Hurricane Sally soaks coast, alters Rosh Hashanah plans

Bringing the Chanukiah indoors at Chabad of Pensacola as Hurricane Sally approaches

Sixteen years to the day after Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida, Hurricane Sally slowly made her way ashore in Orange Beach on Sept. 16, bringing flooding and a lot of wind to the same areas.

The storm, with sustained winds of around 100 miles per hour, was a category 2 storm, but because it moved slowly, the winds persisted for hours, along with torrential rain that caused massive flooding, such as in downtown Pensacola.

Pensacola had over 24 inches of rain and its third-highest storm surge, at over 5 feet. Orange Beach had 30 inches of rain, and Mobile had 5 inches.

The Jewish institutions in the region had little damage, but as the storm came ashore less than three days before Rosh Hashanah, the already-unique plans had to be altered in many cases. Planned virtual services, due to Covid-19, were more difficult due to power outages and spotty Internet in some areas.

Jerry Gordon, president of B’nai Israel in Pensacola, said they had “easily fixable” damage in the foyer, but no leaks in the sanctuary, hallway and auditorium. With a curfew imposed for three days starting on Sept. 17, and no power at the shul, Gordon said they would not be able to have Rosh Hashanah evening services under their planned protocol.

Temple Beth El, just up the hill from Pensacola’s flooded downtown, did not flood. Rabbi Joel Fleekop said there were some “minor leaks, nothing that can’t be repaired,” but the congregation’s cemetery had significant damage. “Institutionally, that has been our biggest blow,” with many majestic old trees being felled in the storm. A tree service had to go in and make the site safe before damage could be assessed.

Many members “had a lot of damage to their homes” and will be rebuilding for months, Fleekop said. “Some had wind damage, some had flooding, a lot of trees down.”

Another challenge for Beth El will be the damage to Bay Bridge, which connects Gulf Breeze to downtown Pensacola. Many Beth El members, along with the Fleekops, rely on the bridge, which will be out for a couple of months. “In terms of community, that is a big fracture,” Fleekop said, as “people are cut off from each other.” The 15-minute commute is now over an hour.

Last year, a bad wreck shut down the Bay Bridge on the afternoon leading into Rosh Hashanah, causing Fleekop to take a boat across the bay to get to services on time. “It has been a very adventurous 5780.”

Because of widespread power and Internet outages, “it didn’t make sense to do a full service,” even virtually, he said. They did 30-minute miniature services on Facebook and the Beth El website “so people can watch them as they get power.”

The services were done with “partial power” at Beth El, and relying on Fleekop’s phone for Internet access. Several members helped with recording service segments on Sept. 18, and Fleekop said it was inspiring to see “the level and commitment and service” by those who “put the community above their personal needs.”

Not all of the Shanah Tovah bags for Beth El members could be delivered before the storm, and they hoped to have the rest delivered by Yom Kippur.

After the storm, Rabbi Mendel Danow of Chabad of Pensacola said “our distribution center is preparing to help people who need water, food, generators and basic needs. Our volunteers will be helping many with the overwhelming tasks of cleaning and restoration.”

The new Chabad center had parts of the roof blown off, leading to leaks throughout the house. An online campaign was launched to raise the $70,000 it will take to fix the roof and the rest of the house, and provide a temporary place for the Danows to live.

Chabad had planned to hold outdoor Rosh Hashanah services in a new tent, and power was restored during Rosh Hashanah. Before the holiday, they delivered dozens of Rosh Hashanah boxes around the community, despite the lack of power.

In Mobile, Springhill Avenue Temple — which was damaged in a 2012 tornado — did not have significant damage by Sally, but according to Larry Miller, who tends the congregation’s garden, the figs, pomegranates and pears blew away.

Because of power outages, Rosh Hashanah services were delayed until Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. and Sept. 22 at 10 a.m. on Zoom. Rabbi Natan Trief came in from Atlanta to do the online service at the congregation’s sanctuary, though congregants were not attending in person.

Ahavas Chesed in Mobile held its online services, though they had “a power sputter in rehearsal damaging the new audio system and streaming computer.”

At Chabad of Mobile, they were grateful for “the tree that did not fall on our house” and were preparing for a Rosh Hashanah dinner for just the four of them, without electricity, but still holding in-person outdoor services over the weekend.

In Panama City, which was hard-hit by Hurricane Michael in October 2018, Robert Goetz reported that B’nai Israel had no visible damage and the Torahs were secure. There was some flooding in the parking lot.

Similarly, there was no damage reported at Beth Shalom in Fort Walton Beach.

(Updated throughout on Sept. 24)