At least 8 dead in Houston-area floods, more rain falls

At least eight people have died and some 1,150 homes have been damaged in flooding triggered by torrential downpours in the Houston area this week as more rain fell in the region on Wednesday adding to vast pools of standing water.

All of those who died were found in or near vehicles that had been in flooded areas, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences and a local sheriff said.

The National Weather Service said about an inch or less had fallen in the area as of Wednesday afternoon, keeping water high in parts of the country's fourth largest city where some roads have been turned into lakes. The Houston region had a record-setting drenching that dumped as much as 18 inches (45 cm) on some places on Monday.

Don Oettinger, a forecaster with the National Weather Service's Houston/Galveston office, said there was a possibility of more rain on Thursday.

“After tomorrow, we should dry up for a couple of days,” he added.

The weather service issued a flood watch from central Texas through Houston and into large parts of Louisiana.

There have been more than 1,200 water rescues during the flooding, with emergency crews shuttling people by boat to dry ground and picking up hundreds of motorists whose cars were caught in rushing waters.

The Houston Independent School District, the country's seventh-largest school district, said it would reopen on Wednesday after flooding caused the closure of hundreds of schools earlier this week. Some suburban school districts remained closed on Wednesday.

Heavy storms can overwhelm drainage channels that move water from Houston back to the Gulf of Mexico, particularly if the ground is already saturated.

The city faced similar widespread flooding during a storm last May and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. 

New York takes unprecedented steps ahead of Irene

New York City on Friday ordered the evacuation of more than 250,000 people and prepared to shut down its entire mass transit system, both unprecedented measures ahead of the expected battering from Hurricane Irene.

The powerful and unusually large storm trudged up the U.S. East Coast on Friday, threatening 55 million people including more than 8 million in New York City, which was expecting heavy winds late on Saturday or early on Sunday.

Some members of the city’s observant Jewish population, normally prohibited by their religion from using electricity on Saturday, began leaving the city on Friday to avoid a religious dilemma should they need emergency services or information.

“Some of the rabbis are giving permission to leave the radio on the Sabbath. The rabbis are getting a lot of calls today,” said Dov Hikind, an orthodox Jewish state assemblyman from the borough of Brooklyn.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered people living in low-lying areas—including the Financial District surrounding Wall Street in Manhattan—out of their homes by 5 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Saturday, saying 91 emergency shelters would be open on Friday.

The transit system that carries 8.5 million people a day would start shutting down around noon (1600 GMT) on Saturday, a process that could take eight hours.

“We’ve never done a mandatory evacuation before and we wouldn’t be doing it now if we didn’t think this storm had the potential to be very serious,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference.

New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo activated 900 National Guard troops while airlines moved aircraft from the danger zone and canceled at least 1,000 flights and the city’s four zoos stocked up to keep the animals fed.

Bridges leading to the island of Manhattan could be closed if winds exceed 60 mph (96 kph).

Police had a fleet of rescue boats at the ready in case resident of low-lying areas near the waterfront were trapped by the storm surge, which would be exacerbated by coincidental high tides.

The evacuations zones are mostly along the waterfront of the city—a complex geography of islands and peninsulas surrounded by rivers, harbors and open sea.

In the Rockaways area of Queens that faces the Atlantic Ocean, Destiny Crespo, 19, vowed to defy the evacuation order, saying, “No matter what, we’re going to board up these windows, we’re going to stay right here. … I am going to ride my way out of it like I’m a surfer.”

But her mother, Genevieve Crespo, 42, was more worried. “I am disabled. How am I going to get on the train with my grandkids? We have no idea where to go or what to do,” she said.

Benedict Willis, director of floor operations for investment banking boutique Sunrise Securities, said the NYSE had a responsibility to open Monday after the hurricane because millions of investors would rely on it for prices.

“But if the waters rise this high,” he said gesturing at the buzzing trading floor on Friday, “then it’s a bigger problem than I can handle. My name’s not Noah.”

The evacuations were mandatory, technically punishable by a $500 fine or 90 days in jail, but Bloomberg said, “We’re not trying to punish people. We’re trying to protect them.”

“Nobody’s going to get fined. Nobody’s going to jail. But if you don’t follow this, people might die,” Bloomberg said.

After the city experienced an unusually strong earthquake centered in Virginia on Tuesday, it prepared for a rare hurricane. Only five hurricanes in records dating to 1851 have tracked within 75 miles (120 km) of New York City, the most recent one being in 1985, according to

“We are New Yorkers and we are tough. We like to think of ourselves as tough,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “But we’re also smart, and it’s smart to prepare. It’s smart to evacuate … and it’s smart to evacuate now.”

Homebound elderly and hospital patients in low-lying areas began to be evacuated earlier on Friday.

At Coney Island Hospital, ambulances were transporting 250 patients to other hospitals ahead of a shutdown set for 8 p.m. (0000 GMT on Saturday), said Evelyn Hernandez, a hospital spokeswoman.

The New York Stock Exchange was preparing a backup power generator and bringing in extra fuel and food to avoid disruptions when trade resumes on Monday. Around the corner, the New York Fed rolled out contingency plans in order to preserve the normal functioning of its open market operations on Monday, a spokesman said.

The Cyclone roller coaster—in the direct path of the storm on some projection models—was still running and scaring people on Friday, but would shut down on Sunday, when the heaviest rains were expected.

“I figured I wanted to come and ride it and I’m happy because it might not be here anymore,” said Jon Muller, 29, a tourist from Erie, Pennsylvania, celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife.

New Yorkers hungry for information crashed the city’s website ( looking for news on evacuations or service shutdowns.

At the Costco wholesale store in Brooklyn, the bottled water aisle was lined with shopping carts on Friday, some piled high with packets of plastic bottles.

“You never know if we’re going to need it. Might as well have some extra for the kids,” said Carmen Viera, 63, who had three cases of water in her shopping cart to take home to her house in Brooklyn with three children and two grandchildren.

Sporting events and show business were already falling victim to storm warnings.

The kick-off time for Saturday’s National Football League game between the New York Giants and New York Jets was brought forward several hours to avoid the worst of the foul weather, and the New York Mets baseball team postponed games on Saturday and Sunday.

But some bars and restaurants were preparing for a brisk business from New Yorkers who planned to ride out the storm with plenty of food an alcohol.

The manager at the Merchants River House restaurant, which is just behind the Hudson River boardwalk and has views of the Statue of Liberty, said the restaurant planned to stay open all weekend but would tie down deck furniture.

“We’re fully stocked up for the weekend,” said manager Christian Qualey, “so we can be a safe place for people.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer, Lynn Adler and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Sandra Maler

Massive flooding damages Jewish infrastructure in Melbourne

Mass flash flooding triggered by Cyclone Yasi caused severe damage to Jewish community buildings in Melbourne.

Floods stormed through several suburbs heavily populated by Melbourne’s Jewish community of 50,000 on the evening of Feb. 4, prompting the closure of the Sephardi Synagogue on Shabbat.

At least two Jewish schools also were flooded, with Bialik College—one of the largest Jewish schools in the country—reportedly closing for two days last week due to damage. The offices of the Australian Jewish News also were partially flooded, according to Yossi Aron, the newspaper’s religious affairs editor.

“The streets were like rivers,” Aron told JTA.

One house in a low-lying area of his street was completely flooded, he said, adding that “The water was waist high.”

Driving rain and wind gusts of up to 80 miles per hour battered Victoria, ripping roofs from buildings, felling trees, and closing roads, schools and other premises. Some suburbs received more than 5.9 inches of rain in 24 hours, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

The flash flooding was caused by the tail end of Yasi, a category 5 storm that ripped through Queensland on Feb. 3, just weeks after rampant floods deluged the state, claiming at least 35 lives.

Only Connect

I’ve had a very Muslim week.

It began just after Shabbat on Aug. 8, when I drove to Exposition Park to attend the Pakistan Independence Day festival. A member of

the organizing committee invited me, and, to be honest, I expected to walk into a picnic area and get stared at by a few dozen bearded men and their heavily veiled wives.

The reality was different. PakDayLA is an annual event that takes over a vast field near the Los Angeles Coliseum, filling it with booths selling everything from Pakistani clothing and crafts to life insurance, cell phones, cable and wireless service, travel packages and, of course, Pakistani food. Some 20,000 people showed up; some were in traditional dress, but the vast majority looked like the crowd at The Grove.

On the center stage, public officials welcomed the crowd, while prominent Pakistanis urged the audience to support relief efforts for people suffering from devastating floods back home.

Then the main attraction came out — a London-based pop star named Annie.

“She’s our Madonna,” a young man explained to me, except she’s 30 years younger, with flowing black hair, skin-tight pants and a tight-fitting top. She brought the young people in the crowd to a frenzy. I was expecting a religious revival; I got a Shakira concert.

On Aug. 9, two Muslim journalists showed up for work at The Jewish Journal. For the past five years, the Los Angeles-based Daniel Pearl Foundation has selected midcareer Muslim journalists from developing countries to become Daniel Pearl Fellows. The Fellows spend six months working at mainstream publications, then a week at The Jewish Journal.

In many ways, Aoun Sahi and Nasry Ahmed Esmat were as different from one another as both were from me.  Sahi, 31, is a reporter for The News, Pakistan’s prominent English-language paper. Esmat, 29, is an award-winning reporter and editor for Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo. Sahi came to The Journal after spending six months at the Atlanta bureau of The Wall Street Journal, where Daniel Pearl once worked. Esmat had spent six months at the nonprofit investigative news Web site ProPublica, then a few weeks at The Los Angeles Times.

Sahi is tall, witty and self-deprecating — a tan Jeff Goldblum. Esmat is more stocky, more earnest — with, as I pointed out to him, the identical speech and mannerisms of an Israeli.

“I’m a Shi’ite,” Sahi explained to me at our first meeting. “You’re a Jew.” He pointed to Esmat, a member of the Sunni majority, and smiled mischievously. “He’s trying to kill us both.”

I took both men to visit Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which is across the street from our Koreatown offices; it was their first time in a synagogue. They sat in on an editorial meeting, where Rabbi Arthur Green spoke about the need for Israel to be “generous” vis-a-vis the Palestinians. They witnessed the vibrancy and joy of Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live. I could tell it all gave them pause.

“You understand,” Esmat said, “when we think of a Jew, all we ever think of is a screaming man with a beard or a soldier with a gun.”

Throughout much of the Muslim world, they agreed, the image of America is formed 90 percent by Hollywood movies and 10 percent by news of conflict among Israel, America and Muslims. Given the low literacy rates in their countries, these images shape intellects. A Pakistani or Egyptian child is reared with a pathological ignorance of Jews, Judaism and Israel, having had zero contact with anything resembling a three-dimensional live Jew. By any definition, they are brainwashed.

“We blame the Jews for everything,” Esmat told me. “It’s like a joke.”

Sahi agreed that his fellow Muslims believe Jews control the media, business and government. It’s as if the collapse of Nasserism and communism has left only anti-Semitism as the most viable belief system. The fragile monarchs that pass for Muslim leaders (often with U.S. support, thank you) are only too happy to perpetuate these myths to distract the masses from the misery they perpetrate.

It’s why, as Sahi explained at a presentation to the Los Angeles Press Club the evening of Aug. 12, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are, by far, the most popular Muslim leaders: Who else will stand up to the all-powerful, violent, belligerent Jews?

Back in my office, Sahi pulled some books from my shelf to take home: “The Case for Israel,” by Alan Dershowitz, and Walter Lacquer’s “A History of Zionism.”

“I want to read the other side,” Sahi said. “We only get one side.”

Of course, all this took place as the national debate raged over the building of an Islamic community center two blocks from the site of Ground Zero. Back in Pakistan, Sahi said, people were following the debate closely, certain that it was evidence of America’s hostility to Islam. Sure, there are Americans who revel in their ignorance and hatred of Islam. But having been at PakDayLA, and having been welcomed on Ramadan at the vibrant, diverse Islamic Center of Southern California, both men now knew the truth is more complicated.

At the Press Club event, I asked Esmat if the Internet could help break down some of the barriers erected by propaganda and prejudice.

“Absolutely,” Esmat answered. “When there is no democracy offline, you can have democracy online.”

That evening, after the Pearl Fellows left, I friended them on Facebook. Next, I’ll Facebook their friends. For now, in a world with too few Pearl Fellows and too little cross-cultural contact, maybe the virtual world is the best place for us to get real. What the Internet needs is a thousand places where Muslims and Jews can share their interests and lives in a brainwash-free zone.

That’s what I would create — if only I controlled the media.