Hundreds of Orthodox Families Without Power in Sweltering Houston

By Reuvain Borchardt

The winds from Hurricane Beryl that swept across Houston resulted in power outages that plunged most of its Orthodox Jewish families, like the rest of the city’s 2.3 million residents, into heat and darkness, leaving people facing 100+ degree temperatures without air conditioning or refrigeration.

The three Orthodox neighborhoods, known as Young Israel, Meyerland  and UOS (United Orthodox Synagogue), comprising 700 families, suffered from sustained winds Monday morning, with some property damage but little flooding and no injuries.

“Most people were smart enough to stay home,” Rabbi Osher Yurowitz, executive director of the Mesivta of Houston, told Hamodia. “I decided to go to shul since it’s right across the street. Well, walking across the street was quite an experience.”

One community member told Hamodia that meteorologists had predicted winds in the 60-mph range, so people didn’t bother securing their outdoor furniture, and were unprepared for the sustained winds in the 80’s-mph and gusts close to 100 mph.

The winds had passed the city by late Monday morning, but they destroyed the city’s power infrastructure.

The winds blew down many backyard fences, leaving swimming pools dangerously exposed.

Other than a few blocks right around the Young Israel Shul/Houston Kollel campus — which miraculously were among the only blocks in the city not to lose power — the grid went dead for everyone. 

“For people living in these areas where temperatures could reach 100 degrees in July plus humidity, not having power can be life-threatening,” says Rabbi Yurowitz. “People can’t cook. And you don’t want to open your fridge or freezer, because the food spoils quickly and you don’t have what to eat. And the people who have electric stoves can’t cook, either.”

With the electricity out, gas at a premium and overall anxiety gripping the city, enormous queues began forming at the few stations up and running.

“There are massive gas lines,” reports Mrs. Tzivia Weiss, a community activist and executive director of the Houston Kashruth Association. “Some people waited in line over an hour and left. Stations are not getting deliveries, and people are nervous, wanting to top off tanks. For people without power, hanging out in their car is the only way to charge their phone or have A/C.”

Learning continued unabated in the Houston Kollel.

Community organizations mobilized to help those in need; Chaveirim dispatch supervisor David Klugman said he received ten times as many calls Monday as on a usual day. 

“We had to clear trees off many roads, and branches off driveways” he said. “We have five generators, which we bounced around to different places: grocery stores, the mikveh, sometimes bringing an A/C with the generator. We also had to board up some pools whose fences had blown off, and in one case had to bring a doctor to a patient.”

By Monday night, most of the families in the Young Israel neighborhood — the largest of the three — had power back, but those in Meyerland and UOS were still in the dark.

The kollel cooked supper for anyone who needed it, in the kitchen of the Young Israel shul, with which it shares a campus. Thirty grateful families showed up to  partake of the hot dogs and French fries — and whatever buns were available.

“Sourcing the buns was the hardest part,” Rabbi Yurowitz laughs. “The one store that has power is rationing bread to two bags per customer. We tried explaining that we were cooking for many families but that didn’t work. So we had to source buns from people’s freezers.

“But we had soda and ice. And we were able to make it into a nice community event, where people who were so exhausted after the difficult day got to sit down to a hot meal with their families in the Young Israel simchah hall.”

Shopping in a darkened supermarket.

As many offices and homes have no power, spaces were also set up in the Young Israel for people to work, with tables, chairs, wifi and electric outlets, and to cool off from the repressive heat.

“Right now it’s over 90 degrees,” one community member said. “The real feel is 107. For someone who doesn’t have A/C, it’s nisht nogeya.”

Most families without power are either sleeping by friends or trying to get one of the precious few hotel rooms available.

With its electricity out, Harova, the largest fully kosher grocery, is selling all its fridge and freezer items at 50% off — the few generators it received from Chaveirim are not enough to keep its large supply of rapidly warming food fresh. As its credit card terminals are dead, it is accepting payment only with cash or Zelle — for those lucky enough to have cellphone service.

Another supermarket with kosher aisles which doesn’t have a generator willl have to discard much of its perishable food.

Yet despite the challenges, community members with memories of the much more significant devastation of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey say they are mostly grateful for everyone’s health and the relative lack of property damage— and just hoping the power gets turned on before the gas runs out.

“The community is pulling together,” says Mrs. Weiss. “Morale is high, everyone is trying to help each other out — inviting people into their homes, making meals. There’s a tremendous amount of chessed among organizations and individuals who are happy to help their fellow Jew in any way they can.”

rborchardt@hamodia.com

Houston Kollel put on a hot-dog supper for 30 families without power, in the Young Israel simchah hall.
Chaveirim members repair a broken fence that had exposed a swimming pool.

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