Houston after Harvey

Houston after Harvey

North Jersey federation helped send Texas kids to Jewish camp

Clearing the hurricane debris in Houston. 
(Jewish Federation of Greater Houston)
Clearing the hurricane debris in Houston. (Jewish Federation of Greater Houston)

Dana Levy Germain learned about Texas hurricanes in 2008, two weeks after she moved to Houston.

She had lived in San Francisco, where she prepared for earthquakes by having emergency plans. But preparing for an incoming hurricane — this one was named Ike — was different. “The crazy thing about a flood is you know it’s coming,” she said.

She found herself “standing in a grocery store with people who had 4,000 bottles of water and cans of soup. You’re listening to the stories about past hurricanes. You know it’s coming, you just don’t know if you’re going to lose everything or will it be a little wind storm and you’ll rake up the leaves in the morning.”

In the end, Hurricane Ike blew through, “and we ended up being fine.”

But a year ago, with Hurricane Harvey heading toward Houston, Ms. Germain and her three children left town, staying with friends in Mississippi.

“I did not want to be one of those families that — God forbid — someone has to come in on a boat and rescue,” she said.

Ms. Germain told her story to the Jewish Standard last week, on the eve of the first anniversary of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation of Houston.

Hers was one of the Jewish families affected by Hurricane Harvey. She was able to send her children to Jewish sleepaway camp this summer because of a special grant from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Houston has a Jewish community of around 60,000 people, living in about 26,000 households. “It’s a very close-knit community,” Avital Ingber, the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, said. “Much of the Jewish community lives in the Meyerland area, and that was extremely impacted.”

Ms. Ingber said that one in every 11 Jewish families in Houston was affected by the hurricane.

Ms. Germain said her family was “luckier than some. Water didn’t come into the house proper. Our roof leaked and we had water on the second floor. There were several feet in the garage. It flooded a storage unit where we had almost all of my dead husband’s things. We lost 90 percent. That was traumatic for the kids.”

And they had vicarious trauma too. “We had Facetime access to friends who stayed. We saw friends evacuated by helicopter,” she said.

The Germains had insurance, “which paid a huge claim. But we still had tens of thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket costs we didn’t plan for.”

After she paid for a new roof, it didn’t seem like there would be enough money for summer camp for her children, who had gone to Camp Sabra, a Jewish camp in Missouri.

That’s where the Houston federation, with help from the North Jersey federation, stepped in.

“We were fortunate that there was extra funding available for people impacted by Harvey,” she said. “I was able to say to the kids: Guess what! We’re all going back to camp! It was a blessing to be able to say that.”

For Jason Shames, head of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, responding to natural disasters is just something that has to be done.

“It was not just an affinity for helping out our fellow Americans and Jews, but a real appreciation for how we were helped when Hurricane Sandy hit us hard,” he said.

The federation raised $331,685 for Hurricane Harvey relief; $98,000 was earmarked for camp aid.

“Some of our donors had expressed an interest in using our money specifically to help the Jewish community there and to align it with our priorities here,” Mr. Shames said. “It became apparent to us that one of the biggest needs in Houston was parents needing help for summer camp. A lot of people had lost businesses and a lot of income. It was damaging not just to institutions but to households.”

Supporting Jewish summer camp is a priority for the North Jersey federation, which gave out 149 summer camp grants to local families this year.

Ms. Ingber said that not only did the hurricane damage the homes of thousands of Jewish families, it also damaged three major synagogues, the Jewish community center, and the senior home.

“Many of the institutions have rebuilt, but not all,” she said. “There are still whole neighborhoods that are almost like ghost towns when you drive through at night. Many people are still out of their homes.

“While we are looking back from a place of resiliency and pride in our community, we have a long road ahead,” she said.

“Flooding is a very complicated crisis to deal with. You’re dealing with the complexities of insurance and you’re trying to navigate funding on a county, local, state, and national level. You’re dealing with post-traumatic stress. Middle class families are having to make choices. Do you just take the money you get from insurance and rebuild your home? Do you lift your home and raise it, which is not covered by insurance? Or do you move?

“If you choose to pay to build, what does that mean for the funds you would have been spending to send your kids to a Jewish summer camp or an Israel trip?

“That’s why the funds to help pay for camp scholarships were so critical.”

All told, the Houston federation received nearly $23 million in emergency aid from Jewish federations and other donors across the country.

Ms. Germain said that Hurricane Harvey hasn’t soured her on Houston.

“This is an awesome place to live and an awesome community of people,” she said. “I have plenty of friends for whom this is their third major flood. People were gung ho to rebuild. I don’t know anyone who left.”

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