Bohras help in evacuating flooded neighbours

10th September 2017, Economic Times

As three more hurricanes slam into the Americas, the Indian American community of Houston is playing its part in rehabilitation in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

As you read this, Hurricane Irma would have roared into Florida, and Hurricane Jose and Hurricane Katia would have slammed into the Americas – the Caribbean Islands (once again) and Mexico, respectively. These storms accompanied by torrential rainfall and floods come barely a fortnight after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston, a disaster that the Texas governor estimated would call for up to $180 billion to rebuild the battered parts of the State.

Indian community organisations like Sewa International, which has chapters across the US, will have their hands full in the days ahead with relief and rehabilitation work. They were busy in Houston, too, distributing free meals and helping with hardware suppliers. “Our volunteers have already put in 23,000 hours of work towards various relief and rehabilitation projects and we have raised around $2,50,000, We plan to support rebuilding efforts of homes that need to be fixed through a public-private partnership with US government agencies and many of the Indian American entrepreneurs in Houston”, says Gitesh Desai, president of Sewa in Houston.

Volunteers from the Dawoodi Bohra Masjid reached out to help American friends and neighbours despite facing hardships themselves. Members of the Dawoodi Bohra community helped evacuate people from a flooded neighbourhood. Volunteers from the Sikh National Center Gurdwara have been involved in various rebuilding efforts. Students who were stranded in their water-logged apartments were rescued by Indian American families.

Vivek Sharda, who went to the city as a student of the University of Houston (UH) from Ahmedabad and now works at an engineering firm, has been volunteering for various activities at Sewa for the last two years. “Over the last few days we have been engaged in rescue and moving people to safer locations. After this we will join rebuilding and relief efforts in the coming weeks”, he says.

Renu Khator, UH’s chancellor and president, recounts the challenge that came her way on August 27 when Anupam Ray, the Indian consul general in Houston, reached out to her through social media. Ray, informed her that about 200 students-many of whom had just arrived in the US-were stranded in two apartment complexes in a flooded area. The Houston area is host to over 3,000 Indian students.

“The way many Indian American families reached out and took many of these students into their homes was truly heartwarming. Those who chose to stay back had meals sent to them by different Indian American organisations, including the Dawoodi Bohra Masjid, the BAPS Swaminarayan Temple and Sewa International”, recollects Khator.

For Ray, it was a huge challenge to reach out to roughly 1,50,000 Indians spread across a large area in Houston in the aftermath of the hurricane, “It was not very difficult to mobilise key members of the Indian American community in Houston, some of whom are business leaders and top professionals,” Ray told ET Magazine from Houston.

Rebuilding Efforts

Ray has now become the focal point to coordinate larger relief and outreach efforts by the Indian American community, and a bridge between different organisations involved in rebuilding and relief efforts and many of the victims. “The Indian American community here is also using this opportunity to give back to the larger Houston community that has accepted them with open arms and also reached out to support India on many occasions,” says Ray.

Even as organisations such as Sewa, Sikh National Centre Gurudwara, BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir and the Dawoodi Bohra community in Houston step up efforts in rehabilitation after Hurricane Harvey, Indian American business owners and companies in the region are carrying out a consolidated fund raising effort to contribute to the Mayor’s Fund and the Governor’s Rebuild Texas Fund. The target is to raise $1 million, and contributors include local business owners as well as Indian corporations- private and public sector-such as Gas Authority of India, Mahindra North America, Oil India USA, ONGC Videsh and Wipro.

The Indian community comprises 2-3% of Houston’s population of roughly 2-4 million. “This is now one of the largest hubs for Indians in the US, with many students and professionals on H-1B visas coming in every year. Many don’t know that after the Latur earthquake in India people of this city adopted a village in Gujarat which is now called Houston,” adds Ray.

Jiten Agarwal, an IIT alumnus and founder of data analysis firm Expedien in Houston, was one of the first to respond to the consul general’s call for support. He also evacuated an American family with a child on a ventilator during the storm and is now pitching into the fundraising efforts in a big way, “From my own experience, I feel that Indian Americans should be better integrated in the mainstream community in Houston and this is a big opportunity to associate with some of the community efforts such as those by churches to help in rebuilding public buildings and homes. Many American families have helped Indians who needed help, and now it should be our turn, “says Agarwal.

Harish D Katharani, a healthcare entrepreneur and founder of Southside Group of Companies, is supplying essential medicines to hospitals and people affected by the hurricane. For instance, Katharani shipped a rare and expensive drug all the way from Orlando, Florida, to Texas Children’s Hospital, for a child who urgently needed it. “Some areas around Houston are still flooded, and we have been delivering free medicines at shelters and health centres. We will continue with our free healthcare services efforts for at least another month to help people facing crisis in the aftermath of the storm.”

Sikh organisations in Houston have been at the forefront of efforts to help people affected by Hurricane Harvey.

“Our gurdwara was not submerged by the waters. We volunteered to cook and put together food packets. During the worst days of the hurricane we were supplying 1,000 meals daily to churches and shelters,” says Tej Kaur, a volunteer at the Sikh National Center Gurudwara. In the following weeks, through an outreach to gurudwaras across the US, truckloads of supplies of fresh fruit, vegetables and building material will pour into Houston from California and other American states. The Sikh National Center is engaged in community rebuilding efforts, which include repairing senior centres, churches and playgrounds. “We will continue food distribution and collection of materials such as toiletries and bed linen for people who have lost everything in the flooding. Many of us are volunteering in collection drives and clean-up of homes and other buildings,” adds Kaur.

As three other hurricanes batter parts of the US, the Indian American community will be out in numbers trending not just to its own but to all citizens of the country it calls home.