers can be useful. For now, the ZAKA people are playing two roles in Houston. One team is at the command center located at a local yeshiva, where they are being assigned the duty of cleaning out homes that were ravaged by the storm, making it possible for the reconstruction work to begin. This team is headed by Jacky Wertheimer and consists of eight men. Last Saturday night, they flew out of Tel-Aviv to Amsterdam, from where they took a KLM flight directly to Houston.
The second team of ZAKA volunteers flew into Miami, where there are trucks loaded with equipment that will be driven into Houston. According to Mr. Rose, this second team is bringing with them newly designed equipment from the Israeli firm known as WaterGen, machinery that can turn air into clean, drinkable water. Wertheimer told us when we spoke on Monday that most of the water flowing into Houston is either contaminated or just plain undrinkable and that the WaterGen equipment will significantly alleviate that issue.
ZAKA cleanup crews are also working closely with the Christian community in Houston through the Gulf Meadows Church and Pastor Becky Keenan. Last year, ZAKA was recognized by the United Nations as an international humanitarian volunteer organization, and the work they are doing this week in Houston is true to that mission.
Rabbi Ari Abramowitz, who now lives in Israel but is a native of Houston, wrote that his former shul in Houston was submerged in 8 feet of water. The community was hit so hard because it borders on the bayou. The streets have turned to rivers and these rivers are filled with sewage, alligators, and snakes. There were pictures on Facebook of alligators swimming through the streets.
Three of the city’s five major synagogues have experienced significant flooding, and 71% of the city’s Jewish population of 65,000 live in areas that have experienced high flooding. That includes 12,000 Jewish seniors. The Evelyn Rubinstein Jewish Community Center of Houston was flooded with 10 feet of water.
Once you break down the damage into this kind of detail, you get a better sense of the overwhelming hardship that people are facing. At first, the most urgent matter of business, as 52 inches of rain fell on the city, was rescuing people from their homes.
Rabbi Zaklikofsky of The Shul in Bellaire said that on the first night, as the rain intensified and homes that had not flooded in previous storms were now flooding, the first order of business was for community people to break out their kayaks, boats, and rafts to rescue people from rising waters in their homes.
The next matter that needed urgent attention was preparing and distributing food to those forced from their homes. Almost immediately, aid began to pour into the community from multiple directions—too many to enumerate in this short essay. For our purposes here we are highlighting the work of the folks we spoke with. There are obviously many more heroes of this story.
The Orthodox Union is just one of the heroic groups that unhesitatingly swung into immediate action, along with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), Agudath Israel, and Chabad.
Alan Fagin, executive director of the OU, is working closely with the coordinators who are diligently managing the relief efforts. Through this past weekend, almost $800,000 was raised by donations over the OU website, with the $1 million mark surpassed earlier this week.
“Right now as we speak, we are told that there is enough food for this week and that the community is saturated with volunteers from around the country,” Fagin said. “This is going to be a very long and arduous process,” the OU executive director said. He added that he believes it will take months to properly organize everything before the task of restoring and rebuilding homes can even get under way.
Fagin also said that a big part of the problem in Houston is the lack of flood insurance in many areas, as homes in high-flood areas suffered extreme damage less than two years ago and insurance companies refused to renew many of those policies.
So a lot of the people who are out of their homes are stuck for now. They will need temporary housing plus a great deal more from the private and charitable sector until such time that the government can get its act together. President Trump has assured Houstonians that the federal government is committing as much as $20 billion to the recovery and rebuilding effort. But up here on the East Coast, we know that it can take months if not years for average hardworking homeowners to get their hands on the money they so desperately need now.
And there may not be a greater expert on this specific matter than Boruch Ber Bender, the founder and director of Achiezer. His organization played a pivotal role in interfacing with the government in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in order to secure the promised aid from the government to help people rebuild their homes and get their lives back in order.
Even though Mr. Fagin of the OU says that the need for food and volunteers has abated for now, there will still be food needed for thousands of people in the days and weeks ahead and even beyond that. To that end, Zvi Gluck’s Amudim organization has also jumped into the process of locating and contracting with freight carriers and their 18-wheelers to deliver food to Houston for the future. On Monday, Gluck told us that his trucks would be arriving in Houston on Tuesday and Wednesday.
While it was still pouring like mad in Houston almost two weeks ago, and before anyone really knew how severe the storm would be, two Chabad kitchens in schools were pressed into service. They worked around the clock preparing thousands of meals that were needed immediately, and their volunteers delivered to people in shelters or in their homes if the flooding was not too severe.
“A lot of people are in shock here,” Chabad’s Rabbi Zaklikofsky said. But, he said, “Texans are tough.” And then he added, “Jewish Texans are extra tough.”
Now the forecast is saying that the next storm, Hurricane Irma, is expected to hit South Florida head-on over this weekend. Hopefully, Divine forces combined with meteorological high- and low-pressure systems will push it out to sea where it cannot do too much damage. If it hits Florida, the name Irma may supplant that of Harvey for a while and you are going to hear this a lot from people: “Oh no, not again.”
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