Wake of the Flood

Jewish groups pitch in after burst dam floods Ukrainian cities and towns

JDC focuses on its elderly, infirm clients, as well as its staff; Chabad providing aid, evacuation help; IsraAid looks to provide long-term help

Jewish groups in the Ukrainian city of Kherson are scrambling to help members of the local community, including their own staff members, whose homes are being flooded following the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River earlier this week, representatives from the organizations told eJewishPhilanthropy.

In the predawn hours of Tuesday morning, the Nova Kakhovka dam burst, sending torrents of water downstream, quickly flooding the cities and towns along the banks of the Dnipro River, including Kherson, some 35 miles away. Ukraine quickly accused Russia of bombing the dam. Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, claimed Ukrainian forces destroyed it as the opening gambit of a counteroffensive against Russian forces, though Western military analysts have questioned the benefits that such a maneuver would provide Kyiv.

A complete assessment of the damage has yet to be conducted, but tens of thousands of people are estimated to have been displaced. Several people have reportedly died in the flooding, some in Ukrainian-held areas and others in areas occupied by Russian forces. And at least tens of thousands of homes and apartment buildings have been fully or partially destroyed by the rising waters. After touring the area, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky requested immediate assistance from international aid organizations for the affected area.

While the city of Kherson has been the hardest hit, even farther-flung cities like Nikolaev have seen rising water levels and flooding. “But the situation in Kherson is really bad. In some cases, aid needs to be brought to people by boat. We’re lucky to have local NGOs to help us with last-mile deliveries,” Anna Pantiukhova, from the Kyiv office of IsraAid, told eJP. “You cannot walk, you have to float.”

Inna Vdovichenko, the external relations director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Ukraine, said the team in Kherson quickly mobilized, getting whatever equipment they could out of harm’s way to ensure that the organization would be able to continue providing aid to its 382 clients – mostly the elderly and people with physical or mental disabilities through its Hesed social welfare program – in Kherson and the surrounding area and to the community in general.

“On Tuesday, as soon as [our staff in Kherson] started receiving information that certain neighborhoods of Kherson and [the] Kherson region are gonna be flooded very soon – and that was early in the morning – a group of our staff members went immediately to Hesed premises,” Vdovichenko told eJP, speaking over Zoom from her office in Odesa. “The Hesed offices are on the first floor of, if I’m not mistaken, a nine-story building, which is just one street away from the Dnipro River. So they were very clearly in the risk zone.”

The team focused on getting out things like generators, hygienic supplies, food packages and computers. “All the necessary things to help us continue our help to that very vulnerable population,” Vdovichenko said.

They packed the supplies onto trucks and moved them to one of the city’s synagogues, which is located farther from the flooded area, she said. JDC does not yet know how much equipment and supplies were lost in the flooding. Such assessments will only come later. “They took the major things, but the most important thing is the people. People are our main resource,” Vdovichenko said.

At the same time, other Hesed staff and volunteers made contact with the Kherson office’s clients, seeing if any of them needed help, even preparing to evacuate some of them, booking hotel rooms and buses. Ultimately, while some of JDC’s clients had considered leaving their homes when the dam first broke, they ultimately decided to stay, Vdovichenko said.

“We were talking about people who have been through crisis after crisis for more than 15 months,” she said, referring to the heavy fighting that took place in Kherson early in the Russian invasion, leading to the capture and occupation of the city for several months before Ukrainian forces brought it back under Kyiv’s control.

“They survived blackouts, lack of basic necessities. They have been in stress. And now their homes are the only thing they have in their lives,” she said. “Only at a certain point can people come to the understanding that they need to be evacuated. We can’t make them do it.”

While none of the clients decided to leave Kherson, a few have been forced to relocate within the city, Vdovichenko said.

“It’s sad, but it also makes me proud that some of our home-care workers – another group of heroes – took clients who live in at-risk places and brought them to their homes. So some of our clients are now staying in the homes of the home-care workers,” she said.

Vdovichenko said JDC workers and volunteers are in constant contact with clients who were able to remain in their homes or who moved to stay with family or friends, bringing them food and whatever else they need. 

In one case, however, a JDC employee’s home was completely destroyed in the flooding and she was evacuated to Odesa along with her husband.

“We understand that while our clients are vulnerable people, we are unable to serve them without the devoted staff members who have been with us all this time,” Vdovichenko said.

The home of another volunteer, a 50-year-old single mother named Oksana, who previously received assistance from JDC when she underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, also had her home destroyed with everything inside. She and her 15-year-old daughter are now staying with friends in Kherson, and Vdovichenko said JDC was helping supply her with clothes and other necessities.

At least 80 members of the Jewish community of Kherson have decided to leave Ukraine, at least temporarily, in light of the dam break, according to Rabbi Mayer Stambler, the co-director of the Chabad of Poland, whose community is taking in those evacuees.

“We are finding them places to stay, getting them food, whatever they might need,” said Stambler, whose community has taken in many Ukrainian refugees throughout the conflict.

Stambler said that for now the approximately 80 people who are making their way from Kherson and the surrounding areas to Poland by bus will stay in people’s homes or in rented apartments. He said the group was mostly made up of women with children and elderly people. (Fighting-age men are still not able to easily leave Ukraine.)

“They contacted us through rabbis in Ukraine. Some of them already have family members [who were previously evacuated to] Poland,” Stambler told eJP.

The buses was slowly making its way from Kherson to Warsaw, stopping along the way to pick up additional Ukrainian Jews looking to flee, he said. They were expected to arrive at some point on Friday – he hoped before Shabbat.

Rabbi Yosef Wolff, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Kherson, who helped coordinate this evacuation to Poland, told Chabad.org that he was continuing to serve the population that remained, providing food, water and shelter at the synagogue, with help from the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine.

“Our synagogue is always open — we will arrange for them to live here — those who want to stay here in the city. It is the older population that doesn’t have the mental and physical strength to move. They are here and we will take care of them,” Wolff said.

IsraAid’s Pantiukhova said the organization was focused on providing a few key areas of humanitarian aid, based on assessments that it had made and through coordination with local authorities: water pumps, water treatment, bedding, medications and resilience-building.

Pantiukhova said the organization has already provided cases of medications and disinfectants to help prevent water-borne diseases in the affected area and was also supplying large quantities of bedding and blankets, which were also in short supply.

IsraAid has also procured a number of large, industrial water pumps – the kind for clearing large areas, not individual homes – which the organization planned to distribute in Kherson and Nikolaev by Monday. The group was also in the process of acquiring several mobile water treatment stations to provide drinking water as the destroyed dam provided much of the potable water for the surrounding area, which is already facing shortages.

Finally, she said, IsraAid is distributing kits full of activities and educational materials for children to help them build emotional resilience in light of this ongoing traumatic event.

“Many people don’t want to leave their homes because they’re scared of looting, and a lot of them have kids. So we’re distributing these ‘child resilience kits,’” she said.

In what turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events, IsraAid had already scheduled a First Aid training session for more than a dozen people in Kherson for Wednesday. 

“They all got training that they can apply now,” she said.