A British Jewish woman, who has been living in Florida for 11 years, has described the panic and anxiety surrounding the exodus sparked by the expected arrival of Hurricane Irma over the weekend.
Melanie Russell, originally from Radlett in Hertfordshire, lives in Longboat Key, Sarasota, on the western coast of Florida. Heeding warnings that the hurricane, was heading towards the state , Mrs Russell, her husband Stephen and daughters Georgia, 15, and Amelia, 18, packed their valuables on Friday, locked up their home and set off to find a refuge 500 miles away in Atlanta, Georgia.
Speaking to the JC on Friday afternoon, she said: “At first everyone was calm, hoping that the hurricane would turn east, but it hasn’t. It’s huge. Wherever you are in Florida it’s a big deal.”
The Russells left their home at midnight on Thursday and drove throughout the night. They were three hours from Atlanta when the JC contacted them.
Mrs Russell, who is a real estate agent, said the family had been reluctant to leave and were worried about the damage the hurricane would cause to their home.
"We’ve been very anxious, watching and deciding what to do. We moved everything valuable to the second floor, but the main concern is the water surge, which can be up to six feet. We just don’t know what the situation will be when we get back,” she said.
Rather than risk the journey out of the state, thousands of residents have decided to batten down the hatches, but water and petrol are becoming increasingly scarce.
“Water is like gold dust, it was very hard to find it, bread and milk are sold out,” said Mrs Russell.
Traffic has been at a standstill on many of the main thoroughfares. “One of the main issues is that petrol is running out,” said Mrs Russell. “We were lucky that I’d filled my car up. This is what’s preventing many people from leaving.
"We have a lot of friends in Miami, a lot of have left, some are just boarding up and staying. One of our friends has businesses and warehouses full of stock, so they have to be there.
"We’ve got our passports and documents, jewellery and wine - that’s very important."
Around 655,000 Jews live in Florida. The Jewish Community Services of South Florida, which serves some half a million Jewish residents, has been calling vulnerable residents, many of them pensioners, to ensure they have adequate supplies of food and water and encouraging them to leave for more secure, government-run centres.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a prominent Charedi rabbi, has stated that Jews may travel on Shabbat to escape the catagory five hurricane, one of the largest ever to hit the region. Wind speeds of 185mph were recorded on Thursday, according to the US National Hurricane Centre.
More than 100,000 residents have been given mandatory evacuation alerts g, and more than a million people ordered to leave their homes along coastal areas, mostly from the densely populated Miami-Dade County.
Governor Rick Scott warned that all Floridians should be ready to evacuate, if necessary: a total of 20 million people
Jewish communities in Georgia are getting ready to receive those who are fleeing the hurricane. The Beth Tefillah congregation, in the city of Sandy Springs have been stocking up on food to provide kosher meals and organising places to stay, including asking people to open up their homes. “Who are we if we’re not there when people need us?” said Beth Tefillah rabbi, Isser New.
Hurricane Irma has already wreaked havoc on Caribbean islands, including Antigua and Barbuda, where a two-year-old was killed. Half of Barbuda’s 1,800 residents have been left homeless and 90 per cent of its buildings have been damaged. Four deaths have been reported in Puerto Rico and the storm has also hit Haiti and the British and US Virgin Islands. A total of 18 people have been confirmed as dead.