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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Camp Rita: Evacuees At Greene Family Camp

....Beginning at 2AM families began to pour into camp. It looked like Summer Camp Opening Day with headlights. Families with convoys of vehicles began to descend on us. Extended family groups of 25 and 30 mother fathers and children arrived in multiple vehicles. In the next four hours, we welcomed 300 people into camp, to add to the 75 members of our congregations who were already here.

Camp Rita: Evacuees Meet Greene Family Camp
By Loui Dobin
Director, Greene Family Camp
Bruceville, TX

Tuesday Night, September 20
I was at Kutz Camp in Warwick NY attending a staff meeting of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Youth Division, as it became more and more obvious that Hurricane Rita would be heading towards Houston and Galveston. I decided to let the area congregations know that we would be available for their evacuation, should one be called for.

Wednesday, September 21
The likelihood of a strike on the Texas coast had become a certainty, and Galveston looked to be the likely target.  Rabbi Jackofsky, the URJ Southwest Council Director, alerted all of the congregations in the area that the camp was open for evacuees. We simply asked them to call in advance, if they could, to let us know that they would be coming, how many people would be in their party, and whether they had any special needs. They were also asked for their cell phone numbers so that we could keep in touch with them, should they fail to arrive.

As the meeting ended on Wednesday morning,, I got on my cell phone and organized our relief effort. The camp staff was instructed to:
purchase bottled water

  • place a food order for 150 people for 5 days
  • prepare and power up all buildings in main camp
  • set up generators
  • break out the emergency medical supplies
  • contact the fire, police, and ambulance services
  • locate all of our battery operated lanterns and radios
  • secure our designated storm shelter

I contacted our medical provider, Scott and White Clinic, in Temple Texas to let them know that we would be accepting evacuees and might need their services. I also called the Emergency Operations Director for our county to let the authorities know that we would be hosting evacuees at the Camp.

As I was in route from New York to Texas, a number of people arrived at camp. The first family to arrive included a former camp physician and a former camp unit head. While changing planes in Houston, I told Danielle Bernstein, the unit head, what I wanted her to do as people started to arrive. Finally arriving at Austin Airport at 10:30 PM. I got to my home in Temple at midnight. I threw some more stuff into my car and left for camp at 12:30 AM.

On the way back to camp, I called Jonathan Cohen at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS. He had just completed a similar project. I listed for him what I had already done and asked if I had missed anything and whether there was any advice he could give me. After having been the asst. director at Greene, he certainly knew our facilities and operation.

When I got there, Danielle had already registered five more families, and they were in their rooms. We were expecting another five families that night, so Danielle and I stayed up waiting for them. We stayed up all night following their progress to camp. By the time they all arrived, morning had arrived as well. So had reservations for 150 members of the Houston and Galveston Jewish community and 50 teenagers from a Houston residential treatment center.

Among those who arrived in the middle of the night were two of our region’s  temple educators, Helen Richard (The Woodlands) and Marna Meyer (Houston Emanu El) and their families. Rabbi Andrew Busch and his wife Rabbi Debbie Pine also came in, adding Greene Family Camp to their evacuation experience, having left New Orleans for Houston during Katrina. Andy Gamson, a friend from my Eisner days also arrived with his family. Michelle Renfro, a TYG advisor from Houston, also came in with her extended family.

Thursday, September 22
It became very obvious very early on Thursday that everyone was having a very hard time getting out of Houston. Travel within the city was gridlocked, and travel in the outskirts of the city was moving slowly if at all. A number of people with reservations called to let us know that they were turning around and returning home, rather than get stuck with no gas on a highway that had become a parking lot.

By the time the day was over, the residential treatment center had canceled, as had half of the potential GFC Jewish evacuee population. We waited for the rest of them through the day and on into the evening. Ultimately, about 75 members of the Houston/Galveston Reform Jewish Community made it to camp. The other 75 people who registered never got as far as Central Texas, either turning around and going home, or alighting in somewhere other than here. We attempted to reach everyone to make sure that they were safe.

Thursday Overnight
Around 1AM, while Danielle and I were waiting for the families who had made reservations to arrive, we were contacted by the Emergency Management Department of McLennan County. They asked if we could take any more evacuees. Earlier that evening, the “floodgates had opened” and everyone who had been stuck in traffic had finally made it as far north as Waco. The shelters immediately filled up and they had no more room. Hundreds of people were looking for shelter, having been on the road for 16-36 hours. We were the only place left in the area with any capacity. I agreed to become an evacuation center, and the Emergency operations department started directing people to us.

Within the next half hour, I printed up blank housing charts, registration forms, and an information sheet with a list of camp rules, a daily schedule with mealtimes, emergency procedures, and maps of the camp.

Summer Camp Opening with Headlights
Beginning at 2AM families began to pour into camp. It looked like Summer Camp Opening Day with headlights. Families with convoys of vehicles began to descend on us. Extended family groups of 25 and 30 mother fathers and children arrived in multiple vehicles. In the next four hours, we welcomed 300 people into camp, to add to the 75 members of our congregations who were already here.

We brought the families into the office, explained where they were (a Jewish summer camp was the last place they expected to be), gave them their housing assignments, explained the rules and gave them the information sheet. Then we led them, in their vehicles, to their cabins with instructions to unload and re-park in our parking lots so that other families and/or emergency vehicles could access the cabin area.

Evacuees had to be shown to their cabins so that we could make sure we could house them properly, and so we could have a better idea of the profiles of those who would be on camp. We also had to turn on the lights and air-conditioners, show them the bathrooms, and answer their questions.

We housed people by family. Large family units were either given an entire camper cabin. Smaller families were given half of a “divisible” cabin (one where the bunks on either side could be locked off from each other). Smaller families were assigned to private cabins or two connecting rooms in private cabins. The Emergency Ops Dept kept calling to see if we could accept more people and we kept taking them in. The Waco Police Department and Texas Department of Public safety were calling us and sending families to us who had given up and were sitting on the shoulder of the highway. We were the only place left to go.

By 5:00 AM we had filled all of our cabins except for the lower camper village. At that point the Waco Police Dept called to ask us if we could accept a bus-load of people. A city on the Texas coast had chartered a bus and had been promised space in one of the Waco shelters. The shelter had long since filled, and the bus was sitting on the road with nowhere to go. I told the police that we would take the people in. When the bus arrived, Danielle and I quickly realized that we hadn’t been given all of the facts. There were a number of clients on the bus from the mental health and mental retardation department of Texas. There were no attendants or staff members with them, and some of the people on the bus were violent and belligerent. After discussions with the Emergency Operations people, we had those individuals removed and taken to an appropriate shelter. We simply didn’t have the kind of staff necessary to serve that particular population. At the time the bus arrived, Danielle and I were still the only people staffing this event.

Friday, September 23 - A Multicultural City of 400
By 6:30 AM we finally had the bus people settled in and it was time to get ready for the first day of “Camp Rita”. The name comes from a news package put together by Bianca Castro, a TV reporter for the Waco CBS affiliate.

We served breakfast and began to realize what we had on camp: a multi-cultural city of almost 400 people. Lots of infants and lots of elderly people, people who spoke only Spanish, people who were evacuating for the second time in a month, etc.

I put together a team made up of the individuals mentioned earlier in this report, the Jewish professionals who had already arrived in camp ahead of the storm of people, during the Wednesday overnight. In addition, “Temple in Temple”, our chavurah in Temple Texas, had representatives that came to help and The Bruceville Community Church, our local Bible church, sent some of it’s parishioners to work with our kitchen staff.

Realizing that many of our guests spoke only Spanish, Andy Gamson translated all of the documents into Spanish. All of our announcements at breakfast, and from then on, were done in both English and Spanish. We utilized the talents of a few of our evacuees to help do the simultaneous translations, and this set a very interesting tone for the rest of the event. Many of the evacuees themselves became part of our staff, helping in the dining room, helping with the housekeeping chores, and helping with our programming.

Mid-morning Andy and I conferred and agreed it would be prudent to have a short “staff meeting” to accomplish two important tasks: insure that we knew who would take a responsibility for which areas requiring coverage and to give us all an opportunity to get to know who would be working with each other.

Andy Gamson, my friend from Eisner, became my assistant director. Both Joe and Eric were stuck in NY. Danielle Bernstein was in charge of all housing issues. Helen Richards became the dining hall manager. Marna Meyer became the evacuee services coordinator. She went to every building, along with two Hispanic teens as translators, and asked every family what they needed, making sure that they had baby formula, knew where other relatives were, had appropriate housing, got needed medical care, etc. Andy Busch and Debbie Pine, our resident rabbis, became the program coordinators and religious liaisons. They organized Shabbat Services, as well as Catholic mass that was led by a priest who was one of our evacuees.

Camp Rita Arts & Crafts
By Friday afternoon, we were in full swing, with a schedule of activities for the families that included sports and arts & crafts. Our security operation was locked down, with auxiliary constables on horseback providing constant patrols around camp. In addition our summer security guard was on duty from 10 PM to 8 AM. Health care was handled in our infirmary by Dr. Bernstein, my wife, Sheila, and an evacuee acting as a translator for families who needed those services.

A news crew from our local CBS affiliate spent a few hours at camp, filming the situation and interviewing evacuees. They went live from camp with some of the interviews. The six o’clock news carried the “Camp Rita” news package that I referred to earlier and I gave countless interviews to newspapers. I will try to get a copy of the TV story.

At the same time that the TV crew showed up, representatives of the County Health Department arrived. It was their job to ascertain that we were operating a safe shelter. One of the inspectors had done the annual summer visit in the past. We schmoozed awhile, he told me that he was thrilled with what he saw, and offered to help in any way that he could. I invited him to look around and offer me any suggestions he had. Later a representative of the children’s health office arrived to make sure that we had everything that we needed to take care of the younger children and infants. We had already purchased formula, diapers, etc. so we were in good shape.

Shabbat services on Friday evening saw most of the 40 or so Jewish family members in a very rewarding Shabbat service. We say rewarding because it provided about 45 minutes of deserved respite for the team, and a reminder that we of what we were called to do as Jews in community. The Catholic service did not emerge as planned however, after a conference with the priest, he requested that it be scheduled for after breakfast on Saturday morning.

After supper on Friday night was one of the high points of the entire experience. Everyone on camp was out on the grounds schmoozing, all the kids were playing together and people were walking their dogs and hanging out with the horse back officers. The entire scene was framed by a gorgeous summer sunset, courtesy of all the clouds that were swirling around the outer boundaries of the approaching hurricane. We had a evening program of a movie (“The Incredibles” with Spanish subtitles turned on) and all-you-can-eat ice cream sundae bar. People said that they had won the “evacuation lottery”.

Saturday, September 24
I woke up and did a live on-air interview to Channel 10. Camp is in full swing. We are giving the evacuees updates on travel information and urging them not to try and go back to Houston and the gulf coast, at the urging of the Emergency Dept in Waco.

Saturday morning had 3 distinct activity tracks: The Jewish Shabbat and Torah service, the Catholic service en español, and family fun activities to keep the many young children active and “distracted”.

The weather in the morning was a mixed blessing. While the wind and clouds gave the foreboding of the hurricane to the east, the much cooler temperatures and the awareness that the brunt of the storm was not coming to GFC relaxed the camp atmosphere significantly. The sight of very small children and families clustered under the wind blown oak branches petting and laughing in delight around the horses of the mounted patrol was a sight to behold. Unfortunately, it was a “Kodak” moment when no one seemed to have their camera at hand, but nonetheless will be remembered.

The Temple TX ministerial alliance sent a group out to augment the programs that we are providing for the families. A group of our staff alumni from University of Texas came up to help, as did the UT Hillel Asst Program Coordinator. The Temple in Temple Chavurah people returned to help, as well.

In the main theatre, children played board games, twister, or with Legos and arts and crafts. It was noticed that some of the children that seemed to have been having a difficult time in a strange place among strangers took to the coloring books and paper crafts that were provided. In the gymnasium, a couple of teen and older basketball games took off with a lot of enthusiasm.

After lunch we began to have the first departures. Against our advice, and against the desires of the evacuees on it, the bus to the coast departed as well. We made sure that everyone left here with quantities of bottled water and non-perishable food.

Saturday evening was very calm.  After dinner, Rabbis Andy Busch and Debbie Pine from New Orleans invited the entire community to join in havdalah.  About 60 people participated, of whom, about 40 were non-Jewish.  Rabbi Busch explained the symbols of havdalah and all of the participants were very enthusiastic.  It was a very powerful moment especially because the non-Jews were very eager to participate: to pass the spice box and to hold the wine aloft during the blessing. 

The congregation for this havdalah is probably the most diverse crowd that has ever been at GFC: white, black, and Hispanic; Jewish and non-Jewish; young and old; disabled and able-bodied.  While it’s not unusual for any of these groups of people to be represented on camp, most of our winter groups are fairly homogenous.

We still have over two thirds of our guests here, although I am fairly sure that almost everyone who is still here will leave tomorrow.

Sunday Morning, September 25
This should be the last full day for Camp Rita, as other shelters are now able to handle the evacuees. Some people have already left, against our advice, and while their parents were anxious to go home, many of the kids were crying. They didn’t want to leave camp.

There is no doubt that was we were doing was necessary and appreciated. The police and Department of Safety officers were finding people, stranded in their cars on the highway, with no place to go. They arrived here in the middle of the night, we took them in when no one else could, and we treated them as family. They won’t forget it, and neither will we.

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