Florida rebuilds after Irma devastation

More than 4 million people were left without power for days


Thousands of Jewish families who evacuated their Florida homes last weekend are assessing the damage caused by Hurricane Irma. 

Before making landfall in the Florida Keys, the hurricane killed 38 people in the Caribbean. Officials says at least 17 storm-related deaths have been reported on the US mainland.

Large swathes of Florida were battered by 120-plus-mph winds for hours on end, with several feet of rain falling on the otherwise unseasonably warm sunshine state. There was considerable flooding in coastal areas and some trees were knocked down, with many buildings also emerging with significant damage. 

Around 4.4 million people were left for days without power across the state, according to the authorities. Thousands were also affected in Georgia, Alabama and North and South Carolina. 

“Right now, we are dealing with an inconvenience," Devorah Wechsler, principal of Bais Yaakov school in Miami, told the New York news site Hamodia. "We don’t have power and we’re trapped inside, we’re trying not to open our refrigerators, and the kids are going crazy, but we really feel that we dodged a bullet.” 

The school was expected to stay closed for several days as many staff and pupils had been evacuated ahead of the storm to Orlando, Atlanta and elsewhere. Secured by hurricane-proof windows, the Wechsler family felt relatively safe at home and even invited a neighbouring family to stay. Mrs Weschler said she was overwhelmed by how the community had come together in the face of adversity.

“There’s a lot of communication…and it has made for the most amazing support system for the people who stayed here,” she said.

Recovery efforts were being spearheaded by the Tampa JCCS and Federation. A message on the organisation’s website read: “Though most reports indicate that Floridians may have dodged a worst-case-scenario, residents and communities are just now beginning to return to assess the damage. We are still in the process of gathering information about specific needs.”

The Federation acts as “a lifeline for those in distress”, so as such, the organisation is now collecting donations and helping to distribute supplies to families in need. 
Many pre-schools in the area remained closed in the region, while some JCCs did their best to return to normal. 

Miami, home to one of America’s biggest Jewish communities, was first hit in the morning. By midday the Shul of Downton Miami, affiliated with Chabad, was “already under water,” according to the website COLLive.

Nevertheless many Jewish retirement homes took the decision not evacuate their residents because of the adverse effect it might have on frail residents. 

A “hurricane party” was planned for the Miami Jewish Health Center, one of the region’s biggest care homes, which operated on lockdown once the storm hit. 
Resident Mildred Lemke, age 89, told NBC: “I have two sons who live close by but I’m safer here than I would be with them. They have their own problems.”

One synagogue, Temple Beth Orr of Coral Springs, stored their Torahs in a windowless computer server storage room on the second floor of an office building. Former shul president Steve Feinstein took the scrolls to the “bunker” with his teenage son. 

He said: “It was an important mitzvah that he and I were able to share together…A powerful moment.”

A spokesman for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation said of the overall situation: “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of those affected by this terrible storm. In times like these, we can depend on Miami’s strong, united Jewish community to care for each other and to do our part to care for all in need. 

“As the utility companies work to restore electrical power and communications services, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation is partnering with the Jewish and general communities to assess the needs of our local residents and institutions, and to mobilize volunteers and other resources where they are needed most.”

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