Waiting for snow to melt in your bathtub (and discovering all the fun things that hide in it as it’s melting) is a growing experience. Carrying water three times a day from the community pool, and neighbor’s houses to fill your toilet tank is not for the faint of heart. But, it also isn’t the end of the world, even if your body is telling you it is while your mind is screaming that you’re a spoiled product of first-world problems. These are the realities of living in a disaster zone when running water has stopped for longer than 24 hours. (In my case I lived a week without it.) When you stand outside the fray, looking in, the solutions seem really simple. You could store a 100 gallon water tank on your balcony, right next to your water heater. No problem. Get a hose to run back into your sink or toilet. A little bleach. You’re good for a week.
No electricity? Coleman stove, firewood, and partitions in your living room to keep the draft out. You know how Texas houses are with their lack of insulation. If you’re lucky, and not an international vagabond like I am, you can camp out at a relative or friend’s house with functioning utilities, despite a raging pandemic that’s claimed 500,000+ lives in the U.S. All small potatoes, my friend.
I come from a long-line of disaster preparedness either self-declared or actual experts. My Dad is the true expert. Together, he and I have evacuated a forest fire that consumed the neighborhood across from my parent’s sub-division in 2012. We escaped towering black flames threatening his neighborhood, watching with horror as the fire leapt with its fiery fingers across the local road in Colorado Springs to claim patches of grass. The destruction stopped there for reasons known only to God.
That evacuation, along with countless earthquakes, typhoons, and power outages/storms in NYC, South Korea and Germany taught my family the power of being prepared, and the fact that there are always limits to what we can do, store or prepare based on our individual circumstances. We live in an age of interconnectedness, yet when disaster strikes, I’m always surprised at a very vocal and persistent minority outside the fire ring pointing fingers.
They sit atop their green hillsides, water and electricity aplenty and pronounce judgments on the masses. But, I wonder if their story would change if they were actually in the fray: without electricity for over 48 hours, no water and melting snow in their bathtub and in large pots to keep their toilets running until the roads were clear to bring in more water. Would they look at their cache of food storage and realize that cooking all of it requires electricity and running water? Would they feel that deep, horrible surge of fear that powered me through a week of falling down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sometimes literally?
I want to focus here on the opposite picture that comes into focus for me, in light of the FEMA disaster site that is my beloved home of Austin, TX: the interconnected community I love and cherish. Not an hour went by where friends and neighbours didn’t text each other, provide water, food, shelter, and safety. There wasn’t any blame here, but an offering of help wherever we could and circumstances allowed. A good friend came to stay when his power and water went out and now I had a companion to tag-team water sourcing and keeping our food supplies sufficient to help ourselves and others, if needed. I didn’t have to go a week without a shower, because as soon as the water was turned back on at a friend’s apartment I was able to get clean of all the real or imagined grime of that week of slogging.
It’s during these times of disaster that I see the greatest opportunity for bonding. Hours before snowfall and the pipes freezing, a life that had been laser-focused on work and surviving a pandemic is now about community. My mobile phone is suddenly ringing and pinging off the hook, life seems to have returned in a new and interesting way. We’re living in the now, taking things hour by hour and it’s almost refreshing to have a different focus, but also incredibly frightening, because we don’t know when our resources will run out. There’s also a little bit of survivor’s guilt: I have so much to give and yet so little space to take in so many without electricity. During that week of uncertainty: a cyclical thought kept repeating: when will it all collapse and I’ll be thrust into darkness, like so many around me?
Another prevailing feeling: don’t worry about coronavirus right now. Just worry about getting the next jug of water filled and staying warm (and take some pain medication for your cracked rib). There’s also the preparation that goes into handling every disaster: “Am I doing it right?” The lyrics from John Mayer’s song “Why Georgia Why” creeping into my mind and playing on a loop like it did in 2001when I was an undergraduate student in New York City.
That morning I awoke to thick smoke in the air and the sound of sirens, an incomprehensible surge of fear forcing my body into survival mode. I took a gypsy cab to Fordham University at Lincoln Center, and witnessed the pillar of smoke peeking above the skyscrapers in midtown. The cabbie turned up the radio. It was 8:45 and the first plane had hit the World Trade Center. I was imagining a Cessna, not a transcontinental airliner. When the radio announcer declared a second “accident” I knew something was amiss. I arrived on campus where my fellow classmates were gathered in front smoking and pronouncing a terrorist attack. Because most of them were theatre majors I thought they were being dramatic and quickly strode inside so I wouldn’t be late for my Torah exam.
My professor had the news playing on the television and declared class cancelled in light of the attack. I turned to my classmate, Sharon and there was sweat beaded on her pale forehead. “Your Dad’s military like mine, right?”
I nodded, everything in my nervous system going unnaturally calm and alert.
“Great. Looks like we won’t be getting in touch with them anytime soon.”
She accompanied me to a classmate’s dorm room where we watched the towers fall and I started to cry, in my usual delayed fashion. That summer I had worked in the financial district and my parents were probably worried sick that something had happened to me. They were thousands of miles away in Yokosuka, Japan. I logged on to the computer to find six e-mails all asking for a status check. When I replied, I immediately got a response from my Dad. He had woken up thirty minutes before the first plane struck and now his naval base was on a week-long lock-down.
The two hour walk back to my apartment in East Harlem from Fordham’s campus was one of the most sombre and quietest of my life in New York City. Everyone was walking, cabs were scarce and the subways and busses had stopped running. My MP3 player had about fifteen songs on it and the one that stands out most from that shocking, and short walk of only 60 blocks, compared to many who had much longer treks into Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens was how peaceful everything looked and sounded on such a tragic, sunny day. “Why, Georgia Why” kept playing on loop and I had to take my earphones out, in hopes of hearing birds, but instead the only sound was the occasional passerby asking if I was okay. I didn’t know if anyone was going to be okay after this.
In my hometown of Yokosuka, Japan, we are no stranger to disaster, primarily in the form of typhoons and earthquakes. The danger with earthquakes, of course, is if you live close to the coast (which was a stone’s throw from our house) tsunamis are a looming possibility. When we lived in Japan we had the added bonus of the sarin-gas cult Aum Shinrikyo causing havoc on the Tokyo subways and train stations by exposing a form of sarin nerve gas to passengers, poisoning 980 officially, killing 13 and affecting possibly thousands (an accurate count is difficult since victims were reluctant to come forward). Drills had already been a part of my regular life living on or near military bases, now we had to consider biological weapons in the armada of things to worry about.
In my seaside town of Maborikaigan, nestled next to Yokosuka-shi, a four lane road and concrete seawall was the only separation between my house and the ocean. When a typhoon rolled in, power could go out for hours, streets would flood and cars were occasionally overturned. When the storm warning came in (which sometimes was a few days and at other times a few hours) we would board up windows that didn’t have the massive steel storm shutters in front of them, fill up the bathtub with water, ensure we had enough kerosene and collect our candles in a central location.
My siblings and I watched in horror, during one of the worst typhoons, as the waves crested over twenty feet, crashing against our house and upending cars. The eye of the storm arrived and my Mom wisely warned us not to go out. Within minutes the storm raged again and we would wait it all out, praying, singing, reading by candlelight, until it passed. Then, when the winds died down, we thrust our rain gear on, buckled rubber boots and joined our neighbours in mucking out the drains of our flooded street. It was a cyclical business, typhoons, earthquakes, and bombing drills, but they were something that were built into the fabric of our lives.
I think the difference with the recent storm Uri, unlike other disasters I’ve encountered (and not listed here for brevity’s sake) is that I live in a semi-tropical area of Central Texas. We never get several days of snowfall that actually stays. So, that meant preparation wasn’t as possible as in other instances. Most, even the semi-disaster prepared such as myself, rarely go without utilities for longer than 48 hours. We couldn’t estimate that we’d lose power and water for over a week (longer for some). Or, that a year-long deadly pandemic would mean that those who had the foresight to see a protracted disaster fall-out may not have had the financial means to acquire said water tanks, coleman stoves, generators, etc. Happily, those of us living in the Austin metro area knew we couldn’t survive this disaster without each other. For that reason, this is likely the best place to be when everything feels like it might be falling apart.
It’s incredible how, when you fall down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, loads of other things tend to slip off your mental “to-do” list, even if those things include pending deadlines. If you don’t have basic survival commodities (or you’re trying to care for others who are also missing those supplies), other priorities slip, and I think it’s important to be kind to yourself in those circumstances. Several writers who had survived Hurricane Katrina mentioned the experience of delays in help and the protracted return of utilities due to the extent of damage. It looks like such super storms are not something that are going away anytime soon.
I ask myself, in the aftermath of the storm: what can I do better to be prepared, but also, how can I make sure that my community is able to work together to share the burden? I’m keenly aware of local politicians and government’s either inability or apathy when it comes to disaster response. The only way through our uncertain future is with each other’s help. My neighbors were great about communicating (especially when our apartment complex managers fell silent), we checked on the elderly who couldn’t venture out on the icy steps for fear of falling, like I did, and so many amazing people shared water with me when their utilities had barely come on. It’s amazing how much a warm shower restores one’s confidence in humanity.
So many here in Austin took in friends, acquaintances or opened their homes to complete strangers. I hope that being in the disaster zone again has taught me how to avoid critical self judgement and what I’d like to now call “disaster blaming.” Maggie Gentry’s article above is a gentle and incisive analysis of how we view ourselves at crucial junctures where we have to make decisions quickly and mistakes are commonplace. 20/20 vision is rarely achieved, except in retrospect. A wise therapist counseled me last year, “it does no good to dwell on a decision that’s already been made and executed, except to move forward in the direction that works best for where you are now.”
Disasters can be helpful in forcing us to reinvent, reassemble and reconfigure our lives for this new state of being. What if a whole-hearted way of seeing the world and uplifting those around us during disaster is the way to be? (Even if it’s only grooving to Flashlight and Aretha Franklin in the kitchen while filling up water bottles with the small trickle of water that’s come back on at 11:00pm.) Something my friend and I discovered was that the seemingly small and slow trickle of water in the water bottle filled up rather quickly. I think kindness and generosity is like that too. You give what little spare you have and it does so much more than you imagined.
I’ve seen how asking for help binds me to others. The act of being in need means that I can feel the level of care others have for me. Those bonds of friendship, brotherhood/sisterhood are strengthened.
I’m hoping all the keyboard commandos and doomsday prophets will cease their death rattles and instead join the ranks of their communities in a show of solidarity. I think the only way through disasters is with your community. If we work together we have a hope of making it through what’s coming next.
I look at the unvarnished wood table in my friend’s flat. He’s carefully and neatly folded the two scarves (Marie Kando style) and woolens I brought with me after I left the room to slip into the shower for the first time in five days. The neat arrangement of the plaids, stripes and teals look so orderly and like a life I remember living a few days ago. That act of love swells my heart and gives me the strength to keep going in the face of a multitude of adversity. I’m reminded that love and kindness may very well overcome anything.
Did an aspect of this article resonate with you?
Would it feel helpful to talk through it?
Feel free to sign up for a spot during my virtual office hours for 30 minutes. They’re free and a wonderful way to keep the conversation going!