By Yonit Tanenbaum for Ami Magazine
“We are gearing up for a big storm here. Have a Good Shabbos!” was the last I heard from my Houston family before Shabbos. From my Tel Aviv apartment I kept an anxious eye on the news. As each hour passed, Hurricane Harvey drew nearer to Houston, and memories of the two previous hurricanes that hit Texas resurfaced.
I lit my Shabbos candle. A knot was starting to form in my stomach. “Please be safe,” I willed silently.
The disconnection from my family that Shabbos was unsettling.
I didn’t hear from them again until Sunday morning when a deluge of photos came through our family WhatsApp group showing my hometown underwater – highways covered, bayous (which in Texas are large ditches) cresting, and cars abandoned in high water.
I knew that the Jewish communities that had suffered in the past, specifically the Meyerland and United Orthodox Synagogue (UOS) areas, would once again experience drastic flooding.
As the hurricane moved across southwest Texas, I messaged my family group every few hours. “Houston, check in please.” It was horrifying to watch my city suffer from afar. My newsfeed streamed with updates from fellow Houstonians who were either in the area watching the water rise around them, possibly planning their escape routes, or those who were out-of-state, keeping a watchful eye on their friends and family.
Thankfully, my parents live in Fondren Southwest, in the Chabad community that rests on slightly higher ground. While the torrential rains caused some damage to our home and vehicles, and turned our streets into rivers, the neighborhood was spared much of the flooding that wreaked havoc just two miles away, which included waters of several feet deep entering homes.
Approximately 250 Houston Jewish families have lost their homes to Harvey. The relief effort has been astonishing – volunteers from near and far have aided Houstonians and continue to do so. It is amazing how people take kindness to a higher level when disaster strikes.
“Why do we need to experience disaster at all?” I voiced at the Shabbos table where I ate the Friday night following the storm, visibly upset. “We will never know the answer to why terrible things happen,” my host said. “The only thing we can do is try to take meaningful action.”
I now share with you the timeline of events experienced by a Jewish flood victim in an effort for us to truly appreciate the gravity of the situation that people faced and the impact of the meaningful action that people took following the absolute devastation.
A dear family friend who has lived in Houston for 35 years spoke to me for two hours from a makeshift attic that a builder had added to her home as a safety shelter after the previous hurricane, the Memorial Day Flood of 2015. Sasha, 60, and her husband, David, 68, live in the UOS neighborhood of Houston, which is an historical flood zone.
The following is Sasha’s accounting of Hurricane Harvey:
Thursday, August 24
I heard on the news that a storm was coming, and that it would be a strong one. People were preparing themselves. I went to the supermarket and bought supplies in case we would be stuck in our home for an extended period of time – bottled water, toilet paper, and food.
The shelves at the supermarkets were empty.
Friday, August 25
Together with a housekeeper and her nephew, my husband and I lifted everything in the house from the floor to at least two feet off the ground, because that is how high the water rose during the last flood. We raised the sofas on top of upside-down buckets and piled everything on top of them – shoes, small furniture, boxes with important documents and computer data. Nothing was left on the floor within two feet.
A light rain began to fall.
Saturday, August 26
The whole city was shut down. Everybody was in their houses. It was silent.
Torrential rain pounded all around us. The street started to fill with water. Even though the city had added more inlets to drain water into the nearby bayous, they soon overflowed and flooded the streets.
The water rose and spilled over the curbs, onto the sidewalks, and slowly onto the grass. I watched as the water inched up our lawn toward the house.
The water reached the door of our garage and I knew it would soon enter our home. I changed into a nightgown, grabbed my daughter’s puppy who was with us, and prepared to sleep upstairs in a makeshift attic that my husband had a builder add to our house after the last flood. I took yartzeit candles and matches with me because I knew that we would probably lose power during the night.
The water began to penetrate the house. My husband shut off the electricity so we would not electrocute ourselves and then went up to the attic. I was calm. We had done this twice before and this time we were much more prepared. I had great confidence in the attic that David had built. It had a little window, beds, a small toilet, and a sink that worked just fine.
David went downstairs to get water and food. The water in the kitchen was up to his chest and freezing cold. He knew that the items we had piled high might not survive this flood that was developing so rapidly, so he made some quick decisions. He wanted to save some computer data. It was dark. He used the walls to guide him as he walked and to prevent him from slipping and falling. He removed some of his garments so the weight of the wet material would not weigh him down. He stood on a chair in the water to reach a box of important computer data, steadied himself, and then walked with it carefully above his head until he reached the staircase to the attic. He was able to save two boxes of computer data. Then he went back for food. I suggested that he try to grab any food from the top shelf of the pantry. I didn’t know what I had stashed up there, probably things that I didn’t use often and hadn’t looked at in quite some time. On a high shelf he found: two jars of gefilte fish, whole grain Cheerios, some crackers, an old Manischewitz Passover cake, a can of corn, some peanuts, and two large bottles of water. When David brought them upstairs, he smiled and said, “Sasha, it’s a good thing that I bought these peanuts to eat while you were visiting your family last month, so we have what to eat now.” My husband is a very optimistic person.
It was dark and we were very tired so we called our two daughters, told them that we were fine, turned off our phones to conserve battery, and went to sleep.
Sunday, August 27
When we awoke we looked out the window of our little room. It had rained all night long. The water was so high that it covered the roof of the cars on the street. We checked the stairs leading from our attic down into the house and saw that the water was halfway up the stairs. It was shocking. I felt like we were in Noah’s Ark.
We ate some Cheerios and called our daughters. They were frantic. They were not able to reach us because our phones had been turned off. We told them that we were fine in our attic and not to worry.
David ate some peanuts. He said they were the tastiest thing he had ever eaten and left some for me. I ate a few and left a few for him. To this day, we keep leaving some for each other, so we still have some left.
We decided to eat some lunch. I took out a jar of gefilte fish. We didn’t have forks, so taking the fish out of the jar, which was packed with jelly, was no easy task. David tried to grab the fish with his fingers but it kept slipping away. We laughed. I said I should try it because women’s fingers are smaller and more delicate. He didn’t want me to get myself dirty, but finally allowed me to try and I succeeded. We didn’t have plates so I tore a plastic shopping bag in half and handed my husband a piece of fish wrapped in the bag like a falafel. What other choice did we have? But David was determined to eat properly at a table so he went hunting around the attic. He came back with a piece of wood, which he laid across his knee. “This is going to be our table,” he told me, and together we ate at this little table. It was hilarious. He used the small square crackers that he had brought upstairs to cut the fish into bite-size pieces and then ate the fish and crackers together. “Eat slowly,” he told me, “this is all we have to eat, so make it last.”
“I feel like Anne Frank,” I said to him, “except instead of hiding from Nazis, we’re hiding from the flood.” We had a good time up there, laughing nervously between us.
Sitting in that small attic I started to feel anxious. “What will be?” I asked David. “Look at this situation. We don’t have electricity or connection to the world.” David replied, “We have a room with a view of the ocean! People pay good money for this and we get it for free.”
We drank water and ate a cookie for dessert.
I turned my phone on and saw many missed calls and texts from my daughters, so I called them. My daughter Shari was in hysterics. She had seen on the news that our neighborhood was in the eye of the storm and she couldn’t bear the thought of her parents being trapped in a home filling with water.
“Get out of there,” she cried. “You don’t see the news! You’re not thinking straight! You will die if you stay in that house.”
When Shari hung up with me she called the coast guard and told them that her parents were insane and someone needs to save them.
But we didn’t think we were being crazy. We felt kind of safe in this room. It was cute and we were relatively comfortable. We were able to use the bathroom in that room but my husband had shut off the water so the waste wouldn’t go into our house. We had windows with light during the day. I lit candles when it got dark and then extinguished them in the morning so we could reuse them because I didn’t know how many days we would be stuck there.
It was a little scary. We didn’t know what would be.
We looked out the window and saw several things. By this point the water covered the trees in the yard next to us and was completely above the fence between our two properties. Suddenly we saw people swimming across the empty lot next to our home, trying to save themselves. They were leaving their homes to look for higher ground. Some people went to our neighbors across the street and waited on their stairs until they could be rescued.
We heard a noise, which sounded like a faint motor getting louder and louder. Soon we saw that the coast guard had arrived on our street and were evacuating people in small motor boats. First they took a 94-year-old woman to safety. Then they came back and took another three people. Then they came for our neighbors across the street and then the family next to them. My husband went to our roof and waved them down.
The coast guard came over and said that they had received my daughter’s call; it was our turn to be evacuated. We swam out to his boat – me, in my nightgown, and my husband, in his pajamas.
I wanted to know where they would be taking us. “A bus will take you to an evacuation center,” the gentleman told us. “George R. Brown Convention Center downtown. There are 9,000 people there already, it’s a big place, you’ll be fine there.”
But I was not comfortable with the thought of being surrounded by thousands of people without being dressed in proper clothing, sopping wet, and with my daughter’s puppy without a leash. My husband and I, we have each other. We have battled illness together and two previous floods. I much preferred to stay in the comfort of my home with my husband by my side. I knew we would be safe.
The coast guard said, “I cannot force you to come with us, but another storm is coming. The water will keep rising. It is your choice.” We chose to stay put.
We watched as one by one a helicopter airlifted our neighbors from nearby apartments and dropped them on the dry concrete of a nearby highway where they were then bused to shelters.
David and I ate two more pieces of gefilte fish, some water, and a bit of cake.
It was dark. We had no connection to the rest of the world. It was pretty boring. We were exhausted, so we went to sleep.
Monday, August 28
We had gone to sleep pretty early the night before so we woke up early. It was still raining, but much lighter now.
I looked out the window. “Look, an inch of the fence,” I said. “And the fire hydrant,” David said, pointing. The water was finally beginning to recede. I started breathing more easily.
I called Shari for just a moment. “Another storm is coming, Ima,” she said. “Please, please get out of there.” “Don’t worry, we will be fine,” I told her.
We were hungry. My husband wanted to open the can of corn but we didn’t have a can opener. He looked around the attic and found a piece of metal and a piece of wood and he used the wood to hammer the metal into the can and pry off the lid. Eventually he opened it and started to eat. “Wow, this is the best corn ever,” he said.
Then we heard a knock at the front door downstairs.
My husband’s office manager, Karen, had come to rescue us. Our daughter had called her and begged her to save us. At first David didn’t want to bother her. “We are fine, we can stay here until this is over,” he told her. “David, another storm is coming,” I said. “It’s starting to be dangerous without electricity, and we are running out of battery.”
It was raining. We decided to go. I did not take anything with me from the house; there was nothing to take. I only took the dog and some dog food. I put a towel around my shoulders and we left. We waded through water that was up to our knees, walking through the streets for about seven minutes until higher ground where Karen had parked her truck.
Karen brought us to her home where two other families whom she had rescued were staying as well. We ate, charged our phones, and connected with our very concerned friends and family. We were safe and sound.
Karen and some neighbors gave me clothing, which I’m wearing to this day because I haven’t been able to go to the store yet to buy new clothes, and the stores are probably still closed anyway.
Tuesday, August 29
Overnight the water drained out of the homes and eventually from the streets as well. After scouting the neighborhood to make sure that it was safe, we returned to our home to begin the cleanup. It is important to remove wet drywall as soon as possible so mold doesn’t grow in the home and ruin it completely.
The floors were slippery with mud and required careful footing. Everything that we had lifted off the ground was strewn all over the floor. My Pesach dishes, which I had carefully packaged separately, were completely shattered on the floor tiles. The refrigerator lay on its side with the door open – the smell was like that of a dead animal. It was horrific. David’s entire home office was in ruin. Papers, filing cabinets, everything was full of water. We stood there taking it all in, disbelief on our faces. The devastation was overwhelming.
My daughter posted on Facebook that her parents were once again flooded and volunteers began arriving at our home to help. Every day, all day, people have been coming. The JCC has supplies for the entire city. Chabad is unbelievable! They organize volunteers, lunches, Shabbat meals, and any supply that we need – brooms, paper towels, toothbrushes, cleaning materials, coffee, everything. I don’t know how to thank all of the organizations enough who have been providing relief. They are miracle workers.
Friday, September 1
There is still cleaning to do. We are still clearing, cleaning, and throwing. It’s a mess. Everything we owned was in this house, our entire lives.
Short Term Plan
I have been staying with Shari, but last night the power returned in our house. We had light and air conditioning, so we came back and slept in the attic.
Our short term plan is to stay in our attic while we finish the cleanup. There is a lot of looting; so many thieves, unfortunately. We prefer to be in our house than to leave it abandoned. David wakes up around 5AM to begin cleaning every day.
We will either tear down the house or renovate. Either way, David needs to find a new office. He is working hard to save the computer data and fix our cars. We are dealing with the immediate situation.
Long Term Plan
David loves our home. But we know that we cannot live in this situation anymore. We will have to either lift up the house – by law we can raise it six feet, I believe – or move outside the flood zone, perhaps to the other side of the neighborhood near my daughter (who flooded only two inches).
Right now I cannot tell you my plans for the future because we don’t know what we are going to do. We are surviving the day, that’s what we are doing.
It is very overwhelming. People are cleaning up their whole lives.
There are two ways to look at our situation: to dwell on the loss of physical things or appreciate the life we have. Some people lost their lives, so I am just happy to be alive, thank G-d. I have come to understand how little you really need in life. People accumulate so much and buy so much, but really you need so little. As long as we are alive, toda la el (thank G-d). Everything else, kapara (atonement).