PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C.
From dark and stormy to clear and breezy, the coastline that a million or so of us evacuated two weeks ago now looks like any other perfect day at the beach.
The only signs of there having been any weather at all are a few scattered piles of pine straw in the street. Yet doom is rising all around us, with rivers close to peaking and expected to soon overflow.
This storm, Florence, just can’t seem to quit.
Readers may recall a recent column I wrote about leaving my little coastal hut and treasured belongings as I headed west toward our inland home. At the time, Florence was a Category 4 hurricane headed straight for us, at least in one or two projection models. Florence, which dillydallied like some red-bonneted child going to grandma’s house, had weakened to a Category 1 by landfall near Wrightsville Beach, N.C.
Even so, a hurricane is a hurricane, and, as we’ve seen, can still be lethal. Even inland communities aren’t immune from such a storm, especially one the width and breadth of Florence. At our inland home, which lies about 155 miles southwest of Wrightsville Beach, it was all hands — and hammers — on deck.
We covered windows with plywood and piled sandbags at basement entrances. We stocked two slow cookers with roasts and stews — enough food to feed our sons and other family from Charleston. Tubs were filled with water, the generator got a test run, and invitations went out to friends and strangers who might need a place to stay for a while.
If this sounds like much ado, please remember Hurricane Hugo, which, like Florence, headed inland and wreaked havoc in cities such as Columbia, S.C., and Charlotte — and even as far as the Blue Ridge Mountains. Our property, which is partly wooded, lost at least 100 trees during Hugo. We were ready.
We waited. And waited. Days went by as Florence hovered just off the coast.
Day after day brought sweltering heat and thick, body-hugging humidity that felt like wearing a damp, nylon bodysuit. Every so often, a branch would stir. More waiting.
It is a peculiar feature of human nature and experience to become fully mobilized and impressively efficient in preparation for a disaster, and then, when it spares you, to feel vaguely disappointed. We had a few wind gusts and sporadic showers; trees shed their brittle twigs and dead branches. But nothing biblical came our way, visiting death and destruction elsewhere instead. The death toll in the Carolinas and Virginia is at 42 thus far.
No one came to stay. The crowd we had expected from Charleston decided to stay put since the storm was heading straight for us in Camden. We sent vats of food out to other households.
We are, of course, deeply grateful.
And, now, back at the beach, we wait again, this time for record-breaking flooding that’s expected to begin Sunday and continue into next week. The most vulnerable areas are Horry and Georgetown counties. I live in the latter but am between the ocean and the rivers, relatively safe from both disaster zones.
The city of Georgetown, recently identified by USA Today as the nation’s best coastal small town, is a 15-minute drive south from here. Five South Carolina rivers flow through there into the Atlantic Ocean, and waters are expected to rise substantially as trillions of gallons of dumped water flow back to the sea. Friday, city officials were handing out 15,000 sandbags, while area residents went scavenging for more. A white truck circled my block Friday morning and pulled in next door to me. The driver, noting my quizzical look as I was walking Ollie the blind poodle, explained that he lived by the Waccamaw River and had been urged to grab the 30 or so leftover sandbags stacked outside my neighbor’s garage.
It was the neighborly thing to do. Though neighborliness always runs high in the South, especially in coastal communities, goodwill has been cresting lately as strangers chatted about Florence in checkout lines. Among the many heartwarming stories from the past couple of weeks has been the work of volunteers and animal shelters to relocate dogs and cats from hazardous areas to safer ones.
As for my own little hut and the belongings I worriedly left behind, all were intact upon my return here Wednesday. It took two days to restore order from the mess I created in an overabundance of caution. But, then, one never knows.
The forecast promised a splendiferous weekend, with blue skies and a cool, steady ocean breeze dropping hints of fall. Perfection isn’t too strong a word to use. And yet, they say the deluge is coming.