By GABE FRIEDMAN
(JTA) — It was 5 a.m. Wednesday and Hurricane Irma was pounding the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Martin. Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz and his wife, Chana, the Chabad movement’s emissaries there, gathered their five children and hunkered down in an unlikely place: a mikvah.
According to the Chanowitzes, as told on Chabad.org, the ritual bath helped save their lives.
The storm killed at least eight people on St. Martin and a councilman told Reuters that 95 percent of the 34-square-mile island was destroyed. Irma’s winds reached around 180 miles per hour and decimated trees and homes, flinging cars around in its wake.
Even though the Chanowitzes’ Chabad center building was sturdy and built into the side of a mountain, the storm had them rightly terrified. By 4 a.m. Wednesday, the front door of the building had flown off.
“You could hear it; you feel the pressure in your ears,” Moishe Chanowitz said. “I thought the windows would explode at any moment.”
With more wallboards flying away, the Chanowitzes fled to the center of the building and into the mikvah. It’s still under construction but crucially has an outer wall and a door. The family pushed a commercial freezer in front of the door.
“We have hurricane-proof doors and windows; it’s not like we weren’t prepared,” Chanowitz said. “But this was off the charts. The mikvah saved us.”
Around 10 a.m., the family and hundreds of neighbors finally ventured out into the disheveled landscape. Most had similar stories. One friend told the Chanowitzes he survived by hiding in a closet.
For now, the Chanowitzes, along with the rest of Saint Martin, are left without electricity.
“The damage is unimaginable,” Chanowitz said. “But we’re going to rebuild.”
The hasidic Chabad movement is known for its outreach around the world and has emissaries in nearly 100 countries.