Hurricanes Harvey and Irma: Jewish Community Responds

As Hurricanes Harvey and Irma battered the southern United States and the Caribbean late this summer, the Jewish community quickly activated to help those in crisis.

Hurricane Harvey – one of the most devastating hurricanes on record in U.S. history – delivered its worst blows to Houston’s Jewish community.

Nearly three-quarters of the city’s Jewish population live in areas that received extensive flooding, and nearly every Jewish-owned business and institution has felt the impact in some way. For many, this is the third time in as many years that they have had to rebuild after a hurricane.

The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, along with Federations across North America, immediately set up the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund to help meet urgent needs such as food, medicine, cleaning supplies and trauma counseling, and to enable rebuilding. The Federation’s network of local and international partners, supported by its Annual Campaign, allowed it to respond quickly and effectively to this emergency – but the work is not done. Experts say that full recovery could take many years.

More than $14 million has been raised so far by Jewish federations, foundations and the Government of Israel, including almost $21,000 from the Lehigh Valley Jewish community. The money raised is a little over one third of the estimated $26-33 million needed to rebuild.

Already, that money is being put to use. In the first few days after the hurricane, Federation helped displaced and affected families with urgently needed temporary housing, food and cleaning supplies.

After flooding and released toxins rendered homes and large parts of the central JCC nearly unusable, distraught families were able to send their children to a day camp so that they could focus on recovery and rebuilding.

Three synagogues have catastrophic damage, and rabbis are working tirelessly to help congregants in need. Initial grants have been given to rabbis to help congregants rebuild.

To help Houstonians, the Hebrew Free Loan Association will match resources from four cities to create a new Hurricane Harvey loan pool.

The Federations funds are also helping families who have been flooded out of their homes two or three times in less than three years receive telephone-based counseling sessions and schedule in-person appointments with trauma and family-resilience specialists.

Without much time to recover after Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, one of the largest storms on record, hit the east coast. The storm caused widespread damage and flooding and left more than 10 million people without power for many days. The Federation quickly expanded its relief efforts to include communities affected by Irma.

The impact on the Jewish community in this case was more widespread.

Major flooding in Naples, Jacksonville and the catastrophic damage in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Key West heavily impacted individual Jewish families.

A number of Jewish communal institutions sustained severe damage – in Key West, Miami, Naples and St. Augustine.

The prolonged power outages left tens of thousands of older adults isolated in apartment buildings throughout Florida, with a big concentration in Broward County. Emergency outreach and wide-scale distribution of meals, water and ice were provided with Federations, Jewish Family Service agencies and Chabad extremely active on this front. 

The immediate and long-term needs of these communities are still being assessed and funds will be allocated to help where they are most needed.

In addition, the Federation’s overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has escalated its response to the Caribbean Islands outside the U.S.

If you would like to make an impact, there are several ways to help the communities affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Donate gently used PJ Library books to families in need at the JCC, or donate to the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley’s Hurricane Relief Fund. Visit www.jewishlehighvalley.org/hurricanerelief to learn more.