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Charleston resident: Time moves strangely when a hurricane eyes you

Posted at 2:06 PM, Sep 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-12 14:06:51-04

Every morning, since Saturday after Florence made its westward turn, it’s a new set of contingencies. As the storm nears and intensifies, so too does the stress of preparing and planning. Tuesday morning, my blood began prickling underneath my skin; I felt a nervous-energy in my gut, as though I were perched on the starting blocks before a race.

We are not in the clear, and the current information cannot tell us how Florence will behave once it approaches the coast. Projected track lines across the Carolinas look as though a toddler has scribbled all over the map. Charleston sits on the edge of the cone of uncertainty. The schools, the college campus where I work, all the city offices are all closed. My family is leaving our house on the Charleston peninsula to go inland — the third time in three consecutive falls.

Florence threatens, and yet it’s beautiful here right now. After the 5 inches of unprecedented snow and ice that glazed the camellias and gave us an actual winter, after a long summer of rains, after an eye-blink of a spring, our front yard garden is ripening. The sages and salvias, the bee balm and zinnias are drawing in a cast of bees and butterflies. The promise of less humid days is visible in the resurrection ferns browning on the live oaks, in the sky’s dynamic mixture of high and low altitude clouds.

With the school year in full swing, we were just feeling settled into our weekly routines. Last year, Irma interrupted this exact same week of the school year, and the year before Matthew arrived not far after. I ask myself — did I plant our winter vegetable garden before or after Irma, before or after Matthew?

September and October have new meanings for me now.

Time moves strangely when a hurricane eyes you from the ocean. You reside in a surreal pre-storm space. The closest comparison I have to this altered time-space is caring for a newborn in the first weeks. You try to concentrate on other things. There’s a constant pressure behind your eyes; you do not sleep well. You go hour-by-hour reassessing with every forecast update. You never feel you are making the best choices. You exist in a mixed state of hyper-vigilance and fret; you go back-and-forth discussing the storm’s probabilities and what gambles you’re willing to take. You might put up plywood; you might not. You might evacuate, if you can. You might not. Hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait — that’s the pre-storm mantra. Then the storm arrives, and you wait.

As I wait, I talk to my neighbors, colleagues and students about their thoughts: Will you stay? What’s your plan? In Charleston, you can often tell a South Carolina native from a transplant, like me, based on how they react to these storm threats. Charleston natives, long seasoned by storms and near misses, will joke about how they plan to go to the bars downtown, now that there’s plenty of parking with all the tourists gone. They will remind you about Hurricane Hugo — the measuring stick of what disaster means here. Many will say that if it’s a Category 4 or higher, then they will go, but only then.

I do not feel seasoned by these storms yet. But I know what will likely happen here: The peninsula’s outermost roads will be inundated with saltwater; the downtown Market will flood. Some of the majestic old trees, heavy with rot, will crack and fall. Every intersection notorious even for sunny-day flooding will fill up all the faster; the crosstown will become a stream. The bridges that link the peninsula and the sea islands will close. Trucks delivering food will be delayed.

Once in the clear, people will venture outside; others will arrive back to their houses to clean up what puddles or debris they find. Threads on our neighborhood Facebook feed will ask what restaurants are open and serving — gosh darn it, they say, they need to get out of the house, they’re stir crazy. At the College of Charleston, we’ll have to re-create our syllabi and fit in make-up classes. My summer garden will be toppled, flattened in spirals. It’ll be a nuisance — at least that’s what I’m most hopeful for — a repeat of what has happened twice before.

I’m lucky that I can entertain the thought of Hurricane Florence as a nuisance, but even this is overshadowed by certain catastrophe to the north where the impacts won’t be merely bothersome but biblical. Rain there is measured in feet and not inches; the color scale indicating rain accumulations grows a deeper gray as all the more alarming colors were spent further down the scale. As I sit here pitched on the edges of the cone of uncertainty, I’m reminded how much of our lives — if we are fortunate — unfold at the edge of a catastrophe that is always striking somewhere and striking hard, sometimes on a scale distant and unimaginable.