Houston: The Numbers And the People

The Hurricane Harvey disaster in Houston was summed up ably by the National Weather Service late Sunday when it said: “This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced. Follow orders from officials to ensure safety.”

Details could be had on every news outlet in the country and abroad. The whole world followed the dramatic events in Texas. In India, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj posted a tweet Monday saying that 200 Indian students were “marooned” in Texas. “They are surrounded by neck-deep water,” she wrote.

So far, at least five people were reported to have died and thousands evacuated or rescued in the catastrophic flooding. And as Hamodia goes to press, it’s not over. NWS officials warned that the water could rise to 59 feet — three feet above 2016 records — and could overwhelm the levees. In some areas, rainfall totals were expected to reach 50 inches. That would make it the heaviest deluge ever recorded in Texas.

Over a quarter million people in Houston, a city of around 2 million, were without power, and 50 counties in Texas have been declared disaster areas. President Donald Trump signed a disaster proclamation for Texas on Friday that set federal relief efforts into motion. On Monday, he approved an emergency declaration for Louisiana, and said he will go to Texas on Tuesday to survey the scene.

So much for numbers. The even bigger story is the people.

The situation in many cases was desperate. But the response was massive and immediate.

As floodwaters rose, countless calls for help came into emergency centers. A fleet of helicopters, airboats, high-water vehicles, garbage trucks — anything that could navigate the flooding — was dispatched by authorities to rescue people from rooftops. There were so many distress calls that the emergency responders had to prioritize life-and-death situations. Desperation was the criterion.

The mobilization included thousands of personnel deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Guard, local police and fire departments, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Everywhere one looked were images of people helping other people, innumerable shots of trained rescue units with emergency gear leading the homeless to safety through waist-deep water, chest-deep water, in city streets where not much more than the tops of streets signs could be seen above water, and as many pictures of friends and neighbors saving each other, opening their homes to the stranded, or just lending a hand.

In the Jewish community as well, Yisrael Kedoshim deployed themselves to make a kiddush Hashem amidst the inundation.

Pikuach nefesh, of course, took priority; but even during the emergency, ovdei Hashem carried on in their meticulous observance of mitzvos. Acts of chessed and adherence to halachah came together. With streets completely impassable in Fondren, for example, where minyanim were canceled due to the storm, arrangements were made for alternate venues in the homes of those in the community reciting Kaddish.

Congregants of the city’s largest shul, the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, were cautioned not to use the local eruv, due to expected storm damage. A number of potential problems were addressed in a write-up of “Hurricane Halachah” that was made available before Shabbos.

Yet, for tens of thousands, the tragedy is just beginning. Indeed, more flooding is expected. Forecasters said the worst is expected on Wednesday and Thursday, but the path of disaster remains unpredictable. They can’t say where it will strike.

Even as the rains continue, thoughts turn to the future. When the rains stop and the floodwaters recede, the cleanup and rebuilding will have to begin. That process of recovery — economic, social, personal — will take years.

It will be much easier for government experts and insurers to inspect the damage and assess the costs of repairing and rebuilding than it will be for people to survey the wreckage of their homes and, in some cases, the loss of loved ones.

As Jose Rengel, 47, a construction worker in Galveston who assisted in rescue efforts in Dickinson, southeast of Houston, said: “I am blessed that not much has happened to me, but these people lost everything. And it keeps raining. The water has nowhere to go.”

The human toll cannot be quantified, not by psychologists and not by sociologists. For many, the trauma of the storm will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

The Jewish community, and the people of Houston generally, have responded with courage and resourcefulness to a tremendous challenge. With Hashem’s help, they will continue to do so in the coming days and weeks.