2017-11-22 / Voice at the Shore

Locals join hurricane relief efforts in Florida through Nechama

Voice shore editor

Local attorney Janet Gravitz (left), and other Nechama volunteers pull wet insulation out of a home damaged by Hurricane Irma. Local attorney Janet Gravitz (left), and other Nechama volunteers pull wet insulation out of a home damaged by Hurricane Irma. Two locals—Cantor Ed Kulp and attorney Janet Gravitz—recently spent a week in Florida ripping out insulation and removing water logged items from homes damaged by Hurricane Irma. The two went as volunteers with Nechama.

Founded in 1996, Nechama is a non-profit organization providing disaster preparedness and response services nationwide. The organization’s full name is “NECHAMA - Jewish Response to Disaster.” In Hebrew, the word “Nechama” means “comfort”— which is what the organization aims to bring to survivors of natural disasters nationwide. According to its website (Nechama.org), Nechama’s work is “rooted in the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam.” The organization, which is based in the Twin Cities, accepts volunteers and assists people of all faiths.

Kulp said he contacted Nechama in mid-October to volunteer in Puerto Rico, but that the organization was not sending volunteers there. So he and Gravitz instead chose to volunteer with Hurricane Irma relief efforts in Florida.

This wasn’t their first time volunteering in the aftermath of a major hurricane, said Kulp. The two had also volunteered in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina with a large group of congregants from Congregation Beth Judah (now Shirat Hayam), where Kulp is cantor emeritus.

This time, the two were among the few Jews in a larger group of Nechama volunteers working in the St. Augustine area in northeastern Florida. This group included many older teens doing a year of volunteer service through Americorps, as well as a few other volunteers from as far away as San Diego. Despite their different backgrounds and religions, they had one important thing in common; they were all there to work.

After arriving in Florida at 1 a.m. on Monday, October 23, Kulp and Gravitz were at work alongside their coworkers by 7 a.m. The group went from house to house ripping out wet insulation, moving salvageable furniture into dry areas, and putting ting ruined items curbside for pickup and disposal, said Kulp. “We all had to wear gloves, masks, some of us had hats— whatever protection we could get.”

Fortunately, the area had no flooded streets of standing water, at least not by the time Kulp arrived. Indeed, it was Florida’s west coast—across the state from St. Augustine—that was hardest hit by Irma. Still, Nechama had plenty of clean up to do in the area, said Kulp. Many older beach homes there were not built to stand up to harsh weather conditions and suffered significant damage, and most of these belonged to low-income and elderly inhabitants. Even the St. Augustine synagogue where Kulp went to pray on Shabbat had damage to its roof such that the sanctuary could not be used.

Some homeowners in the area turned to Nechama for help when FEMA failed to show up to help them, said Kulp. “Nechama has a resource person down there who goes around trying to find people who need help,” he explained. He added that Nechama only goes to areas that are determined to be safe by the Red Cross.

Accommodations for Nechama volunteers were very basic: The group camped out together in the social hall of the United Methodist Church in Flagler, FL (about 20 miles from St. Augustine). Kulp and Gravitz slept on cots, which was not ideal for Kulp, age 81. “I’m not exactly a spring chicken!” he laughed. “The cot wasn’t the most comfortable, but I didn’t go there to sleep. I like to work,” said Kulp, adding that he has done some kind of extended volunteer work trip like this one every year for the past 10, either in the U.S. or Israel.

“If I can go somewhere and help people, I do. Next year I will probably volunteer again in Israel,” said Kulp, who has several times volunteered on Israeli Army bases with a group called Sar-El.

For more information about volunteering with Nechama, go to Nechama.org. According to Kulp, Nechama is now finishing up in Florida, but their recovery efforts are still underway in the Houston area. 

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