When Hurricane Irma bashed the island of St. Martin around 4 a.m. on Wednesday, Rabbi Moishe and Sara Chanowitz, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of S. Maarten/S. Martin, and their five children, were hunkering down in their partially built Chabad center, located on the Dutch side of the dual-nationality island.
“I got some advice from locals who were here during the hurricane of ’95, and they said this was worse. They told me my house would be completely blown out, and we should go to the Chabad House,” says the rabbi.
His new center is a solid facility, built with concrete into the side of a small mountain. Although they would have to worry about the possibility of water coming in, the 185 mph winds bearing down on them was the more dangerous threat. Chanowitz boarded up the center’s glass front door and some windows, and threw mattresses on the floor. When the storm hit, they were waiting for it.
“The winds were absolutely terrifying,” Chanowitz tells Chabad.org. “You could hear it; you feel the pressure in your ears. I thought the windows would explode at any moment.”
It was only about an hour in, somewhere around 5 a.m., when the boards on the front door started to pop off and fly away. Wind was shrieking through whatever opening it could find. “I could see the storm’s shadow,” he recalls.
Chanowitz and his wife decided to relocate their family into the mikvah area, even further into the center of the building and completely windowless. The Chanowitzes have lived in St. Martin for eight years, and construction of the mikvah was one of their prides. While it’s not finished, the shell is in place, and the ritual bath is kosher for use. As they moved their children there, more boards blew off their front door.
“The moment we got our last child into the mikvah area,” says the rabbi, “the front door of the Chabad House flew clean off. It was terrifying.”
The mikvah has no windows, but it does have a door, which Chanowitz blocked by dragging a commercial freezer in front of it.
“We have hurricane-proof doors and windows; it’s not like we weren’t prepared,” he says, “but this was off the charts. The mikvah saved us.”
‘Waited for It to End’
Hurricane Irma pounded St. Martin until 10 in the morning, devastating the island. All power went out, taking with it Internet access and cell-phone towers. Aside from pictures of the destruction making it to social media, little was known throughout the day of St. Martin’s fate, including that of the Chanowitz family.
It was only late afternoon—hours after the storm had left the island—that Chanowitz was able to make contact with worried family and friends. One WhatsApp voice message he sent describes his family’s survival as “miraculous.” It was quickly forwarded through an ever-widening circle of friends in the Jewish community, who were relieved to hear good news from the tiny island.
Throughout the day, the couple realized that people were worried, but there was little they could do. “We just sat there,” states the rabbi, “and waited for it to end.”
The rabbi ventured out a little after 10 a.m., as did hundreds of others in the neighborhood around his center. Folks checked up on each other to see if everyone was OK and then immediately went about beginning the cleanup.
Communication to the island—and even on the island itself—remains sporadic, and Chanowitz has not yet been able to contact all members of his local community. Those he has spoken to have suffered tremendous losses.
“Roofs are torn off. The interiors of people’s homes have been swept away. A friend of ours who lives in a very nice, very secure building down the street from the Chabad House, his whole house was blown out,” describes the rabbi. “He survived because he had a closet he could hide in.”
Chabad is on the Dutch side of the island; the other half is governed by France. AFP quoted Guadalupe prefect Eric Maire saying that the French side of the island has been 95 percent destroyed, and the death toll now stands at six. “This is not the final toll,” Maire told the press. “Far from it. We sadly risk further discoveries.”
Power Out, Internet Down
The Chanowitzs’ own home suffered damage and is still without power, as is most of the island. Word is that it might be weeks before power is restored, and so generators are needed. Hotels have them, as does the Chabad center—a small one the rabbi says will last a few days.
Meanwhile, the island’s airport has been destroyed, so no one is going anywhere. Aside from the local Jewish community and tourists, Chanowitz works with Jewish medical students at American University of the Caribbean, where classes were supposed to begin on Sept. 7. Chanowitz spent some of the early part of the week reaching out to new Jewish students who were planning to attend a welcoming Shabbat this week; instead, he warned them to leave their apartments and head to the university campus shelter.
When Chanowitz came out of his family’s mikvah-turned-shelter, the first thing he saw was a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—which had fallen off the wall and lay not far from the mikvah door. Damage had reached until that picture, but then receded after it, which was where the Chanowitzes were holed up. The rabbis sees that as a sign of blessing and protection—one he will take with him on the long path ahead.
“I’m looking out onto flipped cars and darkness,” Chanowitz says over the phone (he has service in one tiny area of his center, where he and his family will continue living for an indefinite amount of time.) “The damage is unimaginable. But we’re going to rebuild.”
Click here to donate to Chabad of St. Maarten/St. Martin hurricane relief fund