LETTER FROM SOUTH FLORIDA: Thousands of Seniors Are Left Stranded in the Wake of Wilma

By Neil Reisner, With Reporting by Jennifer Siegel

Published November 04, 2005, issue of November 04, 2005.
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Life in South Florida on the holiday of Simchat Torah last week came down to lines.

Miles-long lines of vehicles waited to purchase gasoline to fuel generators providing the only power to the millions of households blacked out by Hurricane Wilma. Similarly daunting lines of people waited more-or-less patiently at government distribution centers for deliveries of water, ice and ready-to-eat meals. Lines of jubilant worshippers joyously danced with Torah scrolls in darkened synagogues, on streets and in living rooms, determined that whatever Wilma’s mighty winds did to synagogues and sukkas in South Florida, home to the country’s third-largest Jewish community, the storm would not disrupt the end of the High Holiday season.

Hurricane Wilma struck South Florida’s east coast the morning of October 24, the holiday of Hoshana Raba. The storm came from the west with sustained winds of almost 90 mph and gusts well over 115 mph that toppled trees and any sukkahs that had not been taken down, transforming them into unguided missiles. Hitting an unusually broad area, Wilma tore through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where some 630,000 Jews reside. Broward, home to about 275,000 Jewish residents, took the brunt of the damage.

The aftermath left synagogues, schools and Jewish organizations scrambling to get their power back on and to deal with tens of thousands of dollars worth of repairs. But it has been the region’s elderly residents, local experts say, who are facing the direst situation.

While Wilma has not caused the immense structural damage and fatalities unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, many residents in South Florida have been without power for an extended period of time, which is particularly dangerous for the elderly. Without working elevators, thousands have become homebound, living without food and water in hot, dark apartments.

Hospitals and licensed nursing homes are generally designated as critical infrastructure and hence get priority when power goes out. But assisted-living facilities and senior housing developments are not, and many do not have their own back-up generators.

By mid-week, power was restored to about three-quarters of the customers who lost power during Wilma, but nearly 600,000 of the South Florida customers remained without power, according to Florida Power and Light.

Florida has the greatest concentration of elderly citizens in the country, and Broward and Palm Beach counties each have well over 100,000 elderly Jews.

Several Jewish leaders contacted by the Forward said they feared that the scale of the crisis facing this vulnerable population has not been fully understood by people outside the area.

“Somebody that is 89 years old that walks normally with a walker or a cane cannot walk up and down those stairs and get food,” said Baila Gansburg, who is married to the rabbi of the Chabad Lubavitch of Coconut Creek and Pompano Beach. After New Orleans, people don’t think what happened in Florida was devastating, Gansburg said, “because people did not lose their houses.” But what many people don’t realize, she said, is that while “the young” can survive, “the elderly can’t.”

Gansberg, leading a team 50 volunteers, estimates that by the start of the week she had delivered 5,000 kosher meals to needy elderly.

Several of the Jewish family service agencies in the area have also been delivering meals door-to-door, including the Jewish Family Service of South Palm Beach County, which has distributed goods to thousands of people since Wilma hit, according to the organization’s executive director, Jaclynn Faffer.

Less perilous, but more financially daunting, is the situation faced by Jewish institutions in the area.

The storm left the sprawling, five-acre campus of Temple Sinai, a Conservative congregation in the central Broward city of Hollywood, resembling a war zone. The shul lost power for several days and the storm toppled dozens of trees, tore up portions of the roof of the synagogue’s school building and shredded awnings that protect nursery-school children from the blazing South Florida sun.

Dealing with an uncomfortable sanctuary, two-dozen members and half that many children — public schools and many day schools were still not open more than a week after the storm — gathered to celebrate Simchat Torah at the nearby home of the congregation’s rabbi, Randall Konigsburg.

After marching with Torahs for a few circuits around the Konigsburg living room, the worshippers poured onto the residential side street where he lives, certain that traffic would not be a problem — travel remains an issue in a community where thousands of traffic signals dangled unlit from drooping wires, lay on the ground or had simply vanished in the wind.

“There was lots of noise and lots of singing,” said Sinai member Debbie Meline, 43, who works for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. She added, “It was actually a really wonderful example of community.”

Other local congregations made do, or did without services.

Temple Solel, a Reform congregation less than a mile from Konigsburg’s home, lost a good portion of its roof and suffered some water damage to its sanctuary. The congregation canceled services and began assessing damage. Expecting the worst, Rabbi Robert Frazin and the congregation’s executive director, Jerry Taub, began talks with Temple Sinai, quickly making arrangements for the Conservative congregation to host Temple Solel’s 90-student preschool, 260-student Hebrew school and its Friday night services.

But good fortune struck when a congregant, a local homebuilder, sent a crew from Tampa to repair the roof. Power was restored, and the congregation was back in business.

“We would have been in dire need if we didn’t have that,” Taub said.

Chasha Hellinger, who lives in an Orthodox neighborhood in North Miami Beach, spent the end of the holidays figuring out how to cook without electricity for her pharmacist husband Hillel and nine of the couple’s 10 children, aged 2 to 22. She spoke of neighbors with generators stringing long extension cords from house to house, sharing power with those who had none and going to relatives and neighbors to cook holiday meals on gas stoves.

On Simchat Torah, members of the Orthodox synagogue Young Israel of Hollywood — which as of Tuesday was still without power — prayed outside, with the help of a few lights powered by generators.

“People couldn’t go anywhere else, so everybody was much more focused on Simchat Torah,” said Rabbi Edward Davis, who suffered a personal blow from Wilma on the morning of the holiday, when a candle set his house aflame, causing substantial damage. “Baruch Hashem” — Blessed is the Lord — “everyone is fine.”

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