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Hurricane Florence's fury lashes Carolinas, Jewish communities prepare

The coasts of North and South Carolina are braced for a catastrophic storm surge as Florence, a Category 2 hurricane, comes ashore.
By Michael Wilner

On North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a strip of barrier islands known for their pristine beaches, a tiny Jewish community gathers annually in a rustic Unitarian church to celebrate Judaism’s High Holy days with wild horses in view outside its stained glass windows.

This year will be different.

With Yom Kippur coming, Hurricane Florence is barreling down on the Outer Banks. NC Emergency Management has reported power outages hours before the Florence is set to make landfall.

“Being so small, we really have no formal responses to something as significant as Florence,” said George Lurie, lay leader for the Outer Banks’ organized Jewish community. “We have responded to individual crises by offering money to those in need.”

The coasts of North and South Carolina are braced for a catastrophic storm surge as Florence, a Category 2 hurricane, comes ashore. While the category of the storm refers to its wind speed – one indication of the level of damage the storm can cause – experts warn the rain and surge will cause devastating flooding across the region, pushing water well inland.

While some 30,000 Jews live in North Carolina, where Hurricane Florence is expected to land, most of them live in the state’s largest cities, clustered inland well away from the coast. They too are preparing for devastating flooding.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) administrator Brock Long said storm surges may bring catastrophic flooding to inland areas. He said “feet of rain not inches” would drench the Carolinas and Virginia.

“We’ve mobilized as a community, which is a great thing,” said Karen Savel, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary, which represents over half of North Carolina’s Jewish community. The JCC there has received calls from the Jewish Federations of North America and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to prepare to serve as a staging center for disaster relief.

Savel spent Thursday in crisis mode, preparing emergency aid at the JCC. The community has set up an online system to register volunteers.

“We began sandbagging last night,” Savel said. We’ve been coordinating with the temples and the synagogues. The main thing is to keep the lines of communication open to make sure people don’t feel alone and afraid.”

South Carolina’s 14,000 Jews are also girding for a natural disaster. Rabbi Brad Bloom of Hilton Head Island said congregants were speaking to him as late as Thursday as to whether to evacuate. His community is not in a mandatory evacuation zone.

“We’re preparing for a serious rainstorm that will occur – maybe 2-4 inches,” Bloom said. “So when it comes to Yom Kippur services, we are prepared to host them Tuesday night at our synagogue. And if for some reason we can’t get into our facility, the Unitarian church has offered their facility.”

“I don’t think we’re experiencing the kind of alarm that people around the country think we should have, at least at this part of the state,” Bloom added. “But the schools are closed, and that’s always significant. This is the third year in a row that we’ve had a hurricane – so I think we’re contending with an attitude of, ‘Do we really have to do this again?’”

The Last Jewish Presence in the Ghost Town That Was Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Even though the weather is dry and the winds are breezing at a gentle 17 mph, Rabbi Eli Reyder reports that Myrtle Beach is quickly becoming a ghost town. “We are helping people find places to go, especially the elderly and the infirm who don’t have an easy time picking up and roughing it in a motel a few hundred miles from home,” says Reyder, who, together with his wife, Sara, directs activities for Chabad of Myrtle Beach in Carolina Forest, only 5 miles from the coast but just outside of the mandatory evacuation zone. Chabad of Myrtle Beach is presumed to be the only Jewish institution that has remained open as of Thursday reported Chabad.org. Chabad rabbis and volunteers have been helping people stock up with food, water, and other essentials, and assisting them in boarding up homes in advance of what promises to be a devastating storm of historic proportions. Despite the mandatory evacuation orders, Reyder says that there are residents who have chosen to stay, including some elderly.
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