NEW YORK — As Hurricane Dorian approaches the Florida coast, communities in the storm’s path are bracing for what the National Hurricane Center describes as a “life-threatening situation,” with Jewish groups preparing to provide assistance and relief to those affected.
Dorian struck the northern Bahamas as a catastrophic Category 5 storm on Sunday, its record wind speeds ripping off roofs, overturning cars and tearing down power lines as hundreds hunkered down in schools, churches and shelters. The storm killed at least five people, according to Bahamian authorities.
The National Hurricane Center said Tuesday that Dorian will “move dangerously close to the Florida east coast” late Tuesday through Wednesday evening, then up the coast to North Carolina by late Thursday. The authorities are warning that even if the core does not make U.S. landfall, the potent storm will likely hammer the coast with powerful winds and heavy surf.
Communities in the path of the hurricane have been preparing over the past few days, including in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. Over half a million Jews live in South Florida and areas such as Palm Beach, Florida.
Daniela Gould, a mother of two young girls, has been living in Miami for the past year with her family, but Dorian will be her first actual hurricane experience. “It’s been a bit hectic,” Gould tells Haaretz, “mainly because everyone [else] has past experiences.”
“Last week, since it was officially announced, people were on a stakeout for food and water,” she recounts. “Thursday, we went to four different supermarkets for food and water, and they only allowed four 4-gallon [15-liter] waters per family.”
Gould and her husband went to at least four different supermarkets and managed to stock up on 15 water containers and 200 individual water bottles, which they then shared with friends.
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“They also told us we have to fill up the tubs in case the toilets don’t work,” she adds.
Power outages are another concern. Gould lives on the 40th floor of a high-rise and knows that if the electricity gets cut, the elevators won’t work and she won’t be able to go outside.
“Not knowing where it’s going to hit is the scariest,” she admits.
Braving the storm
David Kaplan is executive director of the Jewish disaster response organization NECHAMA, which has spent recent days preparing for Dorian’s aftermath. “We’re anticipating it to be bad,” he tells Haaretz. “For now, we’re going to sit back and wait. It really depends on if Dorian makes landfall in Florida, if it makes landfall in the Carolinas, or in Georgia.”
The organization, founded in 1993, has dispatched volunteers and equipment to Atlanta, Georgia, where they will wait until they can step in.
“Generally, we focus on what we consider at-risk communities,” says Kaplan. “Those tend to be low- and lower-income communities, communities that are uninsured or underinsured, communities that are not getting services otherwise. If there are a lot of services going into a community, we don’t tend to go there because they don’t need our help.”
Some 1,500 volunteers work for NECHAMA every year, and the group is entirely funded by private donations. After Hurricane Katrina devastated Florida and Louisiana in 2005, Kaplan says the organization had no choice but to expand and provide nationwide relief.
“We’re going through an unparalleled period in number and severity of disasters right now,” he says. “It’s been intense, and it’s not letting up.”
Once NECHAMA’s volunteers are on the ground, they are instructed to focus on households — Jewish or non-Jewish — with the elderly, disabled or young children. “We’ll wait and see where the storm hits and where the damage is at the end of the day,” explains Kaplan.
Rudy Rochman, 25, who grew up in Miami and is currently there visiting family, tells Haaretz he has been through “a few” hurricanes in his lifetime. “Sometimes it’s nothing, sometimes the power goes out for two weeks,” he says. “A lot of people fly out of state or north of the state, and everyone knows the routine: windows are impact glass or people have shutters.”
In the past few days, Rochman says he has seen businesses close down and buildings secure their windows and doors, as well as placing sandbags around them. Rochman’s family has a generator at their home but has also stocked up on food, water, candles and flashlights.
“After the bad ones, you see trees everywhere and plants and boats from marinas sink,” he recalls. “But within a week to two weeks the city is running again.”
As mandatory evacuation orders are in effect for coastal communities likely to get hit by the storm, many of those forced to leave their homes will make their way to Atlanta, Georgia, as they have during past hurricanes.
Not Gould. “We are staying,” she says, admitting she was frantically “looking everywhere for flights” last Friday, but they were “all booked out. My sister-in-law got on a plane and left with her family.”
Lisa Bronstein, chief human resource officer of Jewish Family and Career Services of Atlanta, says her organization has taken steps to prepare for any assistance the community requires.
“We immediately sent out a communication to our employees to see who would be willing to personally open up their homes for housing for the evacuees,” she says. “It was just very heartwarming to see how many people said ‘I have one bedroom, I have two bedrooms, or I don’t have an extra bedroom but I have two extra couches.’”
“We also have a kosher food pantry that is stocked and we have a whole bunch of employees that are ready to deliver food wherever it’s needed,” Bronstein adds.
JFCS provides close to 15,000 people with about 40 different services ranging from mental health programs to career help, mentoring, help with substance abuse, domestic and many others. It also has a donated emergency assistance fund that may be of some help in the aftermath of Dorian.
Bronstein says that beyond the basic assistance JFCS employees are ready to provide, the clinical team at the organization is also prepared to help evacuees cope with the disaster. “These are rough issues for everybody to deal with, people experience a lot of distress and fear,” she says.
The Greater Miami Jewish Federation, meanwhile, has established an emergency relief fund for those in need.
“One hundred percent of funds donated to Hurricane Dorian relief will be used to provide critically needed aid to those in the Bahamas and other affected areas,” the federation wrote on Facebook Tuesday. “While no one knows the ultimate path of the storm, the extent of the need is already clear.”
Bronstein, who is designated as the contact person for Dorian-related assistance at JFCS, says her own mother lives in South Florida and has refused to leave her home.
“It is absolutely a Jewish need to support each other, especially in times of crisis,” she says. “It’s definitely the Jewish community’s responsibility to take care of each other.”
NECHAMA’s Kaplan says that “basic Jewish values” are at the core of his organization’s activities. “It’s just who we are. It’s always been who we are as a people all the way back to the civil rights movement as a more recent example.”
Although they sometimes “run into Jewish households,” Kaplan adds that most of the organization’s relief efforts take place in non-Jewish communities and alongside non-Jewish groups.
“There has probably never been a more important time for communities to see the Jewish community out there doing this type of work,” says Kaplan. “Any chance we have to bring people together, to work together, to see that we have far more that unites us than divides us, is an important thing.”