By Jacob Kamaras
The late-May flood in Houston, which damaged about 500 Jewish homes (among more than 2,500 homes overall) and three synagogues in America’s fourth-largest city, drew national media attention in the immediate aftermath of the natural disaster. But while the attention from the press has subsided, the local Jewish community’s recovery process remains at a critical juncture.
Enter the Nachum Segal Network (NSN) and “JM in the AM,” the popular Jewish radio show whose three-hour broadcast garners between 75,000 and 100,000 listeners each weekday morning, according to the network. On July 7, host Nachum Segal and his production crew left the confines of their New Jersey-based studio for the so-called “Bayou City,” where they witnessed the extensive flood damage firsthand and recorded their July 8 show at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston.
“There are people who we’re affiliated with who think it’s really important that if something happens somewhere in the Jewish world, whether it be France, or Israel, or somewhere here in the United States, that we should be there; that we should be lending an ear to the community, giving a voice to this community, to listeners who care,” Segal told JNS.org.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston projects an 18-month recovery timetable, with a price tag of $3.5 million, for the Jewish community’s individual flood victims and institutions. One flooded synagogue alone, United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) of Houston, experienced upward of $1 million in damage. As the calendar approaches two months since the flood, many families have yet to decide how to proceed with their homes as they await the resolution of flood insurance settlements and potential aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). July 28 — 60 days after the flood — is the deadline for applying for FEMA assistance. Against that backdrop, Jewish leaders said Segal’s radio show raised much-needed awareness about Houston’s challenges.
“Anytime we have an opportunity to tell the story of what’s happened here, it is an important opportunity, because the story has disappeared from the news,” said Lee Wunsch, the Jewish Federation’s president and CEO. “So when this (radio broadcast) presented itself, I welcomed it, and we coordinated their visit here and lined up most of their guests. The fact that 100,000 people may hear the broadcast is 100,000 more people that had no idea what’s going on here.”
“While the news about the families in our community has moved out of the news, people are now just beginning to have the information to make the decision to rebuild their homes, or to have to tear down their homes and then rebuild, and this is when the people affected by this flood need the most help,” added Rodi Franco, the Federation’s chief marketing officer.
A few days after May’s flood, “JM in the AM” interviewed Rabbi Barry Gelman, leader of the UOS congregation. When it became apparent that a national audience was not aware of the flood’s severe impact, NSN General Manager Miriam Wallach said she told Segal, “We’ve got to go to Houston.”
Both Segal and Wallach recalled how the radio show covered devastation that hit closer to home in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy took out its wrath on the East Coast.
“Seeing what happened there (during Sandy), at the homes and synagogues, I had a general idea of what was likely going on around here (in Houston),” Segal said.
But Segal said that like others, he was under the misconception that “all these weeks later, the community was already rebounding, rebuilding, and synagogues were coming back to life.”
“And then of course I come down here and see the reality,” he said. “That’s really my impression, that as much as we think that, ‘Oh, six weeks went by, they’re probably making a lot of progress,’ it takes a long time to recover from this.”
“It’s very important to both Nachum and I to make sure that he is tending to the needs of the greater Jewish community, and that’s wherever it is,” Wallach said.
During the broadcast, Houston Mayor Annise Parker told Segal that after synagogue communities had large percentages of their members affected by the flood, “we want them to stay in the community, we want them to rebuild.”
“The city is not interested in doing any buyouts, the county is not interested in doing any buyouts,” Parker said. “We don’t believe that this is a situation that warrants it. We want people to get back into their homes. But it’s been hard to get the word out, because it’s a one by one by one (process). Every situation is different.”
Individuals and families in those situations are not necessarily ready to think about their long-term plans, said Linda Burger, CEO of Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Houston, during a recent tour of flood-damaged neighborhoods.
“I think they’re still so focused on the present,” Burger told JNS.org. “Even though you see it cleaned up on the streets, every house is just a shell behind the doors.”
Burger’s own home was flooded, as were the residences of six other JFS employees.
“For those of us at work, it’s easier to help other people than it is to face our own situation at home,” said Burger. “For me, it’s very much a 24/7 event, because when I go home, that’s when I deal with our own stuff.”
JFS is trying to “serve as a bridge to get (flood victims) through these tumultuous times, and hopefully, if we are that bridge, when they get to the other side they’ll be whole again,” according to Burger. The agency’s flood-relief efforts include using its housing expertise to help displaced families negotiate the terms of new rental agreements; disbursing funds for immediate needs such as toothpaste, replacement medication, and clothes; and otherwise connecting victims with resources in accordance with their current financial capacities.
After the first floor of her home was flooded and then gutted, Burger said she is “lucky” to be living on the second floor, unlike families who were completely displaced. Yet the impact of the flood is still jarring for her.
“I can’t believe I’m at this stage of my life where I’m buying a hamper and a shower curtain,” she said.
“I do feel that when this calms down, when people aren’t thinking about it day in and day out, we (JFS) will continue to serve all of the families that were impacted in our quiet way,” added Burger. “I’m looking forward to that quiet way.”