On Friday, United Hatzalah and Israel Rescue Coalition’s (IRC) Houston relief team headed to Beaumont at the request of the Mayor of Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner. After distributing aid to evacuated residents of the area, the team set up a booth at the Jack Brooks Regional Airport which is located between Beaumont and Port Arthur, two of the hardest hit areas by Hurricane Harvey. Evacuees were being brought on buses to the airport for care and to receive supplies before they were sent by plane to a mega center for local evacuees. As one local reporter from channel 12 News Now put it, the volunteers were on hand to make sure that “evacuees received food shelter and friendship” before being sent to the long term evacuation center in Dallas.
United Hatzalah and the IRC team consists of Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit members who focus on providing psychological and emotional stabilization and care following traumatic incidents. Team member Avi Tennenbaum who is a Psychotherapist and addictions expert spoke about the team’s experience over the weekend providing that type of care as well as aid to Harvey evacuees. “We had an unforgettable day here in the Airport. We treated many people who had just been evacuated and were en route to their next long term location as well as many first responders, members of the national guard and EMS crews.”
Tennenbaum has a BA in Psychotherapy and is a registered EMT with United Hatzalah as well as being one of the more senior volunteers with the organization’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response unit. He is a board-certified addiction professional and directs JNARS, a nonprofit organization for advancing the professional treatment of addiction disorders.
“For us as volunteers, this was an unforgettable weekend. We arrived in Port Arthur and met dozens of broken-hearted people who were evacuated with nothing but the shirts on their backs. We were able to bring some light into their dark experience and help them move forward to the next leg of their journey. We also offered critical emotional support to exhausted EMS personnel who were working around the clock to rescue those surrounded by floodwaters. The military, national guard, EMS crews, and good samaritans who were volunteering to help their fellow Texans were extremely grateful for our presence. We kept receiving hugs, blessings, and photo requests. But the most incredible thing for us was the stories that people shared with us,” Tennenbaum said.
“Part of the job here is to listen. We heard some incredible stories from people and we allowed them to cry and share their stories of how they evacuated babies on floating air mattresses and saw human organs floating in the floodwaters. Other stories included people being starved for three days with no water or food, or facing dangerous snakes that entered homes via the flood waters. People kept telling us how they simply woke up to water surrounding their bed in the morning. The stories were simply endless and our job is to listen and provide psychological and emotional support and that is what we did,” Tennenbaum explained.
Among the volunteers who were assisting in the evacuations, were pilots and EMS teams, many of whom had been working for days without end. “We need to listen to their stories and the stories of other volunteers and first response personnel just as much. They also need to talk and offload the stress of their experiences. Over the course of the weekend we were able to treat several pilots and EMS crews all of whom thanked us tremendously,” Tennenbaum said. “One flight paramedic was so enamored by us that he clung tightly to Dr. Sharon Slater and our team leader Miriam Ballin.”
“Shabbat was a bit of challenge for us as we were not able to leave the area to get back to Houston due to the still high waters on the roads. So we stayed in the airport and continued helping people,” said Ballin. “One flight paramedic eagerly invited herself to our Shabbat meal and shared with us some incredible stories as she too was spending the day at the airport.”
“It was an unbelievable few days and we merited to do great things here. We hope to continue our efforts for a long time yet,” Tennenbaum concluded.