Those were the first two words Rabbi Michael Feshbach spoke when reached by phone in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands by WJW on Monday. By then, Hurricane Irma had passed the Caribbean island.
Feshbach, former rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, moved with his family to the Caribbean island last summer to lead The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas. He, his wife and daughter waited out the Category 5 hurricane’s 185-mile-per-hour winds in a closet of their home.
“The most hairy moment was when [the] window in [the] center living area blew out and hurricane force winds entered [the] home,” he wrote on Facebook. “We were in the floor of a closet and water came in there too.”
Hurricane Irma was one of the most powerful storms recorded to have pounded the United States. It hammered the Florida Keys with winds of more than 140 miles per hour when it slammed into the string of islands on Sept. 10 and then followed a path up the state’s Gulf Coast. By Tuesday, the storm had killed seven Floridians. It left more than 6 million there without electricity, destroyed 25 percent of homes in the Florida Keys and left thousands more residents of the state homeless.
Traumatized survivors in the heavily Jewish areas have taken relief in gradually receiving more information about the condition of their homes, families and friends, and are looking ahead to discovering the state of their Jewish institutions a week before the High Holidays.
George Washington University senior Eric Teller’s parents left their Boca Raton, Fla., home ahead of the storm to take refuge in Atlanta. What was typically an eight-hour drive took a day and a half due to the evacuation from the state.
“They went on some back roads to avoid the traffic at first, and once they were on the highway they were going 10 miles an hour,” Teller said.
On Monday, Teller said his parents, in an Atlanta hotel, had gotten word that their home sustained only slight damage.
As Florida residents slowly return to their homes this week, Jewish community professionals there are beginning to take stock of Irma’s damage.
Emilie Socash, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties, said on Monday that she had been evacuated from her home and was planning to return there.
The federation, which serves the Tampa-St. Petersburg region, is located in an area where 70 percent of residents lost electricity, she said. But others had it worse.
“At this point, we are tremendously grateful for the minimal damage that Irma inflicted, although we anticipate that over the next few days we will likely discover emergent facility problems needing urgent attention,” she wrote in an email on Monday. “Before the storm, we established an emergency-response system that we, fortunately, have not had to use.”
The level of concern was higher for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Four of 11 Jewish day schools in the Miami region are located in Miami Beach, which experienced significant flooding and downed trees, said Chief Planning Officer Michelle Labgold.
Some 21,000 people live in Jewish households in Miami Beach and another 7,000 live in the downtown Miami neighborhood of Brickell, which also experienced major flooding, Labgold said.
“As Miami Beach and other areas were under mandatory evacuation, our agencies helped older adults make plans to evacuate and in some cases provided transportation,” she said.
Labgold said on Monday she was not aware of any major structural damage to Jewish institutions, but federation officials will not know the extent of the storm’s effects until later in the week.
Bethesda resident Diane Lipson Schilit, who grew up in the Miami area and spends the winter months in a condo on the barrier island of Key Biscayne, said she received a text message alert on Sept. 7 that the island was under mandatory evacuation and that no emergency personnel were there. By Monday, she had received a text alert with a more positive message.
“It said that everything is OK,” she said. “We hope to have the club open by Wednesday. And someone in my building said there’s electricity — and it’s amazing that there’s very little damage.”
Schilit said because the storm took a westerly path and her condo is on the third floor, she is not terribly worried about major damage in her unit.
“I’ll probably have to throw out everything that was in my refrigerator because the electricity was out for a few days,” she said. “And I hope I don’t have water damage in my apartment. But it’s not like what we thought would happen. Thank God, material possessions can always be replaced.”
Feshbach managed to reach his synagogue on Sept. 8. He saw that the Torah scrolls, which had been wrapped in plastic for protection, were intact. The synagogue, which is the oldest in continuous use in an American territory, has held a Shabbat service every weekend since the 1790s according to the Forward. And despite the damage to the island, lack of electricity and limited ability to communicate, Feshbach was determined to maintain the tradition.
Feshbach began calling congregants, and the synagogue had a minyan that evening and prayed for 15 minutes.
“They’ve never missed a Shabbat,” he said. “That’s why it was important for me to do that service at 5:30 on Friday.”
By Monday, Feshbach and his family had relocated to a residence with a working generator and running water that lasts a few hours. He wrote on Facebook that electricity is not expected to be restored for months. And with the High Holidays around the corner, he is trying to straighten out his priorities.
“Certainly no written sermons this year,” he wrote on Facebook. “But trying to think creatively.”