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After the Storm

by Bonnie Riva Ras

Unlike earthquakes, hurricanes do not arrive without warning. Their paths are charted and likely landfalls are predicted days in advance. There is time to board up windows, lay in a supply of fresh water and batteries, and evacuate if necessary.

And this was the case with Hurricane Irene, which stormed north up the eastern seaboard from North Carolina's Outer Banks, where it made landfall on August 27.

Much of the Northeast escaped the extensive harm that had been predicted, but already swollen rivers flooded in New Jersey, upstate New York, and Vermont, causing enormous damage.

When it became clear that the hurricane was going to hit United Synagogue's Northeast distract, its leaders – district chair Bernard King-Smith, district chair-elect Dr. Jack Fein, and district kehilla relationship manager Howard Goldberg – worked together to develop a disaster response plan. They were in touch with all of the kehillot and their lay leaders before Shabbat – the day before the storm was to hit – and passed along information about organizations that could help them. The United Synagogue representatives also told kehillot leaders who in United Synagogue would be able to help them should they need aid. "Of course we were not replacing disaster relief organizations, like the Red Cross, but we would be there for the specific needs that we could address, and we would try to contact everyone after the storm," King-Smith said.

On Sunday evening, once the storm had passed, King-Smith, Fein, and Goldberg notified the subdistrict chairs, and asked them to make phone calls to the kehillot. Two of the subdistrict chairs didn't have power or landlines, but they were able to use their cell phones.

The district already had a contact system in place, assigning specific kehillot to each sub chair. "We had a good system already in place. We were able to get in touch with the kehillot quickly after the storm to find out about any damage," King-Smith said.

Although United Synagogue's Rock Hill, Connecticut, office was in an area hardhit by the storm, the office had power by Monday morning. Jane Rubin, an office staffer, was able to make phone calls. Goldberg and King-Smith also called kehillot in upstate New York and in Vermont, areas that had experienced severe flooding.

In New York State, one of the hardest hit areas was Fleischmans, a summer community in the Catskills. A United Synagogue- affiliated kehilla, Congregation Bnai Israel, meets there from the end of June through Sukkot. The synagogue was built in 1920 and it is on the National Register of Historic Places. Although it is on an avenue that was inundated by the storm, the building stands on high ground. As a result it wasn't under water, but the crawl space underneath the building was flooded and coated with mud. "The flooding damaged an oil burner that has to be repaired, and two propane tanks along the side of the building were washed away by the five-foot high water," according to the kehilla's president, David J. Schneiderman. The grounds also were badly damaged.

Many congregants were affected. A local hotel was washed away; a family staying there lost its belongings. (A woman summering in Fleischmans, who was not a member of a Conservative kehilla, died when the storm hit the hotel.) Many congregants had muddy basements to clean up and one family lost its home entirely.

The Schneidermans' home is on high ground; the family took in four other families who were evacuated and had nowhere else to go. The evacuees included Rabbi Moshe Edelman, who was serving as one of the congregation's summer rabbis.

"After Shabbat, I moved my car from under some large trees in front of the house so that nothing would fall on it," Edelman said. "I parked it up the street. At 7 on Sunday morning, I went to the front door and saw that the nearby creek had overflowed and turned into a torrent of a river in front of the house. It was at least 25 feet wide, and if my car had been there it would have been underwater or washed away. My car was safe but I wasn't. I was evacuated a few minutes later by the fire department."

On Sunday, when the rain slowed, Edelman walked to town. There was damage and destruction on Main Street, the soccer and baseball fields had become a river 100 yards wide, and a bridge was destroyed.

Schneiderman reported that the recovery has been phenomenal. The National Guard patrolled downtown and stopped people from going into the flooded areas. And Delaware County and New York State both provided a great deal of help, as did nonprofit organizations and volunteers. "The Shabbat after the hurricane we benched ha gomel" – recited the special blessing said after surviving a dangerous situation – "because we all survived," he added.

According to Rabbi Tziona Szajman of Temple Israel of Vestal, in Binghamton, New York, rain fell almost constantly during the two weeks between Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Lee was a very large storm that deluged New York's Susquehanna River valley, causing the river to crest above 25 feet and overflow Binghamton's retaining walls. The city's downtown was inundated, schools and stores were flooded up to their second stories. More than 20,000 people were evacuated.

One of the largest evacuation centers was at Binghamton University. Szajman said that Temple Israel members brought books, crayons, and games for those who had left home with just the clothing on their backs. Members supported other members and gave them places to stay.

After the flood, local churches and synagogues hosted communal meals for people who were homeless or still had no electricity. Students from the university helped with the clean up and the food kitchens. As in Fleischmans, the synagogue is on high ground, so it was not damaged, but congregants lost homes and businesses. The local Jewish federation is coordinating a cleanup, and the kehilla is posting information on its website for anyone who needs help or wants to volunteer.

"There is an amazing spirit of caring," Szajman said. "No matter who you talk to and offer to help, they say there are people worse off who need the help more."

Hurricane Irene affected United Synagogue kehillot in other districts too. Temple Israel in Ridgewood, New Jersey was flooded. "We cancelled the Sunday morning minyan and when I went to check on the synagogue after the storm passed, it was surrounded by water," Rabbi David Fine said. "Our parking lot sits alongside a brook that had overflowed. The two driveways were rivers roaring into the street." He and the kehilla's president "had to wade in waisthigh water to reach the building."

When they got there, they found about three feet of water in the basement, flooding a youth lounge and storage room. They called members who had sump pumps to come over and pump water out. But there was nowhere for the water to go. "It wasn't until Monday afternoon that the water in the parking lot was gone. It took until Tuesday to pump all the water out of the basement," Fine said.

When the water receded, it left behind muddy sediment contaminated by raw sewage.

King-Smith said, "We were very lucky. And now we are better prepared in case there is a next time."

 
 
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