Into the eye of the storm: The Jewish heroes of Hurricane Harvey
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'Your body kind of turns into survival mode and you just do what you need to do'

Into the eye of the storm: The Jewish heroes of Hurricane Harvey

With floodwaters reaching second-story levels, 30,000 people displaced, and 100,000 without power, these are a few of the people who put themselves in danger to save lives

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

B'nai Akiva emissary Rafi Engelhart sets out with a neighbor who is an EMT to rescue stranded Houstonians from Tropical Storm Harvey, August 27. (Courtesy)
B'nai Akiva emissary Rafi Engelhart sets out with a neighbor who is an EMT to rescue stranded Houstonians from Tropical Storm Harvey, August 27. (Courtesy)

After making sure that his wife Basya and their three children were safe and well-supplied, Tomer Ben Shushan took advantage of a brief lull in Tropical Storm Harvey’s torrential rains Sunday evening to “commandeer” a rescue truck.

Together with a friend, Ben Shushan braved 30 miles of flooded Houston streets to get to their mutual friend’s construction vehicle, a heavy truck with a small crane, which was parked near the city’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. The rig was so waterlogged it required a jump start.

With record-setting downpours and flooding taking even seasoned Houstonians by surprise, hundreds of people are being rescued by both public forces and private citizens from upper stories of homes heavily submerged in floodwaters. Officials estimate that 30,000 people will be left temporarily homeless by the storm.

The rain is so heavy that the Houston police department warned residents not to climb to the attic level to avoid the rising waters unless they had “an ax or means to break through onto your roof.”

Ben Shushan and his friend, both Israeli ex-military men, said they were putting their army experience to good use helping families and the elderly unable to escape their homes. The duo were out until 2:00 a.m. Monday, wife Basya Ben Shushan told The Times of Israel, and were back to extracting helpless residents later that morning.

Tomer Ben Shushan and a friend with the rescue truck they procured to help extricate trapped Houstonians from Tropical Storm Harvey, August 27. (Courtesy)
Tomer Ben Shushan and a friend with the rescue truck they procured to help extricate trapped Houstonians from Tropical Storm Harvey, August 27. (Courtesy)

Basya’s Facebook page featured a call for help Monday afternoon for a man requiring emergency transport for his medical equipment.

My husband is evacuating a home at 5110 Glenmeadow 77096. The house is completely floating. He is able to rescue the…

Posted by Basya Benshushan on Monday, 28 August 2017

“My husband is evacuating a home… The house is completely floating. He is able to rescue the lady and her two dogs but the husband is attached to oxygen tanks and we need a medical truck to evacuate him,” read the post. A reply two hours later reported that the man had been rescued.

Houston native Basya said the city was taken by surprise. “We’ve dealt with hurricanes and floods — every year we go through this, but this is very, very scary,” said Basya.

Houston’s Jewish community, clustered in the city’s southwest, is hit particularly hard by the storm. Dozens of Jewish families are displaced, according to the Jewish Family Service, whose building itself was damaged by the flooding. Also affected are several synagogues and a JCC.

United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston “suffered catastrophic damage,” according to a Facebook post which featured an appeal to help rebuild the synagogue.

A photo of the flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey that devastated United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston. (Courtesy/UOS)
A photo of the flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey that devastated United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston. (Courtesy/UOS)

Rafi Engelhart, the director of the UOS branch of the Worldwide B’nei Akiva movement, the world’s largest Zionist youth group, helped save the lives of eight people when one of the neighbors, an EMT, managed to procure a rubber life raft.

Engelhart and his family were taking refuge in a different neighbor’s home in their neighborhood of Willow Meadows, which was built on an elevated foundation to protect it from flooding. Even so, Engelhart said, as of Sunday morning the water was just inches from reaching inside the house.

The 29-year-old shliach, or emissary, for WBA spoke to The Times of Israel from that home, which was one of 100,000 without power Monday, while the family planned their next move.

Engelhart said the EMT swam over a block through waters five to six feet high when she learned that the inflatable raft was in the garage of another family hunkering down nearby, whose house was completely submerged.

When Engelhart saw the raft, he didn’t hesitate to jump in. “I wasn’t going to just let her go out there alone,” he said.

“This happens and you just gotta be able to deal with it. Your body kind of turns into survival mode and you just do what you need to do and worry about the other things afterwards,” he said.

Houston B'nai Akiva emissary Rafi Engelhart prays in front of the flooded home in which his family is taking refuge from Tropical Storm Harvey, August 27. (Courtesy)
Houston B’nai Akiva emissary Rafi Engelhart prays in front of the flooded home in which his family is taking refuge from Tropical Storm Harvey, August 27. (Courtesy)

The pair went out to rescue a family trapped on the top level of their home. “They were okay,” Engelhart said, “but they were stuck in the attic and the water just kept coming up and we were afraid they’d have no place else to go.”

Along the way, they passed another stranded family who was waiting to be picked up by a relative. “We weren’t going to wait for that to happen,” said Engelhart, “so we took the mother and daughter and brought them back here before going out again to get the others.”

Originally from Cleveland, Engelhart, moved to Israel at age 18 before coming back to the US to provide Jewish and social activities for children and young adults. He, along with his wife Stacey, have been serving the Houston community for the last year.

While out on the raft, they also heard that there was a woman in her 90s across the street whose lights were on at 4:00 a.m. Concerned neighbors were unable to get a hold of the woman’s son, so Engelhart and the EMT brought tools, and when there was no answer, broke into the home. “Unfortunately,” Engelhart said, “we were too late.”

With dozens of homes abandoned in the Jewish community, Basya Ben Shushan said there were cases of looting. “People who have evacuated their homes are having their things taken — it’s very sad,” she said.

Still, she said, “We’ve never seen water this high. Coming in the first floor, up to the second floor, we’ve never experienced this type of flooding. People at this point are just happy to get out of their house alive.”

Tropical Storm Harvey first made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane Friday night near Corpus Christi, Texas, with winds hitting 130 miles (209 kilometers) per hour. It then moved back offshore before hitting land once again, only this time it quickly lost speed, becoming a tropical storm.

While winds are currently hovering at 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour, the storm is dumping unprecedented rainfall onto the fourth-largest city in the United States, causing devastating flooding – and with the storm only traveling at five miles per hour, things are only looking to get worse.

The life raft from which B'nai Akiva emissary Rafi Engelhart helped rescue stranded Houstonians from Tropical Storm Harvey, August 27. (Courtesy)
The life raft from which B’nai Akiva emissary Rafi Engelhart helped rescue stranded Houstonians from Tropical Storm Harvey, August 27. (Courtesy)

The Jewish community is banding together to provide emergency aid to those in need. The Evelyn Rubenstein JCC had collected emergency supplies prior to the storm’s arrival and is a distribution point.

Chabad.org reported that Chabad representatives are helping people find shelter, delivering kosher meals to people in shelters and hotels, and are already raising funds for rebuilding — while dealing with water damage in their own homes.

Flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey ravaged United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston. (Courtesy UOS)
Flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey ravaged United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston. (Courtesy UOS)

“There was a lot of help and support from the Jewish community before the storm, also,” said Engelhart. “Reaching out to people who might not have been able to move somewhere else, or who might need extra assistance. We’ve been in touch on WhatsApp and we have updates, and we’re keeping track of which houses are flooded, which neighborhoods are flooded.”

Even as the UOS Facebook post lamented the devastation to its own building, it offered assistance through a response team and called attention to the plight of other congregations that have been affected as well.

“I believe that we’ll band together to rebuild this city, but there’s a lot of damage to recover from and I’m really scared to hear the death count,” said Basya Ben Shushan.

Current estimates put the death toll at 10, but that number is expected to rise as the waters recede.

“People are on roofs, floating on inflatable mattresses, and there are people out there who have no way to communicate that they’re in need,” she said.

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