North Carolina resident: Why this time feels different

Before moving to North Carolina's Lower Cape Fear nearly 30 years ago, I'd never witnessed the eye of a hurr...

Posted: Sep 13, 2018 5:11 AM
Updated: Sep 13, 2018 5:11 AM

Before moving to North Carolina's Lower Cape Fear nearly 30 years ago, I'd never witnessed the eye of a hurricane firsthand. Then, in 1996, I got to experience the eerie calm of the eye not once, but twice — when hurricanes Bertha and Fran swept over Wilmington within seven weeks of each other.

My then-wife and I always did what most people on the Cape Fear coast have done: We rode out every storm, with almost a sense of defiance. It didn't matter that we lived in a creaky 90-year-old, wood-frame house surrounded by monstrous trees. Hurricane Bertha — a Category 2 storm — peeled off our roof shingles as if scaling a fish. But in a short time, we had a new roof and were ready for the next storm.

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Eastern North Carolina has a long history of riding out hurricanes. But people here are taking hurricane preparedness more seriously than ever. Since the late 1990s, coastal flooding from storms has become more frequent and serious. With our current visitor, Florence, the most arresting difference is that it's a Category 4. The Carolinas have been slammed by only two storms of that ferocity before -- Hazel in 1954 and Hugo in 1989 -- and they are legendary.

Hurricane Bertha felled thousands of trees of every size across the region. Tall, long-leaf pines snapped like pencils at their midpoints, their downturned crowns often all pointing in the same direction. Hulking live oaks crushed vehicles and collapsed porches. And Bertha was only a Category 2. Only.

Less than two months later, hurricane Fran turned the steeples of the First Baptist Church in downtown Wilmington into swaths of red-brick rubble down Market Street. Built in 1870, the twin steeples had been among the town's tallest, most recognizable features of the skyline.

With a parade of storms coming through in a few years, southeastern North Carolina took its turn as "The Hurricane Coast." Neighbors of mine typically stayed on to deal with leaking roofs or broken windows before they caused major water damage. I'm hearing that rationale less often lately.

Everyone is taking Florence seriously. Mandatory evacuations of low-lying coastal areas, not just the beaches, were issued earlier for this storm than I recall happening before. In fact, I do not recall the entire county of New Hanover ever being asked to evacuate before. Schools and government offices have closed. Despite the long lines at gas stations and home-improvement stores, city traffic is light this Tuesday.

At the university where I work, a voluntary evacuation of students took effect Monday, a mandatory evacuation Tuesday. Classes are canceled all week. Exterior furniture has been stowed, fountains shut off. IT systems have been powered down. This afternoon, a Tuesday, the campus is vacant and eerily still.

Last October, my university coordinated a statewide hurricane preparedness drill to plan for a Category 5 hurricane. The five-day "Hurricane Zephyr" exercise involved hundreds of people at 14 UNC campuses, local emergency management offices, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Weather Service, the National Guard, and student volunteers.

The university's carefully orchestrated, proactive response to Hurricane Florence is very much a result of that exercise. As I write this, students without off-campus refuge, many of them internationals, are being bussed to a shelter at UNC Asheville, accompanied by several university staff. I've not seen such comprehensive, well-coordinated, proactive measures executed in advance of any previous storm.

Decisions to evacuate were often made late in the game, presumably to avoid acting unnecessarily, should the storm turn back to sea.

This longer view of preparedness is likely to become the norm. Evacuating a university, a beach or a county is costly, inconvenient and massively disruptive. But the fear of evacuating unnecessarily has been replaced by caution. Early evacuation gives everyone time to get to safety and reduces the risk of being stranded on windswept or flooded highways choked with vehicles.

That's not to say that everyone who lives within scent of sea spray will leave. But the number of people I've spoken with who are leaving is unprecedented in my experience.

This Tuesday afternoon, two days before Florence's predicted landfall, I, too, am fleeing inland — a no-brainer. I live in a ground-floor apartment in a neighborhood of mostly one-story homes, not far from a creek. Florence is predicted to slow down once it makes landfall, making severe flooding more likely. Tall pine trees surround the house, two of them standing far out of plumb due to previous storms. All the forecasts paint this storm as perhaps unprecedented in strength for this area.

Category 3s are scary enough. I don't need to stick around for a 4 to see how bad it can be.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 501097

Reported Deaths: 9990
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34338538
DeSoto32117403
Hinds31939628
Jackson24494382
Rankin21995390
Lee15543235
Madison14581280
Jones13851242
Forrest13453251
Lauderdale11991317
Lowndes11050188
Lamar10521135
Pearl River9533237
Lafayette8550140
Hancock7732127
Washington7438158
Oktibbeha7146131
Monroe6777177
Warren6694176
Pontotoc6664102
Neshoba6637206
Panola6531131
Marshall6467134
Bolivar6317148
Union602894
Pike5820152
Alcorn5669101
Lincoln5436135
George496879
Scott472898
Tippah469281
Prentiss467281
Leflore4658144
Itawamba4636105
Tate4588111
Adams4587119
Copiah448592
Simpson4446116
Yazoo444187
Wayne439772
Covington428894
Sunflower4239105
Marion4226108
Coahoma4160105
Leake408288
Newton381779
Grenada3707108
Stone360364
Tishomingo359792
Attala331589
Jasper329965
Winston314291
Clay308076
Chickasaw300367
Clarke292494
Calhoun279446
Holmes267987
Smith264050
Yalobusha234047
Tallahatchie228051
Greene219348
Walthall218763
Lawrence212940
Perry205556
Amite205156
Webster202946
Noxubee186740
Montgomery179656
Jefferson Davis171743
Carroll169138
Tunica159839
Benton148838
Kemper141941
Choctaw133426
Claiborne132737
Humphreys129538
Franklin120228
Quitman106428
Wilkinson105139
Jefferson94534
Sharkey64120
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 818652

Reported Deaths: 15378
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1147091924
Mobile724971336
Madison52231697
Shelby37575349
Baldwin37224549
Tuscaloosa35073612
Montgomery34092739
Lee23519246
Calhoun22221482
Morgan20910378
Etowah19816498
Marshall18338303
Houston17360412
St. Clair16034339
Cullman15406293
Limestone15328199
Elmore15186286
Lauderdale14270295
Talladega13827281
DeKalb12637261
Walker11180370
Blount10179176
Autauga9967148
Jackson9860183
Coffee9205191
Dale8884185
Colbert8840201
Tallapoosa7079198
Escambia6766132
Covington6706183
Chilton6633161
Russell635259
Franklin5959105
Chambers5607142
Marion4995126
Dallas4949200
Pike4791105
Clarke475484
Geneva4568127
Winston4507103
Lawrence4309117
Bibb424686
Barbour357576
Marengo337890
Monroe331463
Randolph329864
Butler325896
Pickens315682
Henry311966
Hale311188
Cherokee302360
Fayette292379
Washington251351
Cleburne247460
Crenshaw244875
Clay243068
Macon234163
Lamar223347
Conecuh185953
Coosa180040
Lowndes174764
Wilcox168739
Bullock151644
Perry138340
Sumter132938
Greene126644
Choctaw88227
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Columbus
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Oxford
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Starkville
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Clear cool and dry to begin your weekend, but both afternoons should be a little bit above what we expect for this time of year temperature wise. Rain chances begin to return late Sunday night, with at least two chances for storms over the next week, summer could be strong.
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