At just 13 years old, Mirka Lewis is never going back to her childhood home. She watched it and her belongings drown in the filthy, toxic waters of Hurricane Harvey. She and her family are now living in a small apartment as they try to figure out their next move.
Scott and Yael Ross also saw that raging hurricane destroy their house, which just months before had been remodeled following damage from a storm a year earlier. They were out of town during Harvey, but watched on security cameras as their possessions began to float through their house.
They faced nearly impossible decisions. Should they leave the community where their families live, their synagogue is within walking distance and the Jewish community center is a few minutes down the road? Or should they try to rebuild, which first would require spending more than $200,000 just to raise their house’s foundation six feet?
I met Mirka, Scott and Yael on a recent 24-hour Jewish Federations of North America fly-in to Houston to see firsthand areas that six months after the storm remain devastated; to meet with members of the Jewish community; to learn how they’re recovering and to understand how monies raised by Jewish federations are being used.
Scott and Yael, now with an adorable 3-month-old son, ultimately decided that rebuilding was not financially feasible. They are selling the lot because they can’t sell their flooded home, although they still have to pay the mortgage. They are moving to an area that doesn’t flood, but is a significant drive from their destroyed home — and the Jewish community’s institutional center. As more people like the Rosses move away from that two-mile radius center, institutional life will begin to suffer.
During our visit, we met with numerous people who relayed to us how Houston residents came together for each other. The best of humanity shined brightly each time someone shared their story. Bonnie Kasner, director of the local JCC’s Bertha Alyce School, which suffered heavy damage in the storm, said that two other day schools welcomed Bertha Alyce’s displaced students.
“Schools who we considered or considered us competitors became our supporters and partners,” she said.
Again and again, we heard the same thing from individuals as well as synagogues and other institutions. Those who weren’t affected, or whose homes received only minor damage, stepped up to help the most distressed.
Every person we met genuinely appreciated that we were there, that we care and that we pledged to help in any way we could — whether it be the $1,000 checks the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston gave institutions to help families immediately after the storm hit, the emergency supplies sent by the JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet or the funding to help the many damaged institutions begin their recovery. Our visit proved they are not forgotten, even as the news cycle moved on.
But visits are not enough.
We simply have to keep opening our wallets. Houston’s needs are immense and officials believe it will take another $10 million just to stabilize the Jewish community. Money is needed for expenses not covered by insurance, such as temporary rentals that were required to maintain services while Jewish organizations were flooded out of their buildings. And this $10 million estimate does not cover long-term effects, such as compensating for the 10 percent decline in Houston JCC membership due to people moving out of the area or no longer being able to afford memberships.
Houston still needs our help. PJC
Scott Tobe is chair of community building for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.