With the clean-up from Hurricane Dolly continuing apace, the South Texas Jewish summer camp that was forced from their island home by the approaching storm has not yet returned to its tropical paradise. But rather than close up shop, the Chabad-Lubavitch run Camp Gan Israel of South Padre Island is continuing with its hastily executed road trip across the Lone Star State.

For the some 40 campers and their parents, what camp director Rabbi Asher Hecht and his staff did is nothing short of taking lemons and making lemonade.

“I couldn’t be happier,” revealed Maureen Blackthorne of San Antonio, who has two sons enrolled in the summer program, which ends this weekend. “The easiest thing would have been to just call the camp off, but they made a good situation out of a bad situation.

“It’s a valuable lesson for the kids,” continued Blackthorne. “There are things that you can do to overcome adversity.”

When Hecht led the camp from their home base early last week, he – along with most of the island population – was expecting Dolly, then a tropical storm, to hit Texas’ Gulf Coast as a low Category 1 storm. But after stalling and strengthening shortly before its July 23 landfall, Dolly slammed into South Padre Island head-on. Subsequent flooding inundated miles and miles of inland Texas.

“Right now, we’re in Austin,” Hecht said on Tuesday, adding that he originally thought that they would return just two days after leaving. “We were in S. Antonio for two days.”

Since leaving the coast, the camp has visited the Sea World amusement park – it provided free tickets – the State Capitol complex in Austin, Lake Travis, an indoor gym to play basketball, the Alamo, an ice skating rink and other venues. They expect to return to Padre tomorrow for their concluding Shabbat.

“Our plan was to work very hard to make sure these kids’ summer is not interrupted,” said Hecht, “and that they have a good time.”

Always On the Go

It’s not South Padre Island, but a teenager from Camp Gan Israel still gets to enjoy water-skiing on Lake Travis.
It’s not South Padre Island, but a teenager from Camp Gan Israel still gets to enjoy water-skiing on Lake Travis.

According to Johnny Mashaal, 15, from Montreal, Canada, the plan worked.

“It’s been nice,” he said. “We got to see different places. It was definitely a good idea” to go on a road trip.

“Judging by the pictures posted on the camp’s Web site, the boys are having a great time,” said Blackthorne. “Granted, we wanted them to experience all of the water activities that Padre has to offer, but I definitely believe the best was made out of bad situation.”

As of midweek, recovery efforts in Padre were finally producing results after days of residents having to boil water in order to drink it. According to the municipality, more than 75 percent of the island now has electricity service and the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge linking the island to the mainland is open once again.

“We welcome our tourists back to South Padre Island, but we ask you to pardon our dust,” said Mayor Robert N. Pinkerton, Jr. “Our warm, sandy beaches are open, and the weather’s fantastic.”

Between July 22 and 24, Dolly dumped upwards of 18 inches of rain in areas near the coast, a National Weather Service report concluded, while at least eight inches fell across most of Texas’ three southern-most counties. It was the first storm since 1999’s Hurricane Bret to strike Texas’ southern barrier islands.

Hecht said that the hurricane cost the camp thousands of dollars in lost food. The fate of the camp’s sports equipment remains unknown.

“The reality is that we persevered in the face of tremendous difficulties,” said Hecht, who was still tallying up losses and increased costs that could exceed $30,000. “The hurricane did not interrupt our programs. We restructured, kept moving, and the kids are smiling and having a great time.”