Jews Hunker Down As Irma Rips Swath Across Florida
Hurricane Irma lashed at both coasts of Florida, cutting power to nearly 6 million people and causing widespread damage — even though some experts said the state may have dodged the worst-case scenario.
In the Miami area, home to one of the United States’ largest Jewish populations, water began flooding the streets in the morning. By noon, the Shul of Downton Miami, affiliated with the Chabad movement, was “already under water,” the Chabad-tied news website COLLive reported.
The leader of that synagogue, Rabbi Chaim Lipsker, told Newsweek before the storm that about half his congregation had evacuated the area, but he and his family would not be doing so.
“We are planning to have a beautiful Shabbat farbrengen here, and then we’ll wait and see,” he said.
By Monday morning, Irma had moved inland through Central Florida and weakened to a Category 1 hurricane.
Experts were hopeful that damage would be less cataclysmic than feared because the storm’s center wobbled at the last minute and tracked over land instead of staying in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, missing the heavily populated Tampa area.
The center did move past Orlando, but its top winds had already diminished from the life-threatening 100-plus mph the storm was packing when it struck the Florida Keys.
Jewish retirement and nursing homes also did not evacuate residents; as the Miami Herald noted, “Logistics aside, hastily moving frail elders, many of whom suffer from dementia, can result in confusion and trauma.”
At Miami Jewish Health Center, the largest long-term care facility in the Southeast, they were planning on greeting the storm with a “hurricane party,” complete with refreshments and a hired piano player.
Administrators told the Herald on Friday that once the storm hit, they would be operating “on lockdown” with a significantly larger staff—so that those employees could use the facilities themselves as shelter during the storm when they weren’t working. Conference and therapy rooms were being converted into makeshift dorm rooms for the staff, complete with beds, food and televisions.
In total, 700 people were sheltered at the center, NBC News reported on Sunday.
“I have two sons who live close, by but I’m safer here than I would be with them,” resident Mildred Lemke, age 89, told NBC. “They have their own problems.”
The fate of Jewish ritual objects was also a concern before the storm; many Torah scrolls and prayer books were destroyed by water damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston two weeks ago, a fate that Florida’s Jewish communities hoped to avoid repeating.
One synagogue, Temple Beth Orr of Coral Springs, had stored their Torahs in a windowless computer server storage room room on the second floor of the office building where a past president of the temple works.
Each of the scrolls was wrapped in a tallit, and then in plastic shrink wrap.
“It’s built like a bunker,” past president Steve Feinstein told the Herald on Friday. “Concrete walls, air control.”
He brought the scrolls to his office with his 15-year-old son. “It was an important mitzvah that he and I were able to share together,” he said. “A powerful moment.”