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.