On the morning of Sunday, September 10, the Israel Rescue Coalition (IRC) and United Hatzalah deployed a team to the Southeastern United States to assist people affected by Hurricane Irma.
Members of Israel’s Search and Rescue Units, as well as medical and psychological first aid responders from United Hatzalah, landed in Atlanta and were stopped there due to severe tornado warnings on Sunday. The team consisted of nine Israeli members who were joined in Georgia by two EMTs from the U.S. side of United Hatzalah, Gavy Friedson and Josh Cerf.
“Our teams assembled data and connected with local teams on the ground in Florida as well as the Israeli consulate, and received regular updates and assessments from the ground,” said Dov Maisel, director of International Operations for the IRC and vice president of UH.
“We aimed to arrive in Florida on Sunday morning, hopefully before the full brunt of the storm hit. Sadly we were delayed, but we made it to the Florida on Monday after helping numerous people in both Atlanta and Savannah on Sunday.
“We’re trying to get out in front of this as much as possible. With resources and volunteers already heavily engaged in Texas when Irma struck hard in Florida, people on the ground there needed as much help as they could get, and we did not hesitate to deploy and assist in any way we could.”
The team stopped in Atlanta due to weather conditions and ended up assisting some 1,500 Irma evacuees who had taken shelter at the Toco Hills Synagogue and in the surrounding community. Team members then departed for Savannah where they assisted in caring for some 90 senior citizens who had taken shelter in a care facility that had lost power. The medical staff of the facility had been unable to arrive due to flooding, but the Israeli team was undeterred.
Team members cared for the residents and guests and provided medical care and assessments as well as psychological first aid by members of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit.
Finally, on Monday evening, the team made it to Miami. There they assessed the situation and decided to divide the group in two. One team would head to Naples, on Florida’s western coast, which was hit hard by the storm. The other team was sent to the Florida Keys to assist in search and rescue operations there. They were among the first teams to make it to the Keys on Tuesday and rescued dozens of people.
In Naples, team members walked into pandemonium. Houses were destroyed and people were without food, water, and electricity. They worked with community centers that were taking in displaced people who had stayed in the city during the hurricane but were forced to evacuate their homes due to a lack of power, water, and food. They joined clean-up efforts and helped feed some 500 people at a local Chabad House after clearing the damage the building had sustained during the hurricane.
The situation was far more dire in the Florida Keys. Key West and the surrounding area had been without water or electricity since Saturday and, despite an evacuation order for the area, many people elected to find shelter in the safety of their own homes. The highway leading to the Keys had flooded and there was no way in or out for those who were trapped there.
A man by the name of John Conrad was visiting the Keys when the hurricane struck. “I’m from Tennessee, and I’ve been trying to make my way back to Fort Lauderdale since Saturday,” he told team members. “I got caught in the hurricane and we had no food or water and no transportation. I decided I was going to make my way back to the mainland somehow, but then you guys came and picked me up. You brought me about a hundred miles today, and that is something I will never forget.”
The team conducted house to house searches for people who stayed and were stranded by Irma.
Gavy Friedson spoke about the devastation the team saw in the Keys. “The entire area was without water, power, food, plumbing, or cell service and most of the homes were severely damaged. It was reported that more than a quarter of all the homes in the Keys had been destroyed. There was a long list of missing people. Luckily, we managed to find [a number of them.]
After four days of intensive work in the hard-hit Keys, the team announced it had helped locate all missing people from the Jewish communities in the areas hit hardest by Irma.
Irma was the IRC’s fourth international mission in three years; members had been dispatched to Nepal following the 2015 earthquake, to Haiti in 2016 following Hurricane Matthew, and most recently in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.