As the storm approached, residents of several communities were advised to evacuate, including many Ismaili families, who moved to other cities or higher ground, seeking shelter with families and friends. Almost every area in Houston, along with some neighbouring cities have been affected by the adverse weather. Most businesses and schools remain closed due to flooding, and many people have been unable to return home to assess the damage, leaving thousands displaced. Many Jamatkhanas had been closed for almost a week, but have now reopened.
"This unprecedented storm has affected millions in Texas," remarked Murad Ajani, President of the Ismaili Council for Southwestern USA," The Ismaili Muslim community's prayers are with all the families affected, hoping that they will soon recover from this disaster."
The situation in Houston, a major population centre for Ismailis, has caused Jamats in the US and around the world, to be concerned with the fate of their relatives, friends, and of the larger community. Fortunately – due to adequate preparation – much of the Jamat has been spared the worst of the flooding, however, some families’ homes have suffered water damage. The Ismaili Council has been monitoring the condition of the Jamat, and has provided the assistance needed for its safety and comfort.
Through the Emergency Operations Center in the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center in Sugar Land, and with support from Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), volunteers contacted Jamati members in the affected area through pre-established communication systems to provide information on the latest weather related news and warnings, including evacuation orders. They also responded to calls for assistance in evacuating, and for food and medical supplies. Several volunteers went out on a rescue mission in trucks, to assist families, both Ismailis and others, who could not leave due to rising water levels. In total, 75 Ismailis and 75 other residents were rescued. In one case, the FOCUS Helpline received a call from a Jamati member who was stranded at home. Volunteers sent a message out and made contact with an independent boat operator in the area, who managed to evacuate the family.
Despite scenes of grief and damage on news channels, the essential humanity of people has been illustrated daily through acts of kindness. President Ajani remarked, "The efforts of the first responders have been exemplary. The care and concern shown for strangers is heartwarming, and a source of comfort for all at this anxious time." Referring to the long-standing Ismaili tradition of service, he added, "Our I-CERV (Ismaili Community Engaged in Responsible Volunteering) teams have worked tirelessly and under difficult conditions, in reaching Jamati members and others, assisting in the recovery process."
President Ajani conveyed offers of help from the Jamat to the offices of the Governor and Mayors of Houston and Sugar Land, and the Council and FOCUS offices have supported the authorities in their efforts The generosity of the Jamat and the community at large has been evident during the crisis. Volunteers have been assisting at the Houston Food Bank, and FOCUS and I-CERV volunteers have been assisting at various shelters. Additionally, 50 volunteers from the San Antonio Jamat are undertaking training this weekend by the Red Cross in procedures for assisting in shelters and food banks.
A further 30 volunteers assisted the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, serving meals to flood-stricken elderly residents, while the Greater Houston Retailers Association and the Greater Austin Merchants Association; Ismaili trade alliances, delivered much needed supplies for distribution across the region by volunteers. In addition, the Jamat’s Community Emergency Response Team assisted evacuees as far away as the Convention Centre in Dallas.
Although the rain has now stopped, it may take time for the waters to recede, and residents will need to be patient; hopefully, others will continue to demonstrate their generosity of spirit, and support those affected as they return home to clean and to rebuild the city. Through such times, it is important to remember the power of nature, the need to take precautions, and to be ready for such disasters.
The Jamat had been well-prepared through FOCUS and Council guidance, but the scale of this storm was beyond expectations or ability to withstand. Nevertheless, “Preparedness played a critical role in reducing the impact on the Jamat, and it remains a critical component in building resilient communities” stated Shahin Karim, Chairman of FOCUS USA.
Preparedness was certainly critical for the Surani family from Corpus Christi, Texas, who obtained a survival kit from Jamatkhana, and said "[It] really came in handy, especially the radio, as there was no way of communicating last night... no power, no landline, and cell towers were down, so the only way we knew the status of the hurricane and what was going on out there was via that radio in the kit."
As Texas begins to rebuild, the resilience and optimism of the Jamat, its sense of unity and solidarity, and the dedication of volunteers, will be instrumental on the road to recovery.