Locals Reach Out to Hurricane Victims

Laguna Beach resident San Dee Frei watches news coverage of the Hurricane Harvey disaster. Frei's daughter lives in Houston.
Laguna Beach resident San Dee Frei watches news coverage of the Hurricane Harvey disaster. Frei’s daughter lives in Houston.

By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent

If Hurricane Harvey had hit at this time last year, Laguna Beach resident Suparna Salil would be underwater right now.

“It’s tough to see the streets we drove on everyday underwater,” Salil said. “Seeing these neighborhoods, these homes underwater, the water level up to the traffic lights.”

Salil, now an attorney in Irvine, moved to Laguna Beach in May with her husband. They have watched as Hurricane Harvey, the biggest rainstorm in the history of the U.S., has destroyed and drowned the Texas city they called home since 2001.

“In Houston we know what floods look like; none of us are strangers to the devastation and impact something like this can bring,” Salil said.

Salil isn’t the only local anxiously watching hurricane coverage as family and friends in Houston deal with massive flooding following of 50 inches of torrential rain dumped by Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 Hurricane which lingered off the Texas coast for days. The death toll left in Harvey’s wake now stands at 38 and rising, with 13,000 people rescued and 17,000 more in shelters. Most people can’t get out of the city, nor can they get in.

That’s the case for Laguna Beach resident San Dee Frei’s daughter Morgan Strong, who is stuck in Waco, Tex., and unable to return to Houston to see if there is anything left of her life.

“She doesn’t know if she has a car, if she has anything in her apartment. She can’t get back in,” Frei said.

Frei’s daughter lives on Stuebner Airline Road, which is completely submerged as seen in a video sent to her by neighbors. Strong boarded her dog before leaving Houston for a business trip last Friday, Frei said. The call to the animal hospital was the first call her daughter made.

“She was pretty worried, but her dog is fine,” Frei said.

Laguna Beach business owner Gila Liebovitch is pledging 10% of sales for four days from all of her four stores this week to Hurricane Harvey relief.
Laguna Beach business owner Gila Liebovitch is pledging 10% of sales for four days from all of her four stores this week to Hurricane Harvey relief.

Gila Leibovitch doesn’t have family in Houston, but the downtown Laguna Beach business owner feels like she does. Leibovitch and her husband own The Vault Men, The Vault Women, Melrose Place, and Laguna Active Wear, where half the clientele hail from Texas.

She wanted to help Harvey victims the only way she can. This week, all four of her downtown stores are donating a portion of receipts to hurricane relief.

“It’s killing me to see what has happened over there,” Leibovitch said.

Leibovitch figures 10 percent of profits mean anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a day will go directly to hurricane relief. She has chosen the United Way of Greater Houston, the American Red Cross, the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund and the Houston Humane Society as the charities that will benefit from her stores’ donations.

“I feel like it’s the only way I can help. I can’t get out there, can’t go to Texas, and so this is my way of helping,” Liebovitch said.

Lauren Carter has lived in Laguna Beach for four years, but you can still hear the twang in the accent of the Texas native. Her cousin and cousin’s husband live between Houston and Galveston, and are still unable to leave their home.

“They are stranded in their home with two small kids, getting low on food and water and they can’t get out,” Carter said.  “I have had a hard time sleeping at night, worried they are going to have water come into their home in the night and not be able to get out.  It’s hard to see what this is doing to people from my home state.”

Though Laguna Beach is far removed from the flooding in Houston, emergency operations coordinator Jordan Villwock says Hurricane Harvey serves as a good reminder that something similar could happen here along the coast.

Residents need to be prepared for any unexpected emergency with a disaster preparedness kit for a minimum of three days to two weeks, he said.

The city encouraged those who want to donate to relief efforts to donate to the American Red Cross or other charitable organizations that are on the ground assisting with relief efforts.

For Salil, it’s hard to sit idle in sunny California and watch as her friends and family in Houston deal with the loss of life, home, and safety.  She plans to help post-hurricane by donating her services as an attorney to storm victims, and her husband is going to start fundraising for the Houston Food Bank, a cause he supported while living there.

“Many Houstonians were involved in the resettlement of folks leaving Louisiana after Katrina,” Salil said. “Everyone has an understanding of what a disaster like this feels like. But this was just so unprecedented, this level of rain, nobody has seen anything like it.”

This article was updated Aug. 31, 2017.


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