By Jadrian Klinger
The Jewish Community Center Rebuilds After 2011 Flood
In early September 2011, Tropical Storm Lee formed in the Gulf of Mexico and made its way inland. The remnants of the storm were felt in the South and along the East Coast, reaching up into New York and Pennsylvania. According to the National Weather Service, more than 13 inches of rain dropped on Harrisburg and the surrounding midstate region, causing massive flooding. The mighty Susquehanna River crested at more than 25 feet. The devastation left behind by the muddy receding flood waters was felt immediately across Central Pa. Ruined homes and businesses required rebuilding as well as enormous efforts of cleaning and water pumping.
But, for many who suffered from the flood damage, friends, relatives and neighbors banded together to help regain what was lost. One such example of community coming together to help was the cleaning, repairing, rebuilding, renovating and re-opening of The Jewish Community Center (JCC) on N. Front Street in Harrisburg.
In some ways, parts of the JCC are still not exactly how they were prior to the 2011 flood, but in many other ways, they are better than ever.
Now more than two years removed from Tropical Storm Lee, JCC leaders take a look back on that time to tell the story of how the center survived, how the community came together and how the JCC is now restored and improved.
By Tuesday of that first full week of September, those closest to the impending flood situation at the JCC knew things were not looking good, but the community responded to an urgent request for help.
“There was a call out to volunteers to help the JCC bring up all of the items from the basement because they were expecting the river to get to about 30 to 31 feet, which would have gotten to the second floor,” recalls Stuart Gasner, director of development, who was working at the Silver Academy (a pluralistic Jewish day school housed at the JCC) when the storm caused the Susquehanna to overflow its banks in 2011.
The next day, more than 50 people showed up to help move what could be saved from the encroaching river waters.
“It was mostly [JCC] members, but not all,” says Terri Travers, JCC sports and fitness director. “It was also people in the community who saw the email [that went out asking for help] or knew friends of someone, and they came to help. The high school boy’s basketball team with the JCC was here moving equipment. There were 3-year-olds helping to carry the little stuff upstairs. There were senior adults here helping to move. It was truly a great representation of every age.”
Andrea Weikert, JCC program director, recalls, “We had assembly lines from our basement up into our auditorium carrying boxes – anything that could possibly be moved, we moved. We were here late that Wednesday, and we came back the following day and moved as much as we could until the police told us we had to leave. So, we just left when we had to.”
The water came, and there was no stopping it.
The following day, several JCC leaders returned to survey the damage despite official safety warnings not to.
“It was absolutely amazing and devastating to see the damage,” describes Travers. “It was already starting to recede a little by then, but you could see it was damp and already smelly, and we had no electricity. At that point, I realized we had to start at square one to figure out how we were going to rebuild everything.”
Gasner also remembers well the first look at the damage to the JCC. “The entire parking lot was full of water and muck. The river was extended to our building. In the basement, there was water about 8 feet high from the floor. You could see it from the window wells. The initial reaction was, ‘How are we going to rebuild?’ It was pretty devastating at the time.”
Weikert relays what she witnessed, “I remember looking down stairwells and just the odor and the things and the toys floating in the mucky waters. And looking down at the racquetball courts and seeing a fish. We really couldn’t do much but wait until the water was pumped out of the building.”
By Sunday, the long process of pumping the fetid flood water had begun.
“A couple days later,” explains Carl Braunegg, JCC CFO, “the insurance adjuster came into the building. ‘This is bad,’ he said. …We had the max [limit] that you can with the federal insurance, and what we lost was well above that.”
Uncertainty about whether or not the JCC could recover from the destruction caused by the flood spread to those working to save the building. Hope, however, was never lost.
“We really didn’t miss a beat,” says Weikert. “We met that weekend, and we had a plan. The people here, they care – members, non-members, kids, people of all ages just came and helped. People were always calling and asking how they could help. We became even stronger than what we already were. We knew we would rebuild, but we didn’t know what it would look like at the time.”
Travers adds, “We believed in the community. We really believe in this place. For many of us, this is our second home, or – depending on the day – our main home. We knew we would figure out a way.”
The first priority for the JCC was to get the early learning center back up and running, which re-opened at a nearby synagogue, missing only one day of service.
“They were there for about 6 or 8 weeks,” says Travers. “Then they moved back to the building. When they got back here, they were on the main floor and used some classrooms up in the Silver Academy.”
As for the fitness side of the JCC, the YMCA stepped up and allowed JCC members to use their pool, and the fitness center operated out of the JCC’s auditorium.
“We had our cardio equipment around the outer part of the auditorium,” Travers describes. “We had our spin bikes in the front so that the classes could go on. We had very bare-bones weight equipment. A committee chairperson brought his bench press from home. That went on for a couple months.”
Slowly the JCC rebuilt itself, service by service, program by program, piece by piece.
“Over the last couple of years with some grant money and insurance money and some donations, our facility has been completely rebuilt. And I would say probably 80 to 90 percent of our facilities are in better condition than they were before,” says Gasner.
Newer fitness equipment replaced what was damaged in the flood, which improved what the JCC now offers, but thought was also given to the possibility of future river disasters.
“We knew what our needs were, and we capitalized on getting the right type of equipment,” notes Travers. “We also looked at things that were able to be moved if a flood happened again and made sure we got things that were more portable. We really tried to figure out ways to better utilize the space we had in fitness. We were able to expand certain flooring to make our fitness center seem a little bit bigger. The other thing that the flood gave us was the opportunity to convert the one racquetball court into a nice group training room. There were some positives that came out of it.”
Another positive sprouting from the damage of the flood came from needing to create relationships with other local organizations, thereby widening and strengthening the community that came through for them when things were the most uncertain.
“We had to ask ourselves some questions. ‘What are we doing here? What is this place all about? What is the community culture here? What’s our role in the lives of families in the community?’” explains Andrea Lieber, president of the Silver Academy. “I think having to answer some of those questions was really important for the JCC. We had to forge partnerships with other community organizations, not just with other Jewish organizations, and I think some really great energy came from that.”
Lieber continues, “The JCC is truly a community center. Everyone is welcome here. I think it caused us to examine what that meant to operate a Jewish community center in a community where Jews are a minority. How do we serve everyone? What’s our unique value added? I think the answer is that this is a family here. Everybody is welcome in the family.”
While the JCC has come a long way since the Susquehanna spilled over its banks in 2011, there is still work to be done and growth to be made.
“We can’t forget what the JCC went through,” says Margie Adelmann, JCC CEO. “People forget because it looks like everything is fine. We’re operating and things are good, but we have a great opportunity to strengthen our foundation. …We are working to make sure we can be safe up to 30 feet, which is really important, in case it floods again. We are also working to increase our membership and increase our capacity. We have the capacity to have more kids in our early learning center and more families at the Silver Academy, and we are still playing catch up from a significant loss of revenue, while still trying to deliver extraordinary programs and services. In order to do that, we need to raise more money.”
Adelmann continues, “There are a lot of people who drive past here on Front Street, and we want you to stop in and see who we are and what we have going on year round inside and out. Everyone is welcome. You can find us on our website or stop in or call us. We are happy to take anybody on a tour. There’s even a free trial membership. The more you learn about us, the more you’ll find.”
The JCC is more than just the organization that houses a learning center for children, or the Silver Academy, or a place to lift weights and run on a treadmill, or even a near flood casualty; it’s a place of community.
“I don’t like the idea that we are defined by a building because we are so much more than a building,” says Lieber. “Even with the challenges, like the flood, this is a tremendous facility that takes an incredible amount of work to maintain and make sure that the daily operations are functioning in a way that is safe and welcoming and friendly and warm. We really can’t take it for granted.”