Lessons from Houston, A Year After Harvey

Provided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston

By Avital Ingber

On Friday, August 25, 2017, people across Houston returned to their homes and hunkered down to prepare for the inevitable. Hurricane Harvey would soon make landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast and spend the next four days dropping 51 inches of rain – more than a year’s worth – over the greater Houston area.

As the rain fell, the water in the bayous and tributaries continued to rise until they could no longer contain the deluge. The streets began to fill, becoming waterways for local boats which would be used for rescues and National Guard machinery instead of cars. Then the water started seeping into people’s homes, filling living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens, many waist-high, with filth. Hurricane Harvey had changed the city of Houston forever.

For me personally, this disaster has shaped my life and perspective in a very meaningful way. Before the storm hit, I had just accepted my first CEO position with the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston with plans to begin work in November. So, I did the first thing I could do post-Harvey. As soon as the airports opened, I hopped on a plane and got back to Houston. I was unsure of what I would find there, but I knew I needed to be with my new community. When I witnessed the heartbreaking destruction, I knew my responsibilities began at that very moment.

The same streets I had seen two weeks prior were now unrecognizable. We drove by houses with their entire insides ripped out. Family’s belongings – not garbage – but all their earthly possessions were laid on the lawn. Everything from couches and furniture, to toys and books, photo albums and financial papers, to challah covers and menorahs. It was heart wrenching and overwhelming.

As a community, this would be the most significant challenge we ever faced. How were we going to do this?

The answer became clear as Houstonians shared their stories. Houston got through the storm by neighbors helping neighbors, and that is how we would recover. The magnitude of this disaster was crushing. One in 11 Jewish homes flooded; and three major synagogues, the Jewish Community Center and the senior care facility all received major damage.

I am forever grateful for those who were on the ground every day, including my predecessor, the 30-year Federation veteran, Lee Wunsch, who spent the final days of his storied career expertly managing this crisis. Fulfilling its role as the convener of the Jewish community, the Federation sprung into instant action.

It is truly remarkable to see how one year after Harvey, we are able to look back from a place of hope, accomplishment and gratitude. This is all due to the remarkable response from the resilient people of Houston and from Jews worldwide who made it possible for us to help families, rebuild institutions and continue Jewish life in our city.

We would not be here without our collective Jewish community. It was the collective of the Federation system that allowed us to give families money to use as down payments on temporary apartments. It was the collective that helped us provide money to support tuition for families who were choosing between repairing their devastated homes and keeping their child in Jewish day school. It was the collective that allowed us to give the children in families who flooded a much-needed break and opportunity to connect with their Judaism through Jewish camp scholarships. It was the collective that lifted us when we needed it, and we are truly grateful.

An effort of this magnitude doesn’t come without lessons. So, looking back, one-year later, what have we learned? I believe there are four key takeaways for any community, organization or individual who wants to think about crisis management and response.

1. Disaster Response is a MultiStep Process: Response, Recovery and Redesign

When tragedy strikes, our desire is to respond right away and put it behind us as quickly as possible. It is important to understand that disaster response should include the steps of Response, Recovery and Redesign. The urgent initial Response Phase includes assessment of needs and connecting people to resources. Recovery and Redesign are important steps that also creep up along the way, and you need to be prepared for them.

Recovery is not linear, and some may be further along more quickly than others. It is important to be sensitive, ask questions and know that recovery will be ongoing. A year later, we still have people displaced from their homes, synagogues that are not fully operational and an ongoing conversation about what steps we need to take to ensure a vibrant Jewish life in our city.

Redesign can mean many things, and it is an essential part of the conversation. It is the purposeful thinking about where we want to go for the future, given the understanding built by the crisis. For Houston, it has meant that flood mitigation is a part of the work of the Jewish Federation. This means advocating not just for our Jewish community, but the city as a whole and the neighborhoods within it. We are helping implement long-term decisions to keep us safe. It is critical to consider future resiliency, no matter what you are facing, so that you redesign accordingly.

2. Put People First

No matter the decision at hand, the people impacted by the disaster are always the first priority. While building damage across the community was massive, we knew that the most important thing to do was help people feel safe and provide them with the necessary resources to move forward. Even when we got to the key part of restoring community spaces that were impacted, we did so with the lens of helping people reconnect to their spiritual homes. We knew that at the end of the day, there was no way we would recover unless we made people the priority.

Within any crisis, individuals can suffer from mental trauma. Harvey was no exception to this. When it rains now, there are people of all ages who experience post-traumatic stress. The Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC) helped in the first weeks after Harvey and continues to be a critical partner in this important work. They have trained frontline community professionals who interact with people who have been traumatized. Mental trauma can take time to manifest, so it is important to continue to put people first through Response, Recovery and Redesign phases.

3. Relationships are EverythingBe Willing to Accept Help

In the same vein as putting people first come the complexities of help. It is not always easy to ask for help. As Harvey hit, I realized I knew very little about Houston and certainly nothing about flooding, but I knew about the collective Federation movement, a system that I have been a part of my entire life. In this moment, I knew Houston needed to be a receiver and we needed to reach out for help. Words cannot begin to describe how the Federation system stepped up in the wake of Harvey. The relationship with the Jewish Federations of North America and others held us up during the most trying of times. They provided the strength and support we needed to keep going.

The relationships among the professional and lay leadership teams of the Federation, Jewish organizations and synagogues within a community are crucial. Because of the long-standing relationships that existed in Houston, it was only a matter of hours after the rain stopped falling before the community professionals were able to mobilize. There was constant communication because relationships were already in place. A distribution center with supplies was established and “Camp Harvey” was created so parents had a safe place to send their children during the day as they went back to work or dealt with their flooded homes while schools were still closed.

It was not only the Federation and communal organizations that needed to ask for help. Individuals who are used to being the “givers,” suddenly needed to become the “receivers.” This was difficult because there can be a stigma that exists making this transition. We helped individuals realize they could not recover alone, and it was acceptable, and most of the time critical, to ask for help.

4. Be Nimble and Flexible

For some time after the storm, the airports and freeways were closed and stores were certainly not open. We had no supplies. The Dallas and Austin Federations coordinated with JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet and other groups to get supplies to Houston. Others also stepped up to handle some challenging logistics.

It would have been so much simpler if on the day after the rain stopped, we automatically knew how many people had been impacted, what damage had been done to facilities and what the most important priorities were that we needed to tackle. But tragedy doesn’t work that way. Information is fragmented and not readily available. People are disoriented and stressed, and the path forward is not marked with clear directional signals.

We had to take action, develop a plan for next steps, and continue to assess and redesign the plan as we went along. We had to determine how to best collect data. We had to form committees that could make meaningful decisions without getting the process mired in bureaucracy. In the immediate days after the storm, our flood committee had already allocated significant resources to our main direct service agency, Jewish Family Service of Greater Houston, so they could provide necessary immediate funds to those in need. We also provided discretionary funds to all local rabbis because we knew they would have unmet needs within their communities and they would be able to quickly determine how to use the funds. As information became clearer, and facts and details emerged, we were able to prioritize our three primary goals of Helping Families, Restoring Institutions and Sustaining Jewish Life.

By having a plan, but also being nimble and flexible, we were set up for greater success. Unexpected things will inevitably come up. Communication and paying essential attention to evolving needs helps better define the path forward.

The tragedies that our Jewish communities face are ever-changing. The flood in Houston, the school shooting in Parkland, and cemetery and synagogue desecrations are all major issues Jewish communities around the country have faced in the past year. The truth is you don’t know what issue may arise that requires an immediate response, or how that will impact your community in a unique way.

This last year has been life-changing for me and for our organization. While no one knows what the future holds, I am proud to lead the work of the Houston Federation through this challenging time and share these lessons with the hope they will be helpful for other communities as they prepare their own crisis response plans.

Avital Ingber is the President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. One of the youngest Federation CEOs in the country, she stepped into the position shortly after Hurricane Harvey hit and has since helped the organization thrive during the most difficult time in its history.