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Hurricane Florence is my first coastal hurricane.
Not the first experience with one, as I lived in Jackson, Mississippi when Katrina hit; but coastal hurricanes are way different. In Jackson, we were three hours from the coast and while we definitely experienced the force of it, it wasn’t anything like it was down on the coast. We lost power. It was eerie. Emergency personnel were the only people permitted to get gas. The whole nine yards. Having experienced that before, I thought I was ready. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When details of the storm starting making the news, it was said to be a Category 4.
If you don’t know exactly what that means, I can sum it up for you: it’s really, really bad. Life-threatening. Wipe-you-off-the-map-kind-of-threatening. And when locals start boarding up their homes and businesses, that’s when you start paying attention because almost all the locals have always ridden every hurricane out. They’ve been there for decades, so they do what they know: ride it out, hope for the best, and usually, everything goes back to normal pretty quickly.
I wasn’t sure I was really leaving, though.
In fact, I was going to ride it out. My condo is on the intracoastal waterway and overlooks a beautiful marina. I can see the backside of Oak Island from my screened in porch. I’m not far from the ocean, I just can’t see it or hear it. I live in a gated community called St. James Plantation and when hurricanes come, islanders actually move into St. James because it’s always been the ‘safe haven’ and it’s far enough inland where storm effects will be felt, but not nearly like they would be on the island. It floods, of course, but not as bad as you’d think. I felt pretty safe there actually, so my first intention was to ride it out.
My friend David lives in Tennessee.
He’s an insurance agent but reads weather models for hobby and the man is rarely wrong. He’s truly my favorite weatherman and for days before the storm made landfall, he was texting me spaghetti models because he knows I worry about hurricanes. A few days before Florence was scheduled to arrive, he sent me a text saying, “I don’t have a good feeling about Florence and it’s not going away. It might come in as a 4, but it has the potential to be a 5. You need to leave.” I asked questions like ‘but doesn’t it weaken as it travels?’ and ‘what chance is there that it will shift and go back out to sea without even hitting us?’ Virtually no chance. He didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, but I knew what he was saying was true, so I started to reconsider.
My dog Snickers is 12 years old and he was recently diagnosed with a heart issue.
We pretty much live at the vet and I was afraid we’d lose power which would be murder on a dog with a heart condition as hot as it’s been this year at the beach. I also knew St. James would flood and that there would be a chance we may not be able to get out if he needed veterinary care. That was enough to convince me to go and I dare say that if those two things weren’t issues, I likely would have stayed. You think I’m crazy. I get it. But I didn’t possibly understand how hard leaving really is until I became a local myself.
We left on Tuesday, two days before Florence was scheduled to arrive.
I thought we were getting ahead of the game because I didn’t think mandatory evacuations would be ordered til at least Wednesday—but those came on Monday instead. And while traffic wasn’t as bad as it was on Wednesday, there was still quite a bit of it. Snickers doesn’t travel well at all, so I sedated him with trazodone and he was a dream! There were several accidents along the way because people were in such a rush to get out and many times, we’d go from 60 mph to a dead stop without much warning. While my first evacuation could have been worse, it was still very stressful.
As you know by now, Florence wasn’t a Category 4 by the time it got to the coast.
Thankful? Yes. But Wilmington and Topsail got the brunt of the storm. I have friends who stayed behind, both in Wilmington and on Oak Island. My friend in Wilmington said it’s the most horrible thing she’s experienced: tornadoes touching down everywhere, electricity has been out for days and could be for weeks. She lost cell signal Saturday night and I haven’t been able to chat with her except intermittently. It will take a long time for things to be made right again and we are talking months, not days.
My friends on OKI fared pretty well.
They never lost power and while there is tons of flooding, the damage isn’t what it could have been. Some of my friends did eventually decide to evacuate, but even the inland areas are a complete mess. Roads are washed out. Trees are down everywhere. Highways have been closed. People are stranded in their cars because they tried to go home before it was safe. Whether it was a Category 4 or not, the damage is still extensive and heartbreaking to see. And as it turns out, St. James was evacuated for the first time ever so just about the only way home right now is literally by helicopter. I was smart to listen to David and I’m glad I left.
I’ve seen so many people on social media blast those who chose not to evacuate.
But the truth is, it isn’t as easy as you may think. You can say all you want to that life is more important than risking it and you’d be right. We know you’re right. People who stay don’t want to lose their lives—they stay because it’s what they know. Many locals have been there for decades and realize it’s just part of living in paradise. I heard conflicting things from both sides of the fence before I left: there were those who said ‘I left once, and couldn’t get home for weeks!‘ and others who said ‘I stayed once and will never stay again!’ Until you’ve been in that situation yourself, either choice feels like a wrong one.
It’s a hard decision and even I wouldn’t have understood that until I had to make the choice myself.
We know life is important and should be paramount to anything else; however, when an island is your heart and the home you’ve made so many memories in has great potential of being lost, you want to stay. You want to save it. You want to be there to help the community clean up the mess. Some people have sunk everything they have into their homes and knowing that you’re leaving and could be homeless in a matter of days is not an easy thing to accept. Yes. Life is important but my friend Suzi said it best when she said: “the decision to leave was harder than the decision to stay.” Until you’ve been there, you can’t possibly understand the emotional upheaval that comes with an evacuation. It’s gut-wrenching, chaotic, and terrible at best.
Snickers and I are safely tucked in at my best friend’s house here in Tennessee.
My condo is fine as far as my friend Hiroki could tell when he went to the marina to check on his boat. But most of the community has extensive damage and I have no idea when we will be able to return. Road conditions won’t permit us to go anywhere for at least another 10 days. I’m in the place I was born and raised in and I’ve wanted to come home for a long time—but not this way.
It’s different when you come home on your own accord versus being forced to go.
I’m out of sorts and I think it’s because I still haven’t caught my breath from leaving in such a rush. I haven’t left the house except once and there are people I want to see while I’m home, but I just don’t have it in me right now. So I rest, eat cake, and rest some more.
Home. It feels so weird to say that because I’m at home, but I miss home.
It is hard being so torn between two places. I have a life there now. Friends I care about and want to be there for when we all finally get the go-ahead to return. But most of all, more than anything else, my heart is there in a way I never expected it to be; so much so, that I can hardly wait to say hello again.