Today, Hoshana Raba — the seventh day of Sukkos — is the anniversary of the day all the sukkos in North Miami Beach blew away, exactly one year ago.
Three days earlier, the weather reports started talking about a tropical depression called “Wilma” — so far down in the alphabet, so rare to have so many hurricanes in one season. Would this become a hurricane?
The next day, the warnings became a bit more serious. The day after that, one day before she hit, the radio and TV went to all-Wilma, all the time.
Having lived through a number of hurricanes in my neck of the woods — in fact, the eye of Katrina had passed directly over my house, a few weeks earlier! — I knew what to expect. Or thought I did. A lot of wind and rain, some branches on the road, a day or two without electricity. Katrina was only a Category One when it hit us, en route to New Orleans: it meant one day with no lights and no air conditioning.
So I bought ice, and plenty of non-perishable food and drinks. I had enough ice to keep my fridge cold for two days. I stocked up on batteries and flashlights and candles.
Now it was Sunday, less than 24 hours to landfall, the sixth day of Sukkos. The warnings were becoming more insistent. It’s a bad one, get ready, get ready.
All over town the discussion was: take the sukkos down now, or not? Shailos asked and answered. The rabbanim all said: Take them down. A flying sukka is debris, dangerous to people and property. Yet many individuals said, “What kind of emuna does that show? Surely faith in G-d would dictate that we trust in Him and not take down our sukkos? What kind of Hoshana Raba will we have, what kind of Shmini Atzeres, without a sukka?!”
My house has a large patio in the back, surrounded on three sides by walls of my house, like the Hebrew letter ches. It has wooden beams overhead, a built-in sukka. All we have to do each year is bang in a fourth wall and put up the palm branches and bamboo mats we use for schach.
After supper Sunday night, Hoshana Rabba — which we ate in the sukka — my husband and my son brought in all the furniture, the folding tables and plastic chairs, the lights and the fans. (It’s always hot in Florida in the sukka, one needs fans.) The wind was already beginning to pick up. They took down the schach and brought that inside too. The only thing they didn’t take down was the fourth wall.
Monday morning, Hoshana Raba, 6 A.M. I wake up. The wind is howling, it’s unnaturally dark. I see that my bedside clock is dark. I realize that the hurricane has started and the power is already out.
I get out of bed, look out the windows, wonder if it was a mistake not to board them up as many of my neighbors did. Debris is flying, in my back yard, in my front yard. My neighbor’s shed has imploded, and its contents are flying through my back yard like the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz.
I look out the front window. My two tall, huge, heavy ficus trees — all the way at the front of my yard, close to the road — are completely bent over, like grass on a windy day. I’ve never seen or even imagined such a sight. My palm trees are also bent over. I want to feel the wind: I step outside onto my front porch. It takes all my strength to open the front door: the wind is blowing from the south, directly towards the door. I stand on the porch for five seconds, realize it is stupid and dangerous, step back into the house.
It’s very noisy outside, the wind is howling, it’s daylight now but the sky is dark gray. All around in the gloom, we hear crashing noises. The neighbor’s hurricane shutters, torn off their hinges by the force of the wind, go flying down the street. (How ironic is that?)
With all the crashing, I don’t know the moment my trees came down, but suddenly I look out my front window and my front porch is full of green leaves — the tops of the ficus trees are lying on the porch, up against my windows and doors! The huge trunks completely fill my front yard, two giants felled. My palm trees snap like toothpicks. Another tree falls on the side of the house, towards my neighbor, breaking her window. She and her husband rush to board up the window from inside, to keep out the rain and wind.
From six in the morning to noon, that’s it, the whole thing: the storm has passed. The sun comes out. My neighborhood is a complete shambles.
Where my ficus trees fell, their enormous roots popped right up out of the ground, pushing the sidewalk up into the air! (Reminds me of Archimedes: “Give me a big enough lever, and a place to stand…..”) My sidewalk becomes a ramp, a magnet for kids on skateboards; it will take the city a whole year to fix it, just in time for this year’s Sukkos. They have thousands of sidewalks to fix, all over south Florida!
So what happened to the people of great faith, who left their sukkos up? Their sukkos were demolished, gone. If the rabbanim said take the sukka down, the flying debris is a sakana — they should have listened!
The wall we left in place has been torn down by the wind, but we are nevertheless one of the lucky ones, we still have our built-in sukka. My husband and son put the schach back up and take the furniture back outside.
From noon on Monday, Hoshana Raba, October 24, 2005, until candle-lighting time that evening, we had only a few hours to fix what we could fix. The weather was suddenly beautiful, cool and sunny. It was very difficult to drive anywhere, with debris and trees down everywhere. There were no traffic lights.
We found a handyman to cut away the top branches of our ficus trees, enough so that we could just open our front door and make our way outside. The rest of the job had to wait until after yom tov.
My oven is electric, but luckily for me I have a gas stove top, so I was able to cook for Yom Tov. I shared my good fortune with neighbors, ending up with various neighbors’ pots jostling for space on my stove.
Around the corner from my house, a scene from a Jackie Mason monologue played out. He has a very funny bit that he does, about the difference between Jews and gentiles. A car breaks down on a lonely country road. The driver is a gentile. He gets out of his car, eagerly smacks his hands, he’s in his element. He asks his wife to hand him tools from the trunk, gets under the car, fixes the car in no time, and away he goes. A car breaks down on a lonely road, the driver is a Jew, he gets out of the car and says to his wife, “Oy, ah broch! Where do we find a gentile when we need one?!”
So what happened was this: a huge tree fell, completely blocking the street around the corner from me, from one sidewalk to the opposite side. The street was impassible. Jewish neighbors came out, stood around looking at it, and the men discussed what to do.
“I wonder how long it will take the city to get rid of this tree?”‘
“Who do you call, does anybody know?”
“What’s the easiest detour, if you want to get to the next street?”
Meanwhile, two other men came out of their houses, not Jewish. They each had a chainsaw. In half an hour the whole tree has been chopped into pieces and piled neatly on the side of the road.
Truly, I laughed when I witnessed this scene!
Well, that night, when the sun went down, it was dark, dark, dark. The weather was cool and clear. It was the first time in their lives that my Florida children had ever seen stars — so magnificent, unbelievable. No light pollution. You could see all the constellations, the Milky Way. The houses all looked spooky, dark silhouettes. For days, I kept getting lost in my own neighborhood, if I tried to drive at night: there were no familiar landmarks, nothing looked the same in the pitch dark, there were no streetlights or traffic lights for two weeks!
That night after the hurricane, Shmini Atzeres, we sat in our sukka — sans the one wall that had gone AWOL — and stared at the sky. The candles hardly lit the table at all, it was so dark outside. In my carport, I stepped on something crunchy but couldn’t identify it; the next day I found a shattered mirror, whose shards I had been walking on.
The police imposed an after-dark curfew, with radio warnings that anyone seen walking on the streets after dark would be arrested. Nevertheless, most men went to shul and came home after ma’ariv. The police turned a blind eye; I heard of no arrests, not of frum people anyway. A couple of looters were arrested at the local supermarket.
Never in my life have I experienced such a beautiful, glorious Shmini Atzeres. So dark, so quiet, so cut off from the world, so spiritual.
The next night, Simchas Torah, the rabbanim had said that women and children should stay home, and that there would be abbreviated hakafos. Nevertheless, because my shul is just around the corner from my house, I did go to shul with my daughters. There were quite a few women but it was much less crowded than on a normal Simchas Torah. The only illumination in the shul came from a couple of battery-powered torches. Some people — in accordance with the psak they’d been given — carried flashlights through the streets, so they could see where they were going. The buttons were taped down before Yom Tov, the flashlights left on the whole Yom Tov until their batteries ran out.
In the eery half light of the torches, the shul looked surreal, and oddly beautiful. The dancing was spirited and heart-felt. It was all other-wordly.
All over town one heard stories of near-brushes with disaster and amazing Hashgacha Pratis — despite all the downed trees and buckled sidewalks, no one had been injured B’H and only a few houses had been seriously damaged. It was amazing, even breathtaking, to walk around the neighborhood and see how the trees had fallen — in front, behind, next to a house here and here and here — but hardly ever ON a house. One lady had her car crushed, but her house was intact.
That Yom Tov was exhilarating, there’s no other word. It was unforgettable, with the cool, clear air, the darkness everywhere, the stars, the knowledge that we had come safely through such a disastrous storm — which after all, is the message of Sukkos. Not our houses and not our walls, but Hashem Himself is our protection.
My daughter fell off her bike the next day and split open her chin. All the frum doctors in our shul were away for Yom Tov, and I knew that the emergency room would be chaotic, so I fixed her up the best I could with butterfly bandages. To buy them, I had to go to the nearest drugstore, which was dark and hot. They were letting people in only one at a time, accompanied by an employee with a flashlight. You had to explain why you were there before they would let you in.
The night after Yom Tov, I heard that one small block had their power back already. I drove to a friend’s house there and asked if I could charge my cellphone. She ushered me in, and showed me that every outlet in her living room and kitchen already had a cell phone plugged in! Of course she added mine to her chessed list.
The Shabbos after Simchas Torah, my neighbor made her cholent on my stove and, since, the eruv was still down, she brought all her kids over to my house on Shabbos to eat the cholent. We had fresh chicken because another neighbor found an open store in a different area and bought us some.
Everyone, you see, did chessed for everyone else.
By that Shabbos, it started to get hot again and all the ice melted and all the food spoiled. Tempers frayed and through the open windows — which had to be open, no A/C — one could hear husbands and wives yelling at each other all over town.
A farmer’s rhythms were unnatural to us: up with the sun, knowing that after the sun went down it would be absolutely pitch dark and no work could be done, no reading, no writing and heaven’s! — no surfing the ‘net. Candles and flashlights hardly gave enough light, not enough to read easily. It became more and more depressing. I spent hours driving around looking for an open store, ice, batteries, an open laundromat (which was crowded like the NY subway at rush hour).
People started to buy generators, but the noise of other people’s generators was infernal. Our peace was shattered. Lights came on here, there. You couldn’t see the stars anymore. One kind neighbor compensated me for the loss of our peace and quiet by passing an extension cord from her generator to our house, which gave me a few hours a day of the computer and the fridge — long enough to freeze some ice cubes, to keep the milk cold. At midnight all generators had to be shut down so people could sleep.
Finally, nearly three weeks after Wilma blew through our town, we got our power back.
Tonight we will sit in our sukka and tomorrow we will bid it farewell, until next year. Tomorrow night we will go to shul and watch the men dance on Simchas Torah. The shul will be brightly lit and air-conditioned and crowded. And I will reminisce with my friends, about the once-in-a-lifetime Simchas Torah that the winds brought us, last year. I’m so grateful for all that I have, the lights and the creature comforts — but equally grateful for my memories of that one special Yom Tov, the one with the star-filled heaven.