Vietnamese-born Chuong Hoang Nguyen was doing fine until Hurricane Katrina destroyed his thriving Louisiana shrimping business nine months ago. “As soon as Katrina moved into the Gulf of Mexico, I evacuated my wife and four kids to Houston,” he recalled. “Our mobile home was torn away, and my $70,000 fiberglass boat was destroyed.”
In desperation, Nguyen turned to Second Mile Mission Center, an evangelical Christian charity in suburban Stafford, Texas.
“They gave me food, clothes, household items and powdered milk for my baby,” he said. “I think they’re doing a good job. They’re helping people get everything they need.”
Likewise, Joyce Armstead lost her New Orleans house and everything in it after the levees broke in Katrina’s wake, flooding her home with 6 feet of water.
“We checked into the Radisson, thinking we’d go home in three days,” recalled Armstead, 69. “That Monday after the hurricane, the sun came out and people started leaving because they thought the worst was over. But the water was steadily rising. We ended up walking in the water up to our chests from the hotel to Tulane. My son had to carry his 5-month-old baby over his head.”
Eventually airlifted to Houston, Armstead ended up at an apartment complex whose lease is being paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“I cried every night when I first came here,” Armstead said. “This mission has helped me tremendously. They gave us food, toilet articles and a $20 card for gasoline.”
Although none of the 60,000 hurricane victims whom the mission has helped are Jewish, Second Mile is thriving thanks in part to a $75,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.
“This gift from the federation is very significant, because we needed additional funding,” said Karen Parker, the mission’s director of development. “We weren’t prepared for such substantial growth from one year to the next.”
The mission has 21,000 square feet of storage for canned and dry food, clothing, kitchen utensils, furniture and bedding. It assists about 200 clients a day, 30 percent of them Katrina evacuees like Nguyen and Armstead. Its self-stated mission is “to provide an opportunity for people to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ by first building a relationship that meets their physical needs.”
It’s one of 28 Houston-area agencies and organizations helped by the federation in Katrina’s aftermath. Eighteen of these agencies serve the general community — including the Zip Code Assistance Ministries, the Houston Food Bank and Tyler County Hospital — while the remaining 10 assist only Jews.
The federation provided a $2.2 million grant, of which $1.5 million came from United Jewish Communities, and $700,000 was raised by Houston’s Jewish community, said federation CEO Lee Wunsch.
While Houston itself wasn’t hit by Katrina, Texas’ largest city became even larger with the influx of nearly 300,000 evacuees from New Orleans, including 5,000 Jews.
That boosted Houston’s Jewish population to 50,000, though according to Wunsch, only 40 or so New Orleans Jews remain.
“Most of these people went wherever they had either family or friends. Those who came to Houston just came here because it was the next closest big city driving from New Orleans,” he told JTA. “A lot of people had no place to go. You can’t get around Houston without a car, and for some families, that in itself was an issue.”
Wunsch was interviewed at the federation’s headquarters in southwestern Houston, which is home to most of the city’s Jewish population and its 20 or so synagogues.
“This building was a major focal point of our relief efforts,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work being done here.”
Sherri Tarr, who evacuated her home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, was evacuated first to Jackson, Miss., and then to Birmingham, Ala. She and her children eventually joined her husband, Matthew, in Houston, where the federation found the family a place to stay.
“We lived with a couple in their townhouse and had two bedrooms,” said Tarr, who returned to New Orleans last week. “My kids got enrolled in the Jewish day school there. My husband got an office and lab space at Rice University. Thank God we’ve both been working this entire time. We never lost a paycheck.”
Other evacuees weren’t so lucky.
Jodi and Raul Zighelboim, their two children and dog fled New Orleans with little more than a suitcase. Their home was destroyed, and Raul Zighelboim — who is originally from Peru — spent months looking for a job. The family at least had the emotional support of the Houston Jewish community.
“I think the psychological trauma of it all is going to begin manifesting itself soon,” said Linda Burger, executive director of Houston’s Jewish Family Service. “The first six months, you’re going through survival, and at some point you realize it’s a new normalcy. The pressure will be on us to provide counseling later on.”
Burger said the service, which operates on a $1.6 million annual budget, has been allocated an additional $300,000 “to give out financial aid, ramp up our employment services program and provide counseling at no cost” to any hurricane evacuees.
Burger, who directs a full-time staff of 24, said the first recipients of her group’s hurricane relief money were three Haitian families, each of whom received $800 for rent.
“We’re helping primarily Jews but also non-Jewish people. We don’t turn anyone away,” she said, estimating that the service will have handed out $230,000 by the time it’s all over.
“The devastation that happened as a result of the hurricane was a great equalizer. It didn’t matter what your educational level was. People are all in the same boat,” she said. “The Jewish federation is acknowledging that, in order to respond to the crisis at hand, it takes the entire community’s effort.”