By Faygie Levy Holt
Jewish communities along the west coast of Florida from Naples to Tampa Bay scrambled to make emergency preparations – and in many cases last-minute evacuations – Sunday morning as Irma smashed into the Florida Keys after re-strengthening to a Category 4 hurricane. It had veering north-westward, unexpectedly taking direct aim at western half of the Florida peninsula after leaving behind a wake of death and devastation in the Caribbean.
When National Hurricane Service forecasts were revised and government officials began to issue new evacuation orders, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in southwest Florida took to the phones and social media before and after the Jewish Sabbath, even as they themselves were evacuating, to provide information and offers of assistance to their communities.
Some emissaries posted about the availability of supplies like plywood or generators in local stores, while others urged everyone to come together in a “virtual heartfelt prayer.” At least one posted for help evacuating an elderly woman with dementia who was in the storm’s path.
Virtually all forecasts had predicted the direct track of the storm to follow Florida’s east coast from Miami northward, and residents, short on food and fuel, had been escaping since the middle of last week. However, because the storm is wider than the Florida peninsula, residents in all parts of the state were paying attention.
“The storm is so big that everyone was told to prepare in the beginning of the week,” says Chanie Bukiet, co-director of Chabad of Bradenton with her husband, Mendy. While some in their community – which is located between Sarasota to the south and Tampa to the north – have left, others who are not in mandatory evacuation zone have decided to stay put. “Some did not want to ride it out and went to family or friends in Atlanta, North Carolina and elsewhere,” she says. “We are in touch with most of them just to know where they are, so that we can check up on them after, encourage and give support.”
“We were going to have impacts regardless; we were always in the [hurricane prediction] cone. We as well as other shluchim did some more prep after Shabbos as well. Some were shuttering up after Shabbos.”
Though not in a mandatory evacuation zone, “Our home is shuttered up, baruch Hashem and the Torahs are in safe place,” she says. They even opened their Chabad House for Shabbat-morning services, though did not have a quorum of ten men.