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A girl sorts toiletries at a shelter for volunteer rescue workers set up at the Fairfield Baptist Church student building on August 29th, 2017 in Cypress, Texas.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

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After a Storm, Self-Care Becomes Community Care

The soul-changing magic of a hot shower and your favorite body wash after 17 hours of evacuation traffic.

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It was August 1992. My family had just settled into one of the few remaining rooms in a north Arkansas motel following a mandatory evacuation notice. Hurricane Andrew would go on to destroy Iberia Parish, where I was from — obliterating 407 homes, ripping the roofs off of two emergency shelters, and causing $325 million worth of property and crop damage.

But at 7 years old, I didn’t know that. I just knew that what had started out as a fun, impromptu road trip suddenly wasn’t so fun. Over the next three days, I would sit on the floor of our temporary home and search my face in the wall mirror, trying to untangle the volatile mix of fatigue, terror, and uneasiness welling up inside me. I didn’t know what the adults were talking about in hushed tones — quietly making phone calls, closely watching the news — but I knew that it was serious.

But in those early moments, all I could think about was how much I wanted to take a bubble bath. I just wanted to sink down into the scorching water, up to my ears in bubbles, and think about what it’d be like to meet Jordan Knight. I looked over at the Barbies I had not-so-stealthily shoved in my small gray duffel bag when my mama had rushed off down the hall to get another me another pair of socks. “Just the necessities. And hurry!” she had reminded me. I mentally cursed them with the only bad word I was allowed to say: “Darn.” I spent the rest of those three days being irrationally infuriated that I hadn’t snuck in a glorious pink bottle of Mr. Bubbles instead of stupid Birthday Surprise Barbie.

That was my first real memory of what it means to be a resident of the Gulf Coast. In exchange for Saturday nights at the Atchafalaya Club listening to Geno Delafose and the grease-soaked paper bag of hot cracklins before a Mardi Gras parade, you accept that you live mere feet above sea level. In exchange for total strangers taking care of you like family and more festivals than you could ever attend, you deal with the constant threat of evacuation. Most Gulf Coast residents are well-seasoned evacuees. In my 32 years, I’ve been through 15+ storms, historical floods, and even a chemical explosion. Currently, I'm lucky to be a few hours away from the devastation of Harvey, so I’m gathering diapers, cleaning supplies, and toiletries for the people I love in the eye of the storm, scrolling — like many of you — through social media and messages from friends closer to the damage, trying to coordinate donations.

The truth is, the storms never get easier. There’s always a stomach-hollowing sense of loss and pain. But you do get better at preparing for them. You begin to understand the small comforts — knowing how to feel the slightest bit more human when you’re 300 miles from your home, wondering if your house is under eight feet of water, if your friends are safely evacuated, and if life as you know it will forever be changed.

In times of disaster, self-care becomes much more than the newest buzzword used to sell $80 candles and the latest foaming face mask. Caring for yourself, in the most elemental sense, takes on a role so incredibly critical to your mental and spiritual resilience that it feels anything but selfish. You begin to learn the soul-changing magic of a hot shower and your favorite body wash after 17 hours of evacuation traffic. Painting your nails a ridiculous shade of turquoise staves off boredom and quells the ever-present anxiety, even if for just a few minutes. After the 12th hour without electricity, sneaking a cheap sheet mask out of the ice chest feels like the most indulgent spa day. You learn how nice it is to be able to simply brush your teeth after you get settled into a shelter. And as you return home, greeted by the stench of decay hanging in the air and the sweltering heat of the Gulf sun beating down, you remember from experience that you’re absolutely useless to cleanup efforts with second-degree sunburns and apply sunscreen. With each storm watch, evacuation packing list, and cleanup day, your emergency preparedness grows beyond the state-issued supply list. The bottled water and cans of Vienna sausage tide over the body. The enormous tub of wet wipes and store-brand aloe vera gel resurrect the soul.

Thankfully not all storms require an evacuation, and when they do you plan for a quick three-day evacuation. You anticipate coming home to a few fallen branches and a day or two without electricity. You hope for a safe return home, minimal damage, and a swift recovery. But what happens when the reality isn’t the controlled chaos you’ve become accustomed to? Time and again, even with all your experience, there are some storms that obliterate your reasonable hopes, storms that live up to their foreboding. The devastation and loss begin to blur into all the monster storms that have come before.

My Zumba instructor wading through calf-deep water frantically trying to decide what to save from her children’s rooms. My co-workers with special-needs children losing their homes, their cars, every last possession. My lifelong friends pulled out of their homes by emergency boats just hours after checking in to say they’re fine. My grandmother and taunte spending months in a tiny FEMA trailer after they came home to find their entire life steeped in the murky waters of a nearby bayou. My friends tearing down their now-damp walls as their belongings sit covered in mold, waiting to be thrown away. How do you remember to take care of yourself when you can’t even process the waste and wreckage all around you? It’s in those moments that self-care becomes community care.

While the absolute bedlam that is post-storm life has paralyzed my loved ones time and time again, my community continually rises up around them without falter. I’ve seen individuals working around the clock to ensure that every need imaginable was met — mind, body, and spirit. While convoys of 18-wheelers roll into town with pallets of water for the shelters, pickup trucks creep down the streets of the hardest-hit neighborhoods passing out bottles of water to those pulling water-logged furniture from their homes. While major brands post donation links on their websites, local stores donate entire day’s worth of profits for food, clothing, and toiletries. And months after the storm, when most of the nation has moved on to the latest news, the community still spends their weekends hanging up drywall, installing new flooring, and building homes they themselves will never live in.

As the magnitude and gravity of Hurricane Harvey sets in, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and succumb to inaction. But over a lifetime of storms, I’ve learned that you don’t have to save an entire city. You can help just one person, one family, one cause. Whether I’ve got $5, five hours, or five cases of water, I can make a difference to someone in need.

Local outdoorsman are fueling up their boats to brave the flood waters for rescues. Caterers are taking 17 hours to make the four-hour drive to Houston just to feed the first responders. Neighbors are stopping by with laundry baskets to take soggy clothes and bring them back fresh, clean, and folded. Teenagers are babysitting kids so their parents can take a shower. I’m searching my own closet because I saw that a friend of a friend lost everything and wears a size 12, just like me. On the ground, we’re caring for those in any way we can. It’s life as a Gulf Coast resident. It’s the only way we know.

If you’d like to join our community and support our Hurricane Harvey efforts, you can learn more about how you can help here.

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