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More than two months ago, Hurricane Ian ripped through Florida and I’m finding my new normal. I’ve experienced first-world inconveniences, like a month without internet and non-potable water and I realized how much traveling to developing nations prepared me for post-hurricane living. Here’s how.
After the Hurricane, My Southwest Florida Neighborhood Looked Like a War Zone
Southwest Florida’s hurricane damage reminds me of what I saw in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006. The war-torn Kabul neighborhood had homes riddled with bullet holes and/or partially bombed out walls, providing windows into daily life. Open sewers were hazards, as one of my traveling companions found out. (She fell in. Oy!) Trash from the guesthouse piled in the street for kids to sort through and scavenge.
As I navigated my way to my North Port neighborhood about two days after Hurricane Ian’s landfall, the area looked like a Mother Nature-made war zone. Water covered roadways. Damaged bridges caused road closures. Trees toppled over on cars, homes, and streets. Fences blew apart. Huge pieces of aluminum wrapped around trees. Some homes ripped apart offering clear views inside.
Today, the water has receded. However, hills of cut trees and debris still line roadways. Blue tarps top damaged roofs. Several street signs haven’t been replaced. Down cables lines and exposed electrical boxes are still a common site. People stop their cars to dig through roadside debris piles scavenging for who knows what.
I have nightmares about Armageddon. But despite Hurrican Ian’s obvious visit, I embrace the reality that we’re on the way to recovery.
Can’t Drink the Water
I can’t drink, brush my teeth, or cook with my water. I’ve been relying on bottled water, just like my visits to Afghanistan, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Mexico. Yes, it’s annoying, but things could have been worse.
Thankfully, my home did well in Ian. Unfortunately, I’m on a well and the pipe into my holding tank broke. My filtering system, necessary to filter out the minerals like iron and Sulphur, was destroyed.
I’m lucky to have handy people in my life. My uncle and a friend salvaged the PVC pipes from the tanks and with trips to local hardware stores, they MacGyvered my system so raw well water is pumping into my house.
So, my water has a black tint (from the iron, I suspect) and burnt, rotten egg smell. To flush my toilets, take a shower and use the bathroom sinks, I need to flip the well circuit breaker switch first. And when I’m done, I need to flip the switches off.
I’m grateful for the Florida National Guard, friends and family for hooking me up with gallons of water. A stash is near my bathroom for brushing my teeth while the rest is in the kitchen.
Connecting to Spotty Wifi
Cell and internet service immediately after landfall was spotty at best. As days passed during the restoration process, service improved. I went about a month without internet and cable and found myself looking for places to hop on free Wifi, like McDonald’s and public libraries. After three weeks, I purchased a T-Mobil hotspot and pay about $11 a month for service with no commitment. Although my internet and cable have been restored, I’m keeping my hotspot for now.
This reminded me of finding places to connect to the internet in developing countries. Specifically, I remember visiting an Internet cafe in Kabul and paying a nominal fee for 30 minutes. Through one of those visits, I received an email travel warning from the U.S. government.
Functioning with Intermittent Power
My power was restored eight days following landfall. Considering the magnitude of the Category 4 storm, that’s record time. However, once power was restored, two days later, it was out again for a couple of hours. It happened again until much of the power was restored throughout Southwest Florida.
I’m not complaining, it’s part of living in a disaster-prone area. While in Kabul, the power rolled off nightly and the guest house ran on a generator. I visited villages in Guatemala with limited electricity and some homes cooked over wood-fired stoves.
Yeah, living without power for several days was a big inconvenience and sucked but in the grand scheme of things, I survived and know it could have been worse. I still have a home with intact roof and four walls.
Shopping for Needs, not Wants
Pre and post-storm, essentials are limited. Prior to, there’s a rush to the gas pump, grocery markets and hardware stores. Gas stations run out of gas and store shelves are wiped clean of essentials like water, milk, bread and adult beverages.
After the storm, it takes a few days or weeks to replenish these supplies. Some stores reopened the next day with reduced hours and limited stock. Some of the stores around me still aren’t open and some will never reopen.
Days after landfall, I looked for fresh food and the deli, dairy, produce and frozen sections of some grocery stores were cleared out. Not necessarily because they sold out but because they were without power and had to throw away spoiled food. So, rather than finding something fresh to eat, I grabbed the last Starkist tuna packet on the shelf. It wasn’t what I wanted but it was protein and relatively healthy.
Limited availability of items is a reason why you keep a hurricane preparedness kit.
Traveling is an adventure and part of that is trying new things whether you want to or not. Not every country has McDonald’s, Starbucks, or other popular American brands (although, I’ve found Cocoa Cola everywhere I’ve traveled), but there’s usually something comparable and sometimes better products. Visting developing countries, I’m prepared not to find the usual tastes of home or a wide variety.
Adventures in Dining
Oh, how I long to cook meals in my kitchen again. Because of my water situation, I’m not cooking as much so I’m eating a lot of prepared meals. (Sidebar: I’m not cooking as much because it’s a pain to wash dishes without a functioning kitchen sink.)
I’m cooking a little but being mindful of how many pots, pans, dishes, and utensils I’m using because it’s a pain to wash them. (I need to fill up a pot in the bathtub, boil it on the stove, then pour into the kitchen sink.)
Different organizations like World Central Kitchen, Operation BBQ Relief, and the World Famous Eggroll Truck rolled into town offering free hot meals to Hurricane Ian survivors. I didn’t receive any but I did receive a much-appreciated meal from the Salvation Army along with two non-perishable lunches. I have unexpected expenses because of the hurricane and don’t have an efficient way to cook and clean so these meals are greatly appreciated.
Finding food and meals post-hurricane reminds me so much of my travels. During my trip to Cuba, the guide advised that the food would be bland and for the most part, it was. But, on the afternoon before leaving, a meal wasn’t scheduled for the group and we had the tastiest one in a small restaurant in a neighborhood. I joined two food tours in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Most of the time, I wasn’t sure what I was eating but I was grateful for trying something new.
Keeping my Head on a Swivel
This is my first time filing an insurance claim and the adjuster told me some of my repairs can wait a few months because “there are a lot of predators out there.” He told me how a homeowner he met with gave their homeowner’s insurance deductible to someone promising to file a claim for them. That’s how things are supposed to work.
NextDoor is sprinkled with posts from neighbors who have paid up front for services and haven’t heard from the contractor. Contractors from outside the area swarmed in promising to take care of repairs. Some take cash deposits and are never heard from again. Others are simply unlicensed contractors.
The night before my trip to Kabul, a former Navy SEAL told me to “keep my head on a swivel” and beware of dangerous situations and always have a way out. While walking Koch-e Murgha, otherwise known as Chicken Street in Kabul, beggars grabbed at me and followed me into stores. One carried a baby doll and shoved into my face with hopes I’d give her a dollar.
In Havana, Cuba, I remember a man walking next to me and drawing my portrait (unsolicited). It wasn’t something I asked for or wanted and when he showed it to me, I declined, and he huffed off. As someone in the group said, “that’s not a flattering portrait.”
I carry those traveling experiences into my everyday life and am skeptical of unsolicited offers, like those that arise post-disaster.
Relying on the Kindness of Others
Living life alone, relying on the kindness of others post-Hurricane Ian was difficult and is humbling. The Salvation Army provided me with a hot meal and a couple of box lunches. Friends let me use their washing machines. Family and friends came over to help clean up my yard and brought me water. A coworker took me out for a hot lunch. The National Guard gave me water and ice.
I’m not used to asking for or receiving help. I pride myself in being independent and strong and asking for help is a sign of weakness, or so I thought. Others constantly ask me for help so asking for it and accepting unsolicited requests was difficult at first, but I realized people like to help and the human connection has helped me get through this.
While traveling, I’ve relied on the kindness of others to help me along the way. I have many memorable experiences of the residents who enriched my visit in Vietnam.
There was the tour guide who saw I was upset over displays about the Vietnam-American War and gave a heads up to another guide I toured with the next day. He told me I was his “precious jewel” and wanted to look after me. Another tour guide from Buffalo Tours returned my iPhone. After the van dropped me off at the hotel, my heart sunk realizing I left it in there. The hotel helped me contact the tour company and soon the guide delivered it to me.
Traveling to Developing Countries Makes Me Appreciate What I Have
In our day-to-day lives, we’re trusting people to do the right thing. Life after a disaster, like a hurricane, puts us in a vulnerable and maybe desperate situation. Familiar situations are no longer recognizable. People show their true colors, and you may be surprised with who they are. Modern conveniences are disrupted or destroyed. At the same time, there’s a strong sense of community and unity.
In traveling to unfamiliar places, we sometimes put ourselves in vulnerable situations and react differently when out of our element. Oftentimes, we need to trust the people around us to do the right thing and help us, all while being cautious.
Traveling to developing countries humbles my first-world living. It’s helped me be more tolerant of inconveniences, build connections with others, and understand the world. I have first-hand experience of living without modern conveniences and know my current situation is temporary. I’m far from financially wealthy but I’m grateful what I have.