As the terrifying and potentially catastrophic Category 4 Hurricane Ian crashed into Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday afternoon with winds of more than 150 miles per hour and storm surges of 18 feet or more, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries reached out to residents trapped by the storm and began to make preparations to help their communities in the days and weeks to come.

Even before the storm made landfall, hundreds of thousands were without power. For many, there was little or no time to prepare for the storm. When Rosh Hashanah began on Sunday evening, Rabbi Yitzchak Minkowitz of Chabad Southwestern Florida in Fort Myers, Fla., wasn't expecting more than a large storm to hit a few days later. As always done on Shabbat and the High Holidays, the Chabad emissary turned off his phone and other electronic devices for the full 48 hours of Rosh Hashanah.

When only one person showed up Monday morning for the rabbi’s Chassidut class at 9 a.m. before services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, it was apparent that something had changed. He learned that Hurricane Ian had taken a turn for Southwest Florida, and now the locals were bracing for a Category 4 storm nearing Category 5, with a large water surge expected. Several community members trickled into the Chabad House, and soon enough, there was a minyan. As the rain began pouring outside, the community continued with Rosh Hashanah services and a lavish kiddush.

By the time Rosh Hashanah came to a close, a mandatory evacuation had been issued for Fort Myers, and the safe time to leave had already come to a close. The airport, businesses and groceries were all closed as well.

“This came very fast,” said Rabbi Minkowitz. “It was supposed to go northwest, so we weren’t expecting anything serious. On Rosh Hashanah, it turned on us, and we had no time to prepare. Right now, we’re focusing on shelter and acquiring emergency supplies.”

The rabbi quickly contacted other community members who hadn’t been able to evacuate and invited them to shelter in the Chabad Center. The center was built with high elevation and is one of the safer places within the area.

Having been taken by surprise, Minkowitz didn’t have time to purchase food, emergency supplies or a generator. In between calls, the rabbi has been working on locating supplies and donations for the stranded community.

Fort Meyers residents took shelter at the Chabad centers. Their numbers grew throughout the day until roads became impassable due to flooding and high winds.
Fort Meyers residents took shelter at the Chabad centers. Their numbers grew throughout the day until roads became impassable due to flooding and high winds.

Preparing a Location Database

At Chabad of Brandenton and Lakewood Ranch, Rabbi Mendy and Chana Bukiet had expected a large crowd for Rosh Hashanah services and had rented a tent to accommodate. They learned of the storm’s change in direction when the tent owners showed up to take it down on Monday afternoon.

“We’re really grateful to all of our community members who helped us move everything to the inside of the building—the chairs, tables, Torah. Everyone was a huge help.” After a hopeful pause, Rabbi Bukiet added that “we’ll have that tent back up in time for Yom Kippur.”

As soon as Rosh Hashanah ended, the couple got on their phones and called every community member to make sure that they are safe and have what they need. In case of an electricity outage, they will know how to find each person and check if they’re OK.

At Chabad of Naples, Rabbi Fishel and Etti Zaklos have also been preparing a community database. “As soon as Rosh Hashanah came to a close, we kicked into high gear and began calling everyone we know,” explained Rabbi Zaklos. “We teamed friends up, especially the elderly; we made sure that every vulnerable person has a friend nearby who they can stay with or will check in on them. We made connections with the Chief of Police. As soon as the storm is over and it’s safe to venture out, we will have our own HQ and operation center, with volunteers to check on everyone.”

For many, the local Chabad emissaries are the only ones they have to turn to. “Rabbi, I’m watching the news and I’m really getting frightened,” one community member texted Rabbi Zaklos. “I’m really worried about the storm surge, in case G‑d forbid, I’m stuck on the second floor and there’s no communication. Can you make sure someone checks on me?”

Hurricane Ian as it closed in on Florida's Gulf Coast (National Hurricane Center)
Hurricane Ian as it closed in on Florida's Gulf Coast (National Hurricane Center)

Rosh Hashanah, Plan B

In Chabad of St. Petersburg, Florida, Rabbi Alter and Chaya Korf were hosting Rosh Hashanah services in the Museum of Fine Arts with a very full house. “After shofar-blowing services on Monday, we learned that the museum was closing to begin implementing emergency plans,” the couple wrote. “Plan B was hatched, and after kiddush lunch, the Torahs were carried to the Hampton Inn. We are so grateful that the staff helped us relocate!”

On Tuesday, it seemed like St. Petersburg—a peninsula surrounded by water on all sides—was going to be front and center, on the receiving end of devastating effects that haven’t been seen locally in more than 100 years. “The streets were very eerie, empty shops were closed and boarded up. We were nearly forced to leave the hotel, too.”

But Hurricane Ian took a turn inland, and when Rosh Hashanah ended, the community learned that they were no longer expecting the very worst. Still, the storm surge remains a significant concern for the many people living on the coast, and extensive power outages are expected.

“We are preparing to help the community with battery packs, generators and food—whatever they will need while the power is down,” said Korf. “Plus, plans to help anyone stranded in high-level apartments and the elderly.”

Hurricane Ian made landfall at 3:05 p.m. Wednesday on the coastal island of Cayo Costa, about 20 miles west of Fort Myers. “We are requesting for all to please add in Torah, prayer and charity for our safety,” Minkowitz wrote to friends and family. “May we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a great year with health and happiness!”