Hurricane Harvey: A Year Later

We thought we were the lucky ones, those of us who lived on the west side of Houston. When Hurricane Harvey stalled over Houston nearly one year ago, we spent the days watching the news as one neighborhood after another succumbed to what turned out to be 50 inches of rain that never seemed to end. We watched, and gave thanks, and wondered what we could do to help. This sense of fear and gratitude continued for two days, until August 28th, when we started to hear rumors on the news: “Addicks Reservoir can’t hold all this water,” the Army Corps of Engineers reported. The city said they needed to release water into Buffalo Bayou, which stretched through the west side of town. Still, the city assured us that when they released water into the bayou, there would be only minor street flooding. Instead, when they opened the dam on August 29th my neighborhood—the neighborhood closest to Addicks Reservoir running south of Buffalo Bayou—was flooded within fifteen minutes. The homes closest to the bayou had water up to the roofs. The floodwater stretched eight miles, turning the already flooded recessed Beltway 8 into a gushing river. Every single street intersection in between was flooded so that the west side was cut in half—north of the bayou and south of the bayou—with no way to traverse it. People had no warning or chance to evacuate, and sadly several elderly people died in their homes that night and the following day. And unlike the rest of the city, where the water came in and then returned to sea in a matter of days, the water stayed in our homes for three weeks. Business, churches, and homes were destroyed by up to six feet of water, and by the resultant mold that crept up the walls as days stretched into weeks. In some neighborhoods, every single home filled with water, every single car was destroyed, every single article of clothing was covered in mold, every single memento decayed. There was simply nothing left to salvage.

Still, I was one of the lucky ones, and the congregation I serve, Temple Sinai, was also lucky. So, within two days of the storm, my two coworkers and I called every single one of our families. We partnered with the Conservative and Chabad Jewish communities on the westside to create a supply pantry, and our congregation organized two Mitzvah Days in the two weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah to assist our families that had flooded, to deliver meals and reach out to anybody who needed support. One of our Temple members, Marla Hansel, organized these events. She thought she would spend a couple of weeks helping; she is still at it, calling families who flooded, distributing gift cards, and making everyone who was in dire straits know they are not alone because Temple Sinai has their backs. Within a week of the flood, we called every family in our congregation again, and two weeks later we called them all again. We wanted to ensure that nobody fell through the cracks and that we reached out to everyone. Still, for months we kept learning of people who were flooded but “didn’t want to bother” us, or who felt other people had greater needs. It took about six months for us to realize that approximately 40% of our community was impacted by Harvey.

During this entire time, I only cried twice: Once, after the first day of calls, when it became clear how badly our families were impacted. And then I cried again, when mail started to be delivered, and we received letter after letter with donations enclosed—some of $18 and some of $5,000—by friends and strangers. They had watched the news and wanted to help, and their donations did help; in the end we distributed $50,000 to Jews on the west side of town so they could rebuild their lives.

In addition, Temple Sinai opened its doors to an Episcopalian church close by that was six feet underwater. Emmanuel Episcopal began to pray in our Temple the Sunday of Thanksgiving, and ever since the members of our two communities have drawn close. We shared Advent and Hanukah songs and treats, and we created a joint Mitzvah Day. They attended our Passover Seder and their members have joined our High Holy Day choir, and we are joining their St. Francis Blessing of the Animals (which just happens to be on the Shabbat of parshat Noach). When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, their sewing ministry made her a prayer quilt under which she took her last breath. When their senior rector was diagnosed with cancer, we added his name to our Mi Shebeirach list. They continue to thank us, but I keep thanking them, because they allow us to live our values of hachnasat orchim and recognizing that all people are created in God’s image every single blessed day.

Now, we are approaching the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. So many people remain displaced, and so many neighborhoods throughout the city remain permanently altered. It will take years for the city to fully recover. Every time it rains, many of us get more than a little nervous. But I must admit that despite the devastation Harvey brought, despite the trauma, despite everything… maybe we are the lucky ones after all.

Rabbi Annie Belford serves Temple Sinai in Houston, Texas.

High Holy Days Rabbis

Yom Kippur and Hurricane Mathew: What is Normal?

When one is forced to abandon one’s home due to a hurricane or a natural disaster, it feels strange to walk around another community trying to be normal, engage in normal looking activities like eating in a restaurant, or engaging in normal pleasant conversation when seeing other evacuees from one’s congregation. It is almost surreal to inhabit the world of another town while all along one is thinking about what is going on in our community. What is happening to our house or the congregational facility we cherish? Congregational rabbis make themselves available to their congregants in their time of need, and especially if there is an unusual event. Yet, a hurricane?

For me this Yom Kippur was unusual to put it mildly. As a result of Hurricane Mathew, we in Hilton Head, SC had to leave our homes behind and find alternative accommodations in a short period of time. My congregants spread out throughout the region from Charlotte to Atlanta. Our family traveled first to Aiken and then settled down in Augusta, Ga. At first I happily ran into our congregant friends in Aiken, but when we settled into the larger city of Augusta we felt we were on our own.

Of course, we kept in touch with congregants through social media. At first it was nice to see many pictures of folks enjoying themselves and touring the places they visited. We did that too. Yet, as Mathew rolled into the low country and into Hilton Head, I suddenly realized that all our plans and anticipation for Yom Kippur were going up like dust in the wind during an Israeli Chamsin. Yes, I was concerned about our house and our congregants as I received many calls, emails and texts from congregants who were contending with all sorts of issues. I was grateful to receive calls from local and regional colleagues, assuring us that there would be room for my congregants at their Yom Kippur services. I spoke to some colleagues who had experience with Hurricane Sandy, and with other colleagues who were dealing with Hurricane Matthew as well, and I am totally grateful to the colleagues who took the time to reach out to me and offer assistance. I am also grateful to the CCAR, Dan Medwin in particular, who helped with providing technological advice to live stream our services in Augusta, GA.

The truth is that throughout the weekend I was not ready to admit that we would not be in Hilton Head for Yom Kippur. First I contacted our colleague Rabbi Shia at Children of Israel in Augusta for Shabbat Services. We had a great experience and were welcomed by him and the congregation. Even then I felt we would be able to return home. Saturday night we had dinner with our colleague Rabbi Rachael Bregman and a few evacuees from Savannah. I started to feel optimistic again. The Hurricane, I wrongly believed, would veer off to the Atlantic and we would have a light brush of intense wind and rain and that would be the end of it. Not so. Man makes plans and God laughs, the Yiddish adage goes.

By Monday I could see that reports were that the hurricane would run over Hilton Head with a vengeance. Oh how it did. Rabbi Shia invited us to services and his president had us and some of our leadership over to her house for dinner before Kol Nidrei. Shia invited me to sit on the bimah with him and deliver a few remarks. This was the first time I had not been on a bima as officiant for Yom Kippur since I was ordained in 1984. I sat there for Kol Nidrei and spoke to the congregation. Shia provided me with an extra kittel and tallit. He was the most gracious colleague one could ask for in this difficult time. A group of my congregants who evacuated to Augusta showed up and I felt that familiar surge of joy and happiness. I left with a good feeling even though I missed doing my thing as I would always do on Yom Kippur. Sure, I missed all the congregants I have come to know and love. There was an emptiness in my heart, even though I was relieved no injuries had been reported from our congregants, and that was the most important thing. I received pictures of the trees falling down on my house. The Temple was in good shape. I prayed to God on Kol Nidrei to give me the strength to keep my cool, my sense of humor, and to remain optimistic.

Yom Kippur morning was a different story. A group of 200 folks from an independent living center in my community, Tide Pointe, were taken to a hotel in downtown Augusta. We have about 10 or so Jewish seniors there and so after meeting with them we decided to have a service for them.

Wednesday morning: We went over to the Ramada Inn to conduct a small service. I promised the attendees that I would give them an abbreviated service from shacharit to Neilah in one hour. The seniors were grateful and appreciative. We talked about their feelings regarding being relocated.  I have to say that I enjoyed doing the service for them. Yes, it was a real mitzvah and I know it was holy work. I felt good about it. Again these are not normal times. Something told me that I needed them more than they needed me.

Nor was this a normal Yom Kippur. We returned to Children of Israel in Augusta for Neilah. There we were sitting in the back row: very weird for me to sit there instead of being on the bimah. The rabbi did a fine job and with joy and celebration the congregation danced in the sanctuary. We ended the service and went to into the social hall for a break the fast meal.

The folks in this congregation were fantastic and I think we made some new friends. I’m concerned like everyone else about my own house and the trees on our homes or on the ground. My mother always says, “This too shall pass.”

I am anxious to deal with the house issues and get the process of removal and clean up underway. I want to be there for my congregants and help them in any way I can. I want to be on my own bimah to show that life goes on and we as a community will rebuild brick and mortar, and our spirits too. This is what we do as rabbis in congregations. The truth is that I felt highs and lows helping my congregants this time and I know that the long term effects of this hurricane are yet to be felt. We as a community, not just at Beth Yam, Hilton Head but the entire low country needs hope and healing.

From strength to strength I have faith we will fashion a recovery of the material and the spiritual in which we will emerge a more united community in the long term.

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom, MSW DD, serves Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head, South Carolina.