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I visited Fort Myers Beach for the first time since Hurricane Ian ripped through Florida. Four months had past, and destruction caused by the historic 15-foot storm surge was still fresh. Based on that visit, I learned a few things about visiting a tourist destination hit by a natural disaster.
I’m that person who cries at Hallmark and Publix commercials. So, it wasn’t surprising when my eyes welled up with tears while driving onto Fort Myers Beach and seeing Hurricane Ian’s destruction. The last time I visited Fort Myers Beach was the spring of 2022 where I participated in the working waterfront tour to learn about the shrimping industry.
My most recent visit was to participate in a storm debris cleanup, and it was hard grasping the contrast between early 2022 and now. The shrimp boats I saw in the water about a year ago, were now on land stacked atop each other. The buildings I toured were now damaged or gone. Stairways lead to nowhere as the buildings, including homes, were washed away. Debris is everywhere and upon closer look, it’s a lost memory for someone on the island.
Looking for the positives – thanks to post-hurricane counseling – through the destruction I saw hope and resilience. If you choose to visit Fort Myers Beach or any other tourist destination hit by a natural disaster, here are five things you can do to support the community.
There’s a reason you chose to visit a tourist destination relatively soon after a natural disaster. Maybe it’s an emotional connection because it’s where you spent spring breaks. Or maybe you snagged a too-good-to-pass-up deal on airfare. Whatever your reason, once you’re there, don’t be shy about stimulating the local economy by dining out, shopping, and visiting local attractions.
Plus, tip generously. Those who live and work in the community recently went through some tough times. Not only did a natural disaster damage their workplace, but these workers may also have experienced personal loss. This can include losing a loved one (human or pet), their home, and income.
Natural disasters physically and emotionally change a destination. A favorite eatery may be gone, and you’ll need to eat elsewhere. Or that highly rated resort you read about online is closed indefinitely which means you need to stay somewhere else.
While on Fort Myers Beach, I saw eateries serving out of food trucks and shipping containers while bars set up on the beach with shipping containers, chairs and umbrellas. Genius!
Residents in the community have experienced a traumatic event and everyone processes it differently. They don’t want your pity, but they want your respect.
Expect longer wait times on roadways (traffic lights and signs may be missing) and for services. If you’re waiting for your meal longer than you think, chill and don’t take your frustrations out on your server.
Damaged homes and businesses may look abandoned but that doesn’t give you a pass to enter without an invitation. Respect other’s property and what they’ve lost. This is for your safety, too, as homeowners and business owners may protect themselves against unwelcomed visitors. And, the area may be unsafe with not-so-obvious hazards.
Voluntourism (volunteer + tourism) is a thing and giving back to a community is a rewarding experience. Volunteering is an opportunity to lend a hand and make the destination a better place than when you arrived. Possible opportunities following a natural disaster include debris cleanups and food packing and distribution efforts. Find these opportunities on the local chambers of commerce website and social media channels. Keep Lee County Beautiful is coordinating cleanups in the Ft. Myers area.
An important way to support a community so soon after a natural disaster is to share your experience and encourage others to visit. This can be done either in person like around the office water cooler or digitally via your preferred social media channels. There may be a lot of misperceptions out there and your authentic experience will help spread the word on what is really happening.
For the Fort Myers area, consider using these hashtags in your social media posts: #FMBStrong #MyFortMyers #FloridaStrong.
Following a natural disaster, a destination will reopen and welcome visitors as soon as possible and during the restoration process. It’s easy to dwell in the loss and devastation I saw the day I visited Fort Myers Beach but instead, I chose to find hope and strength within the community.