While many things are happening on the ground in and around Houston, one local organization is patiently waiting to get the green light to do their job. Once they do, David Kaplan is expecting that they’ll be there for a while.
NECHAMA – Jewish Response to Disaster, is headquartered in the Sabes JCC in St. Louis Park and Kaplan, the organization’s executive director, is keeping a close eye on Hurricane Harvey to know when the organization can start mobilizing.
“We were in New York after Hurricane Sandy for 2 ½ years and after Katrina, we were in the New Orleans area for almost 2 years,” Kaplan said. “My gut reaction is that this is a storm that will eclipse those in terms of damage and size. Take Lake Michigan and drop it on Texas; that gives you a sense of the size and magnitude.”
NECHAMA is a member of National VOAD – Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters – which work together to coordinate responses to events like this with local VOADs, as well as Texas Emergency Management and the City of Houston.
“Unless (organizations) are doing sheltering, we’ve been told to stay away,” Kaplan said. “Streets are flooded and we can’t get in. The airports are closed and can’t fly in. They are still doing search and rescue. We’re the next wave that comes in.”
Just because they are being told to stay away, doesn’t mean that the group is idle. As of Wednesday morning, Kaplan said that more than $130,000 of donations have come in, which he said will pay for staffing of about 2 ½ months. They are also beginning the preparation of getting their equipment taken to the area, with the help of UPS, who is their logistics partner. Nechama has also opened their volunteer website up to start getting people registered for once local and national officials say it’s safe to be there.
“First responders are doing very difficult work,” Kaplan said. “Hopefully we’ll be operational in two weeks. We’re getting volunteers from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Florida, Minnesota. Synagogues, colleges and Hillels are all sending people.”
Volunteers get to the disaster site and NECHAMA takes care of housing and food. In Houston, the volunteers will likely be housed at the Houston Jewish Community Center, although that building reports that it has suffered flooding damage. Right now, Kaplan said, they wouldn’t be able to get the volunteers housed or fed at the moment.
What NECHAMA works on once they are operational at a disaster site is different than many organizations. They are the only Jewish organization that is geared to do “muck-and-gut” work, as well as debris removal.
“We are a get-your-hands-dirty organization,” Kaplan said. “We specialize in disaster response operations, which is different than disaster relief. That’s housing and food – immediate needs. We go in with chainsaw teams and take down trees. We get the water out of homes.”
With storm water like comes from Harvey, the water is filled with pollutants like gasoline and human waste. The Nechama teams have generators and pumps to help get the water out of the houses. Then they dry it out, gut the house to the studs, and then finish the dry out to hopefully prevent mold.
“Eighty percent of homes don’t have flood insurance,” Kaplan said, speaking of homes generally although that number appears to mirror Houston, per media reports. “FEMA will assist with the rebuild, but they won’t gut it. We do the other piece people won’t do.”
NECHAMA’s focus is on low and lower income families or those who are un- or under-insured. The vast majority of people the organization helps aren’t Jewish – and in many cases, the volunteers are the only Jews people have met.
“Our mission is 100 percent tikkun olam, repairing the world through acts of kindness,” Kaplan said. “We’re helping communities of need. That’s our litmus test; it’s not a religious one.”