How we Answer the Storm in Houston

Photo credit: John Huang Photography. Jeremy Wood is in the back row, third from left.

By Jeremy Wood

Eight months after Hurricane Harvey swept through Houston, the major news networks’ focus has moved on. Yet amid national silence, the local crisis continues, festering like the mold behind flooded walls that were covered up too quickly while their foundations rotted inside. Many Houstonians remain unable to return home and the city predicts a 10-year recovery, barring future calamities.

Eight months after Harvey, I joined 16 other young Jews to see how we could help in Houston’s recovery.

For two days we worked to restore a damaged home. The owner was a nurse who had continued pulling regular shifts and caring for her daughters while sleeping in vans and on neighbors’ couches. I laid vinyl slats across her floor and took some pleasure imagining her family’s coming home and crossing them. I laid and mortared tiles, careful to separate them with spacers – in contrast to the chaotically strewn debris that has almost been cleared from the city’s streets.

When Houstonians speak of the hurricanes that preceded Harvey, they speak of the Memorial Day storm and the Tax Day storm. And in Houston, I fear, these storms are becoming as inevitable as death and taxes. I joined this trip in part to answer a question that plagues me: as we see the increasing effects of climate change, how do we confront that inevitability? Do we have any right to ask communities other than our own, communities that have stood the tests of gentrification, segregation, racism, and hurricanes, to pack up and leave the disaster zones?

Insurance professionals, lawmakers, and lawyers call these crises Acts of G-d. My Judaism, strengthened by the example of my fellow volunteers in Houston, demands that I reject that characterization. Wind and rain might come from nature, but how we respond is our own choice, the product of character and community.

On our last day in Houston, we walked door to door in Kashmere Gardens to inform residents of available restoration services. Surrounded by industrial development and the railway, these people had created a diverse and resilient community of families. On this sunny Sunday morning, Congregants streamed into various churches and a Moorish Science Temple. Children played games on their lawns and splashed around in wading pools, joking bilingually.

And yet the stories the people of Kashmere Gardens shared with me were heartbreaking. Many of their houses had already been restored. But opportunistic greed and callousness continued to threaten their futures. I spoke with renters who had been compelled to continue paying rent on uninhabitable homes while they also paid to live elsewhere. Broken with these financial burdens, they replaced fixtures and furniture with dangerous substitutes that fell on their children or threatened them with electrocution. I heard about shady contractors who took payment in advance and left damage unremediated. Crudely handwritten signs were planted in lawns everywhere, reading “will buy homes for cash.” But not for much, and certainly not enough to find new homes.

In the Book of Job, G-d appears to our protagonist out of the whirlwind. G-d demands that Job answer whether he has placed blame for his sorrows on G-d to escape his own responsibility. Job is asked if he has an arm as powerful as G-d’s, and whether his voice can thunder like the whirlwind. Bowing terrified before G-d’s might, Job fails to answer.

The answer is that while our arm and voice may seem weak compared to the whirlwinds that batter our coasts, we are not powerless. We choose how we will answer the storm, and whether we will blame our action or inaction on a mindless “Act of G-d.” For one displaced homeowner, that answer was to put on her scrubs and continue healing others. For countless neighbors in Houston, it has meant banding together like rafts above the rising tide, holding each other up through the recovery. Still for others, it has meant a chance to exploit those hardest hit. However we act, we cannot help but answer the whirlwind.

Moishe House, and 17 wonderful Jews from across the country, gave me the chance, for a few short days, to lend my hand and my voice in answering the storm with a promise of restoration.

Moishe House and Act Now Houston will be returning to Houston this June for a second Hurricane Harvey recovery trip. Limited space is available. To apply, visit: moishehouse.typeform.com/to/AJLyl5.

Jeremy Wood is a Jewish day school dropout and an attorney in Seattle, focusing his practice on labor, employment, and tribal affairs. Before law school he taught English in Israel and completed a year with Avodah: the Jewish Service Corps, serving as a care advocate for youth with HIV. He is outgoing chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and a Henry M. Jackson leadership fellow, and teaches Jewish Sunday school to high schoolers who regularly outsmart him.