Expectations of never having to experience a blizzard is one reason for moving to Texas, and last week’s deep freeze exposed a woefully unprepared infrastructure that resulted in power outages and burst pipes. Former members of the Queens Jewish community living in Texas spoke about the Arctic blast as an unexpected disaster in a state that is better known for facing tornadoes and hurricanes.
“When we moved to Texas, we thought that it would never snow again. We did not think that it would be a big deal,” said Eliana Shkedy, who moved to Houston from Kew Gardens Hills last August. “But then it got cold and we lost power. We sat inside our car to stay warm.”
On the eve of Shabbos, most homes in the Lone Star State had their power and heating restored, but for the two preceding days, NPR reported nearly 500,000 homes and businesses without power, with millions of homes ordered to boil their water.
“We started out with COVID,” Austin’s Mayor Steven Adler said in an interview with CNN. “Layer on top of that snow and ice – no one here is used to that. And then you add on top of that power outages; people don’t have heat, and now we’re adding on top of that water issues. It is too much to ask of anybody.”
Adler expressed his anger at former governor Rick Perry, who said that it is preferable for Texas to lose power for three days than to have federal intervention in its power grid. There was also widespread outrage at Sen. Ted Cruz, who was vacationing in Cancun when the deep freeze hit his state.
“No one likes Ted Cruz, not even his own party,” said Yisroel Lubin, who moved to Texas in 2012 from Forest Hills. “I voted for him three times but I will not anymore. He lied about why he went to Cancun.”
Lubin lives in Corpus Christi, a coastal city where emergency services are better prepared for hurricanes than wintry weather. “It is 30 degrees outside, but it’s colder in other parts of Texas.” As his apartment is in a relatively recent building, he did not experience loss of power and water, aside from his loss of trust in the state’s ruling Republican politicians.
Baruch Shawel was born in Dallas, and then lived in Kew Gardens Hills for a few years, where he attended Touro College and married. He returned to his native state in 2018, picking up on the experience that he gained in Queens as a Hatzolah paramedic and Chaverim volunteer. “When the power went out, we drove people to their dialysis appointments, dug cars out of driveways, and charged batteries. When the pipes burst, we brought water vacuums to homes to drain out the water.”
Along with his duties at the Hatzalah of Dallas, Shawel founded the city’s Chaverim branch in 2019 with his friend Eli Hammerman. “This weather is very unusual for Dallas. Most of the week, it was in the single digits. The pipes burst because of the freezing temperatures.” Shawel spoke of his years living in Queens as a form of training that gave him experience in responding to medical emergencies, coordinating a volunteer organization, and digging vehicles out of snow.
Chaia Mandl, originally from Far Rockaway, had power restored in her Houston home a few hours before Shabbos. “Water is still iffy. It’s not just this event. It has been a series of nightmares. And I’ve lived here for 15 years,” she said. Her neighbors have been ordered to boil their water and keep it running to prevent the pipes from freezing. “It got down to ten degrees with a wind-chill of one degree. Right now it’s not that cold; it’s in the 30s. I’m pretty sure nothing will change. Wait, scratch that. My bill will go up!”
Rabbi Naphtali Buchwald, the assistant rabbi of the Young Israel of Houston, was fortunate to have a rare house with a fireplace that was used for heating. “I thought it was strange, but it was helpful and we use it from time to time. A neighbor who had firewood shared it with others,” he said. “The city lost its water pressure and many people used water from their pools to flush their toilets.” Rabbi Buchwald grew up on the Upper West Side, and his wife Shira is the daughter of Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld of Kew Gardens Hills. “We can handle this weather, but the houses here cannot,” he said.
Shkedy and her ten-month-old twin babies eventually found warmth at Rice University where her husband Jesse attends business school, and they later stayed at a friend’s home. “We filled our car with gas, bought water, groceries, whatever we needed. There was no power in the store; we were shopping with our flashlight. This will be remembered for a long time.”
By Sergey Kadinsky