A Year on From Hurricane Harvey, Houston’s Jewish Community Still Traumatized

Some 2,000 Jewish households were devastated by Hurricane Harvey – but more than half have still not returned to their homes, with surprising donations from Israeli government and Azerbaijanis working to help

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Exterior of the Lewis family home, debris piled at the curb, in the Jewish neighborhood of Meyerland, Houston.
Exterior of the Lewis family home, debris piled at the curb, in the Jewish neighborhood of Meyerland, Houston.Credit: David S. Lewis

HOUSTON – The year since Hurricane Harvey walloped the center of the Jewish community here has been one of stress, sadness and surprises for the thousands directly affected by the record-setting devastation and destruction.

Margaret and David Lewis and their three teenagers had been away from Houston for three years while David worked as an oil geologist overseas. But on August 25, 2017 – just a week after they returned to get the kids settled in school – water began coming into their home, rising up nearly 2 feet (0.6 meters). They lived in Meyerland, the center of Houston’s Jewish community and an area hit hardest by the hurricane.

After moving necessities from the first to the second floor, David quickly inflated a kayak, using his car’s cigarette lighter as an emergency power source. He began paddling down roads that had been transformed into torrents of sewage-filled floodwater with deadly currents. He rescued a mobility-impaired neighbor, another elderly couple and a young family with their infant in a front carrier.

After bringing Margaret and their children to a neighbor’s small over-garage apartment, which became a temporary shelter for 14 people, David insisted on going out again. “He knew he could help, had the strength and the skills to do it, and so he kept going,” recounts Margaret, a psychology professor and cubmaster of Houston’s Jewish scout troop. Pausing to regain her composure after tearing up, she adds, “People in the neighborhood directed him to those they knew needed rescuing.”

David Lewis kayaking in his flooded living room in the Jewish neighborhood of Meyerland, Houston, August 2017.Credit: David S. Lewis

Of the 26,000 Jewish households in Houston, some 2,000 lost their homes to Hurricane Harvey’s devastation. The storm dropped 30 inches of rainfall on the city on August 26-27 and a total of 52 inches in a four-day period – more than Houston usually sees in a year. A majority of those whose homes were destroyed, like the Lewises’, still haven’t been able to move back in.

A lesson in humility

The hurricane also brought Margaret Lewis the unfamiliar experience of being on the receiving end of charity, instead of giving it.

“You never know when the wheel of tzedakah will turn and you’ll be a recipient,” she says. “We’ve been donors to the Jewish federation and have always heard that it helps Jews around the world. To be a recipient and understand that I was benefiting from donors in Houston, New York and Israel, and all over the world, was humbling and a wonderful sense of connection. It felt like I was part of something so much bigger than myself.”

Traffic going over Brays Bayou in the Meyerland neighborhood of Houston, Texas, August 25, 2018.Credit: AFP

One out of every 11 Jewish families in Houston – the U.S.’ fourth-largest city – experienced flooding during the hurricane, says Taryn Baranowski, the local Jewish federation’s chief marketing officer.

A year on, 55 percent of Houston’s Jewish Family Service clients are not yet back in their homes, says its CEO Linda Burger. So while they pay rent on their temporary housing or double up with family members, they are also making mortgage payments on ruined homes. “We’re a very traumatized community,” Burger admits.

Discussion about how to commemorate the tragedy “has been difficult. It’s important, but at the same time you don’t want to re-traumatize anyone and everyone isn’t OK yet. It’s going to take three to five years to get to whatever the new normal is.”

Burger and her husband also lost their home to the flood and have been recipients of kindness and donations, which has been jarring. “I’m used to being the helper, not the one receiving help,” she says, echoing Lewis’ comments. “For my team members to accept help, I had to say yes, too, and lead in that way. There was a houseful of people packing up my things,” she adds. “Kids from Rice University and the Jewish day school showed up to pull up carpets and knock down walls. You feel totally out of control. It was excruciatingly painful. Wonderful strangers were keeping things on track while I was a mess. It was a good lesson in humility and learning that it’s OK to say ‘Yes, I need help.’”

Like individual families, Jewish institutions are still struggling. Houston’s Jewish senior nursing home, Seven Acres, evacuated residents from the first floor during the hurricane and hasn’t been able to move anyone back yet. On the other hand, the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center was able to restore its facilities so quickly that while visiting Houston in February, Israeli lawmaker Ofir Akunis said the Jewish state could learn from Houstonians about building quickly.

In this file photo from August 27, 2017, a couple walk down a flooded section of Interstate 610 in floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas.Credit: David J. Phillip,AP

The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston raised $23 million following the disaster, says CEO Avital Ingber. The money came from individual donations and other Jewish federations. New York’s UJA-Federation, for example, raised nearly $1 million for emergency relief, repair and reconstruction, says Emily Kutner, a spokesperson for the organization. Two staff members who had coordinated help for New York Jews’ recovery from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 spent two weeks in Houston lending expertise.

Help from unexpected places

For the first time in Israel’s history, its government donated $1 million in disaster relief funds to a U.S. community. It went to five Houston Jewish organizations: a Reform temple, Conservative synagogue and Orthodox shul; the Jewish community center; and Seven Acres.

Even more surprising was a $30,000 donation to the Conservative synagogue Beth Yeshurun from Houston’s Azerbaijani community, which numbers about 2,000. “That synagogue did so many good things for people, so that’s why we decided to give it to them,” explains Irada Akhoundova, president of the Houston-Baku Sister Cities Association. Akhoundova says her group hopes to hold a joint concert with the synagogue next year, “to show people peace and solidarity.”

The donations to the larger community allowed Houston’s Jewish Family Services to add a dozen staffers to manage disaster relief applications and provide therapy to traumatized Jews and non-Jews, says Burger. It has been able to provide grants to more than 300 local families needing replacement furniture. Some 280 families each received $15,000 grants to buy needed appliances or other necessary finishing touches.

Margaret Lewis and her daughter Mirka in their destroyed Houston home after Hurricane Harvey. Credit: David S. Lewis

Rebuilding the synagogues

Of the two synagogues hit hardest – Beth Yeshurun and United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston – only the former is almost fully back in its building.

Six feet of water rose in Beth Yeshurun’s sanctuary, says its senior rabbi, Brian Strauss. Over 400 of the synagogue’s 1,800 households lost their homes, he recounts, including four of the six clergy and the congregation’s president. The preschool and Hebrew school relocated to a nearby Reform temple, while the 400 students in the Jewish elementary and middle day school moved temporarily to the local Jewish community high school.

Beth Yeshurun’s first priority was to help members with the trauma they’d experienced and help put their lives back together, says Strauss, even as the congregation and its leaders struggled to do so themselves. For months, the synagogue’s clergy and staff worked out of their cars, adds Rabbi Danny Horwitz, another of the congregation’s rabbis whose home was destroyed.

More than 1,000 prayer books and volumes of Torah were lost to the floodwaters, but replaced at a discounted rate through the Conservative movement. The underinsured congregation got about $1 million from its insurance company. It received $700,000 through the Houston Jewish federation, including $150,000 from the Israeli government (as well as $30,000 from the Azerbaijanis), and raised a further $5 million from other individual donors, says Strauss. That allowed them to get their school back in the building in January and get ready to reopen the sanctuary doors.

United Orthodox Synagogues, the largest Orthodox congregation in the region, had its Torah books and prayer books washed away in five feet of water that filled the sanctuary. It is located just across a road from Brays Bayou, a slow-moving river that normally runs deep within steep banks next to a parallel highway, but quickly overflowed during Harvey.

Outside of Congregation Beth Yeshurun, under reconstruction, in Houston, Texas.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

The congregation razed the ruined building and embarked on a campaign to raise the several million dollars needed to construct a new home. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, mobile kosher kitchens were set up, part funded by the Jewish community of Dallas, says UOS Rabbi Barry Gelman.

The home he shared with his wife and five young children was destroyed by the flooding. Rescued by boat, they spent the first night camping out at Houston’s Orthodox day school. Gelman joined other synagogue members in rescuing people by boat. “I picked up a woman sitting in a chair in water up to her waist,” he recalls. “Water was four or five feet high in the street, and the current at that point was still strong so it was dangerous to walk.”

Friends and colleagues from the Rabbinical Council of America and the International Rabbinic Fellowship pitched in to help, sending money and members to clean up, as did the Bnei Akiva youth movement and Orthodox Union.

‘Everything is ruined’

“It showed me the importance of community,” Gelman says. “There were many stories of people in Houston having a hard time getting their houses cleaned up. But we already had community infrastructure in place and could create a web of care where everyone got what was needed. You walk back into your house and there’s nothing left, and you don’t know what to do. Everything you own is ruined. Because our community was in place, we were really able to help people get over those initial days and weeks and continue to help families still suffering,” he says.

Israeli Consul to the Southwest Gilad Katz and Houston Jewish Federation CEO Avital Ingber at an Israeli government check presentation, February 2018.Credit: Consulate General of Israel to t

But the trauma left by the hurricane will have long-lasting effects, says Burger, adding that children and elderly Holocaust survivors have been hit especially hard.

Children get anxious every time there’s a heavy rain, she says. For elderly Holocaust survivors who had to be saved from the hurricane, it resurrected the traumas they suffered during the war. “Taking whatever you can carry, getting into an open truck and being transported like cattle. Then you’re driven to a shelter and it’s mass confusion and you get a cot if you’re lucky, you don’t know what’s happening.

“We’ve seen people revert to their 8-year-old selves, mentally disintegrating age-wise to a different place,” says Burger. “The trauma that has emerged is significant and very hard to reverse. The full impact probably won’t be seen for another year to five years. So many folks are still in limbo.”

One Jewish family had their house ruined by the Memorial Day flood of 2015 and was on a Federal Emergency Management Agency waiting list for federal financing to raise their home above future floodwaters. Though their home had no interior walls – removed because of post-flood mold – they were still living there because they didn’t have the resources to rent another home.

“This family just found out that because they flooded again during Harvey, it starts the clock over,” Burger explains. “You can’t do any reconstruction until the house is lifted, which you can’t do until FEMA money comes in. People are stuck in this limbo state.”

Reconstruction work at Brays Bayou, November 2017.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Meyerland today feels different after Hurricane Harvey. “At night it’s a ghost town. A lot of people haven’t moved back in,” says Ingber. A few Jewish families left Houston after the hurricane, looking to plant roots on drier ground. But nearly everyone has stayed put, say those in the city.

Congregation Beth Yeshurun will formally reopen its sanctuary for Selichot (penitential) services on September 1, marking the beginning of the High Holy Days. “It’s going to be a very powerful moment for us, being able to hold our most important days back at home,” says Strauss. “To reopen it after the flood is very emotional and will put us in the mind-set of being grateful to God for the resources to be able to make this happen so quickly.”

Margaret Lewis, meanwhile, is hopeful that her family – whose three teenagers have been sharing one bedroom – will be able to return home later this year. “This Jewish community is really amazing,” she says, “and that’s what’s gotten us through.”

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