During Yom Kippur, we Jews recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a prayer in which we ask G_d to inscribe us in the Book of Life for the coming year. This prayer will take on special significance for my husband Larry and me as we look back on our experiences with our first Florida hurricane.
The National Hurricane Center had been tracking Hurricane Irma since late August. Reports of its potential destructive path through the Caribbean and Florida were headline news by Labor Day. Despite the warnings, Larry and I decided to go ahead with our planned trip to visit an elderly aunt in Myrtle Beach. On Tuesday, September 5, we drove to St. Augustine, Florida, for a day of touring before driving the rest of the way to South Carolina. We were confident that we had plenty of time to return home by Friday to prepare for Irma’s predicted landfall that weekend.
That confidence quickly faded. News of the devastation in the Caribbean from Irma was being updated hourly. On the streets, fellow tourists and residents, some who had just recently moved back into homes that had been damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, were on their cell phone making evacuation plans. We filled our car with gas moments before the pumps ran dry. We stopped at the supermarket for some basics, only to find that the bread and water aisles were picked clean. Continuing north was out of the question. We drove back home the next morning.
By that time, Larry and I were being bombarded with phone calls, texts, emails, and Facebook posts from worried family and friends. Were we okay? Were we going to evacuate? We assured them that we were fine, but we were staying put. Our homes were built to withstand hurricane winds and rain, and Central Florida was not subject to storm surges. Furthermore, we were not in the path of the storm. We were more concerned about our family and friends who lived and/or owned homes on the coasts of Florida. Which coast? As of Saturday, meteorologists were still trying to determine where the monster storm would make landfall.
So we, like the millions of other Floridians, completed all the necessary preparations. We stocked up on water, canned goods, toilet paper and wine-lots of wine. We filled both cars with gas. We brought everything from our lanai and in our yard into our house and garage. We pulled out our emergency crank radio, candles and matches, flashlights and batteries. We filled our bathtubs and large pots with water and our freezer with bags of ice. We prepared a “safe room” in a walk-in closet in case of extreme winds or tornadoes. We checked in with neighbors to make sure they were ready. And we watched the “spaghetti models” on The Weather Channel for hours. Stupefacente! (Amazing in Italian)
Speaking of amazing, in between all these preparations, Larry and I were still living our lives—the calm before the storm. We went to the movies, celebrated our anniversary with dinner and champagne, took long walks around the neighborhood, and even went to a Pre-Hurricane Irma party on Saturday night.
On Sunday, we hunkered down and waited for Irma’s expected landfall on—we were told—Florida’s west coast. Winds began to pick up outside our windows in the afternoon, followed by several hours of torrential rains and strong winds. Around midnight, just when we thought the worst was over, The Weather Channel announced that Irma was changing course. She was veering farther east and going over Polk County—sixty miles from our house. The next two hours were terrifying—at least for me. Larry had gone to sleep before the warning was issued. By two a.m., with wind gusts reaching between 74 and 100 miles per hour, I woke Larry and begged him to join me in our safe room. Larry refused, so I spent the next hour huddled in the closet with my laptop while Larry snored ten feet away. Once the winds calmed down, I joined Larry in our now safe bed.
By late the next morning, the weather had improved enough for us to venture outside. Yes! Our house was intact. Outside of a few missing shingles and some small downed trees, it appeared that our entire community had made it through the hurricane without serious damage. We never lost power or water. We had survived Irma! We even saved a catfish that was flopping in the gutter at the end of our driveway by tossing it back into the lake.
Our relief was short-lived. We quickly learned of the extent of destruction outside our community. Millions of people across Florida were without power and water. Homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. In Polk County alone, eighty percent were without power.
In the week that followed Irma, Larry and I have questioned how such different situations could exist only a few hours or even blocks apart. Disney World and Universal opened for business as usual on Tuesday while people who lived on the Florida Keys could not even get back to their homes to assess the damage until Sunday. Residents of our community were playing mah jongg, watching movies, and doing yoga while friends in Naples and Boca Raton were dealing with gas shortages, mold, extreme heat, and sewage back-up. A member of our neighborhood blog wrote a post complaining about their recyclables not being picked up when less than a mile away residents near our community were waiting in long lines for water and FEMA packages.
Fortunately, most members of our community, as many others across the state, pitched in to help. Many opened up their homes to friends and family until the victims could return to their homes. A group is collecting food, water, and money to aid people who work in our community but live in affected areas. Many are contributing to organizations such as the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and the Jewish Federation of Florida.
Who by water, and who by fire? We were spared from serious consequences, but others weren’t. Now it is our responsibility as Jews, as human beings, to help others through tzedakah, through charity—to relieve the burden of the thousands of others who were not so fortunate.