Thousands of residents of Southwest Florida remained trapped in their flooded homes and 2.6 million people throughout the state were still without power more than 24 hours after Hurricane Ian made landfall near Fort Myers. It was one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to strike the United States and has left unprecedented devastation in its wake.

At daybreak on Thursday, Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples sent a message to his community that Chabad was coordinating a volunteer medical rescue team together with helicopters from Hatzalah Air. “If you need food, water, medical attention or evacuation, please let us know. We’re here for you,” he wrote. “While we pray for everyone’s safety and well-being, we now need to move ahead and join in G‑d’s work. Our community will need to look out for each other and come together to get through this—and I know we will, we always do.”

Overnight, more than 50 people took shelter at Chabad-Lubavitch of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers. “We are built at an elevation, so we were able to keep so many safe overnight and didn’t experience flooding,” Rabbi Yitzchak Minkowitz told Chabad.org. “We lost power and had no running water, but we made it through the storm. In the morning, once the water receded, everyone went home, and sadly, most found their homes flooded.”

Across Southwest Florida, volunteer rescue teams are working with Chabad to provide medical attention and emergency evacuations, often by boat. Minkowitz described people’s appreciation, emphasizing that “they’re just so grateful that these volunteers have stopped everything and came all the way to help them. Just moments ago, our team rescued a man who was trapped in his flooded home; he couldn’t understand why anyone would drop everything to come help him.”

Streets and houses in Fort Myers, Fla., near Chabad of Southwest Florida on the morning after the hurricane.
Streets and houses in Fort Myers, Fla., near Chabad of Southwest Florida on the morning after the hurricane.

Going Door-to-Door to Offer Assistance

Many residents lost cell phone service as well as electricity, leaving them struggling to ask for help. Chabad emissaries, together with volunteer teams, have been going door to door, checking in on community members and neighbors.

“We are lucky to be alive!” Zaklos’s neighbors told him. They pointed to a huge tree that had fallen on their car, narrowly missing their home. The neighbors stood and chatted for a few moments and noted how important it was, amid the chaos, to appreciate the blessings.

Further down the road, Rabbi Zaklos met Don, who was cheerfully cleaning up the mess of branches around the road and his home. As they discussed the community effort, Don paused to say, “I feel G‑d’s presence right here.”

“That’s absolutely what it is,” commented Zaklos. “When we unite and come together amidst the devastation, that’s when we feel G‑d’s presence.”

While counting their blessings, some were also left emotionally distraught by the damage done to their homes and belongings, as well as their current difficult living conditions. In many locations, the Chabad emissaries and volunteers find themselves providing not only physical rescues but emotional support, too. “So many are just happy to know that people care and will come to help,” one said.

Chabad pledges to help the Fort Myers community rebuild.
Chabad pledges to help the Fort Myers community rebuild.

Barbecues and Shabbat Meal Deliveries

Both Chabad of Naples and Chabad of Fort Myers will be hosting large barbecues tonight to feed the many locals who are out of electricity, food and water. Zaklos noted that it will also be a time to come together to support and encourage each other as a community: “We might not have power, but we have each other.”

On Friday, teams of volunteers will be delivering hundreds of Shabbat meals, sponsored by Chabad of Boca Raton, to anyone in need.

Aside from the barbecue and Shabbat-meal delivery, Minkowitz is working on bringing food, water and basic necessities to the community. “One mother just needed water to prepare formula for her baby. People are missing the very basics,” he reported.

In Fort Myers, many locals were caught by surprise. Initially, forecasts predicted that they would only be hit lightly by Hurricane Ian. On Rosh Hashanah, the storm took a turn, and the Jewish community was left with no time to prepare. Minkowitz is now running an emergency fundraiser to cover costs of purchasing food, water, rescue equipment and generators. He said that he already has a long list of locals to deliver to—a list that’s growing.

“Now is when the real work starts,” said the rabbi. “We need to give people a place to sleep, something to eat and help them get their houses back into living condition. Let’s hope and pray that we do this all together, and G‑d willing, we will succeed in making Fort Myers beautiful once again.”

Donations to Chabad of Southwest Florida relief efforts can be made here.

Donations to Chabad of Naples relief efforts can be made here.