Column: A Hurricane Is Coming. So Now We Wait

  • Signe cartoon SIGN13e Beachfront Flooding

For The Washington Post
Thursday, September 13, 2018

On Wednesday, my neighbor’s 11-year-old son woke up and checked his homemade Mason jar barometer, and they started packing. While meteorologists were consulting computer models of possible Florence paths that looked more like a pasta-wielding kid channeling Rauschenberg, the simplicity of a plastic straw taped to a balloon-covered jar — a straw now dipping eerily low — seemed wisdom enough.

Here in Charleston, hurricane-watching is part of our annual sporting calendar — the fill-in between summer swim meets and regattas and football season. But watching is one thing; the waiting and wondering is altogether another kind of workout, a misery that Hurricane Florence, like some sadistic personal trainer, seems to have enjoyed inflicting.

My neighbors and I are weary of this guessing game. Do we stay or do we go? Do we put up the plywood or take our chances? Are the bundles of bottled water stashed under our stairwell since Irma still safe to drink?

And where is our flood insurance documentation, anyway?

In no way do I mean to downplay the threat of a storm like Florence. I’m concerned for those in its path, whatever that path may end up being, especially those who don’t have the resources and ability to get the heck out of Dodge. But having lived less than 100 feet from Charleston’s harbor and within a good storm surge of the Atlantic Ocean for the past 25 years means I’ve had plenty of experience nibbling on this “cone of uncertainty.” And it’s always hard to swallow.

On our first go-round, with Hurricane Floyd in 1987, my two toddlers and I endured Disney-length lines at Lowes, waiting to buy plywood — as dizzying but not nearly as fun the Mad Hatter’s Tea Cup. My husband packed his vinyl collection while I bubble-wrapped the wedding china. Then we crawled on Interstate 26 for a 13-hour trek to Charlotte — normally a 3½-hour drive. All, fortunately, for naught.

Charleston was spared then and has been, really, ever since Hurricane Hugo’s devastating wrath in 1989. Yes, we’ve lost tree limbs and grand old live oaks and lots of perfectly good school days due to threats of hurricane-force winds, and yes, we’ve flooded, and do so regularly these days with just an exceptionally high tide.

But we haven’t had a direct hit of anything more serious than hurricane-watching anxiety — which delivers its own kind of storm damage: the slow erosion of security, the hovering high-pressure front that keeps us wondering if the next yet-to-be-named tropical depression will the one named “your luck is up.”

We keep our eye on the tropics the way we keep an eye on our teenagers, knowing disaster could lurk with any moody, atmospheric shift.

We plot coordinates on tracking charts; hoard canned goods, batteries, and wine and chocolate; and poke fun at our limp politicians (“I’m Gov. Henry McMaster, and I suffer from premature evacuation”).

We field messages from family and friends urging us to “stay safe,” whatever that means. It’s second nature for those of us vulnerable to nature’s whim. Which, of course, is all of us, especially in this era of climate change.

I can’t help but feel we are all trapped in that Mason jar, unwitting subjects in a homemade science experiment, pushing the variables every time we crank the engine of our SUVs. We like predictability; we expect satellites and sophisticated software to give us precision, and pronto. But Florence says, “Hold on, not so fast.”

So we wait.

We watch.

We fuel up our gas tanks (noting the irony); we check on neighbors (noting how infrequently we do that otherwise); we make a mental inventory of our possessions that are truly precious (noting how few they are); and check the Weather Channel, yet again. And as I write this, Florence has taken another turn, taking Charleston further out of her projected path.

In years and hurricane threats past, my family and I would evacuate to my mother’s home in the piedmont of North Carolina. That wouldn’t be wise now, the forecasts say — plus, my mother has since passed away. She died of ALS, a disease not unlike a brewing hurricane. A disease for which there is no treatment, no cure, nothing you can do but wait and watch and accept what comes.

My mother lived with this impending slow doom with a Category 5 sense of strength, grace and dark humor. She would have been a match for impetuous, unpredictable Florence, and a role model for those of us living in limbo under threatening clouds, in cones of anxious uncertainty.

“You all come on up and stay here,” she’d say when hurricane warnings were posted. “Best not to worry. It is what it is.”

And so it is, and will be. We make predictions and preparations, but ultimately, we surrender and accept. Here on the ever-shifting coast, that’s the only certainty amid uncertainty.

Stephanie Hunt is a freelance writer and editor-at-large for Charleston magazine.