I woke up from a terrible night of sleep, around 7 a.m. For me, that’s late for a typical weekday, but my office is closed this entire week. I took a hot shower, had a homemade waffle and turkey bacon, got dressed, walked downstairs to my car, opened the garage, got in my car, and drove off.
Sounds like a normal day, right? Does it still sound normal if I told you that I was doing that in the middle Houston, Texas? Of course not.
My family and I have been incredibly fortunate. As Hurricane Harvey destroyed most of my town this week, we made it through relatively unscathed. Every issue that we experienced felt like total #champagneproblems compared to what I saw when I got out of my car this morning.
My family and I walked up to a local synagogue and day school this morning after receiving the news that they were calling for volunteers. We walked in and were instantly overwhelmed by the smell—the immediate feeling of water soaking through our sneakers. Have you ever smelled drywall that has been saturated with contaminated water? It smells like sweet rot.
We spent the morning cleaning out classrooms in the preschool and kindergarten wing of this building, throwing away toys, costumes for dress-up, piles and piles of books, and clothes that belonged to children who couldn’t possibly understand what our city just experienced. We threw away art supplies, and scattered, soaked, unused diapers that had been floating in filthy water for days. It was heartbreaking. But it only got worse.
We left the synagogue and went to the home of a friend. We heard that they lost everything. We walked in, and the house was filled with the same smell as the synagogue. We looked on in horror. The floor was still wet. The lawn was filled with clothes, artwork, and waterlogged furniture. Their home was surrounded by neighbors pulling out mattresses, televisions, sofas, and carpets out to be picked up by Houston’s trash trucks. Trash trucks so large that we had to move cars off of the road for them to fit. There is nothing like seeing someone’s whole life on the sidewalk. “Devastation” takes on a whole new meaning when you realize that the stories that you see on the news are real, and that they are the stories of people that go to school in your neighborhood, whose offices are across from yours, with whom you have dinner and drinks.
When we got back to our safe, dry house, I found out that my flight back to Baltimore for my wedding dress fitting was cancelled—I am getting married at the beginning of November. I cried. I was overcome with sadness for myself—and guilt for that sadness. Survivor’s Guilt is incredibly real for those of us who are lucky enough to sleep in our beds, watch our cable, and boil water. I have some extra guilt.
My family moved out of the flood zone when we bought our house one month ago. Our apartment complex was underwater this week, and we missed it. We had our family friends over for Shabbat dinner on Friday and Saturday, and I couldn’t argue harder to get them to stay over. They lost most of their possessions, had to be rescued by the coastguard in their neighborhood, and even had their apartment robbed after they were evacuated. Unfortunately, these stories are typical.
These friends, who had their home robbed, live right next door to my synagogue—my house of worship and my workplace. We stopped there as well. My sanctuary was flooded. Stacks and stacks of prayer books were piled on plastic tables to get them away from the water. The bimah was stacked high with furniture kept out of harms way. Our Torahs, locked safely in an office, were preemptively protected by our thoughtful staff. The water shut off.
Don’t get me wrong: Many families, businesses, and religious institutions were spared—and I’m incredibly thankful for that. I spent much of the last week calming the anxieties of family and friends in other states, assuring them we were safe, but the reality is that the damage was, and is, immense. The damage is earth-shattering. And yet, the damage is being repaired by an amazing Houston community, coming together to rebuild.
The outpour of volunteers has been overwhelming. There were nearly 100 people at the school with us, and every home being gutted in Meyerland seemed to have 10, 15, 20 people each, helping. My synagogue has received calls, texts, and emails from the community asking how they can help. We have friends that wait in line at the grocery store for hours to buy supplies for donation. I have gotten emails and calls from friends across the country asking how to help.
While there is still a sense of sadness and awe, the feeling in town is strength. Talk about restoring your faith in humanity. Humanity is this community of people supporting one another and doing it with a hug, a smile, and rubber gloves.
I am hanging onto that important word right now: community. It is everything to me, right now, in this moment.