Miriam Ballin’s heart sank when she saw the water line – a calling card of Hurricane Harvey — ringing her former childhood home in Houston. But she couldn’t linger. Urgent work awaited her as leader of the United Hatzalah Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit.
The voluntary six-person team of Israeli mental-health professionals landed in Texas last Thursday morning on behalf of the Israel Rescue Coalition. It is one of several Israeli humanitarian-aid groups sending personnel to Texas.
Ballin, a family therapist in Jerusalem, had sent her five kids off to their first day of school the morning before she left. Her husband, a physician, encouraged her to go.
“I hadn’t been back to Houston for years,” Texas native Ballin told ISRAEL21c yesterday from the Dallas Convention Center, where the Israelis are giving psychological first aid to evacuees and relief workers.
“Houston was already in recovery mode when we arrived, but the mayor’s office said we were needed in the surrounding towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur. They were still saving people from rooftops and could not get supplies in and out.
“We headed out in the highest two SUVs we could get hold of, and joined the National Guard motorcade with other EMS volunteers in boats. On our left and right we saw 10 feet of water covering cars; we saw dogs on rooftops. It was really sad.”
A US Army coordinator directed the Israelis to Jack Brooks Regional Airport in Port Arthur to help prepare evacuees for departure by air to a Red Cross shelter set up in the Dallas Convention Center. Over the next two days, a few hundred people were sent to the Israeli experts for psychological care.
“Some of these people had been stuck on buses for days and were shell-shocked. There were babies without food or diapers. There were [previously] homeless people whose situation ironically was improved because they got food and medical attention,” said Ballin.
“One lady told us that she and her friend do childcare, and when the water started rising they put all the kids on air mattresses and floated them to safety. Another guy told us he watched the body of his elderly neighbor floating by. The whole place was on emotional edge; everyone was ready to burst into tears,” said Ballin. “My team all shed tears at different times too. That was fine and healthy.”
When Ballin hugged an airport cleaner, thanking her for keeping the place nice for the evacuees, the woman began crying. “She’d been feeling invisible,” Ballin explained.
Psychotherapist Einat Kauffman guided children in creating models or pictures of their homes. “This helped them to express their feelings of loss and we were able to work from there. Some children spoke about their pets that were lost, others talked about being separated from family members. Our goal was to get them to open up about what they were feeling in a non-threatening and positive manner in order to be able to begin processing their feelings.”
On Friday afternoon, unable to travel to the Houston Jewish community for the Sabbath, Ballin and her team — half of whom are religious — stayed in the airport and gratefully made do with donated fruits and vegetables, kosher grape juice and tortillas. They spent their day of rest in a makeshift “clinic” in an airport hangar counseling more than 100 traumatized emergency medical services (EMS) personnel.
“Some of them have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and this experience exacerbated it. They were depleted emotionally and physically. They were lining up outside our door. Many were air paramedics who see the worst of the worst,” Ballin related. She debriefs her own team often for signs of emotional fatigue.
In addition to basic psychological first-aid techniques, the IRC/United Hatzalah team sometimes employed a new approach recently pioneered in Israel, which transitions victims rapidly from paralysis to productivity by activating them mentally and physically.
“Our team provides the IRC with a new capability developed in Israel that no one else in the world is currently doing,” said Ballin.
On Sunday, the Israelis continued on to the Dallas Convention Center, where 2,500 evacuees were sheltered.
“An adorable little African-American girl ran down the hall and jumped into the arms of one of our team members — an amazing therapist and rabbi — when she recognized him as the one she’d spoken to in Port Arthur,” said Ballin, who also was able to help some of her own relatives affected by the storm.
Wearing bright orange Israel Rescue Coalition t-shirts, the team is visibly Israeli. “People are blessing us and thanking us for coming so far to help them. We were able to contribute a tremendous amount to people’s emotional wellbeing,” said Ballin. She expects her team to return to Israel by the end of the week.
Other Israeli groups in Houston
On previous overseas missions, ZAKA helped recover victims of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Typhoon Haiyan. In Houston, the volunteers are assisting with cleanup, repair and food delivery in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Orthodox Union.
“As a humanitarian organization, we help all those in need, regardless of religion, race or gender,” noted ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav. “Today, our team contacted Pastor Becky Keenan from the Gulf Meadows Church, and we are working with the Christian community in the area as well. It was particularly meaningful for Pastor Keenan that a team from the Holy Land has come to offer help.”
ZAKA team leader Jackie Wertheimer told ISRAEL21c that they’ve been welcomed warmly. Two Houston Jewish families are hosting them.
“Everybody is very surprised and happy that such a big team from Israel came to help them. And we were surprised to find so much to do,” he said.
“To see such a disaster happen to so many people is really shocking. You see huge stores like Target closed because they’re all flooded,” said Wertheimer, a Jerusalem father of three young children. “We committed to staying 10 days at least. Fortunately or unfortunately, we Israelis have a lot of experience and know how to help.”
Tomorrow, two professional Israeli medical clowns will take off for Houston to offer a second round of psychological assistance to hurricane victims.
Tsour Shriqui, CEO of the nonprofit Dream Doctors Project, told ISRAEL21c that the clowns’ 10 days in Houston will be coordinated by the Israeli Consulate in Texas.
“We have really specific ways to do interventions and we’re always ready for humanitarian missions abroad,” Shriqui said.
In the past, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has helped Dream Doctors find local partners for missions to countries including Kenya, Ethiopia, Haiti and Nepal. In Israel, 100 Dream Doctors are on staff in 29 hospitals.
Aside from neighboring Mexico, Israel (population 8.5 million) is the only foreign country to send volunteers after Hurricane Harvey to Texas (population 28 million).
In cooperation with IsraAID and an American-Israeli moving company in Maryland, the Israeli Embassy to the United States sent several truckloads of supplies from Washington, DC, to Houston on Tuesday.
Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry is sending $1 million in emergency aid to Houston’s Jewish community.
“The Jewish State is measured by its response when our brothers around the world are in crisis,” Minister Naftali Bennett said. “For years the Jewish communities stood by Israel when it needed their help; now it is our turn to stand by Houston’s Jewish community.”