Wednesday, September 12, on the North Carolina coast. Tonight, Hurricane Florence will pass between Bermuda and the Bahamas, heading straight for the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina—my town. She is a storm 400 miles wide, with sustained winds in excess of 125 mph. Here on the shoulder of the Cape Fear River, we wait. The very atmosphere feels strange, eerie and charged. Most of the evacuees have already gone. Most of the preparations have already been made. We are now entering those brief hours between when man erects his order against the storm and when Mother Nature comes crashing in from the sea. A weird, meditative calm descends.
That will change.
I have a strange relationship with hurricanes. I grew up on the Georgia coast, where the major east-west highways have “contra-flow” lanes, so that eastbound traffic can be reversed in the event of a mandatory evacuation. One of my most powerful memories is Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, when I was sixteen years old. I drove my grandmother’s baby-blue Buick during the great exodus from the coast, crossing the highway median in that old land-yacht to drive west in the eastbound lane. Anxiety was at an all-time high. Tragedy lay on the horizon, quite literally. But people seemed galvanized. There was something epic in the venture. The gears of history were turning, and I was part of them. We all were.
I have seen it again here. Earlier, I had hopped on my bicycle for my daily ride to the coffee shop where I write each evening. The café had closed early, so I rode around the city’s downtown. Plywood was being nailed over windows, scrawled with well-wishes, prayers, and information on pet-friendly storm shelters.
“Pray for Wilmington.”
“Danger: Muenster Inside!”
Cars were being loaded into parking decks, high over the coming surge. The very air seemed to hum. People moved with grim, calm purpose. They nodded to one another in the street.
At such times, I find myself returning to the work of novelist Walker Percy and his Theory of Hurricanes. Percy believed that real-world crises like hurricanes could blow away the everyday “malaise” of existence—a “free-floating sense of despair,” writes author Walter Isaacson, “associated with the feeling that you’re not a part of the world or connected to the people in it. You are alienated, detached.”
But I believe the Cold War malaise of Walker Percy has evolved. I’m not sure the modern predicament is the same. Today, we are overstimulated and overattached. We are hyperaware. Who could possibly feel something so vague as malaise when there are so many acute worries? It seems our adrenal glands are constantly being gigged or triggered—some new anxiety or outrage every time we log on or tune in. Today, the malaise has been replaced with a dizzying roulette wheel of fears, each touted as worse than the last. This time it has been Hurricane Florence plastered across the news, invoking near-panic across the nation. But for the people of the Carolina coast, this is no mere sensationalism. This is a wheel of destruction the size of a state, aimed right for us. Still, I have seen no hysteria along the Cape Fear. I have seen action.
It is Thursday afternoon now. The eye is one hundred miles offshore, directly east, and the first outer bands are rolling over the beaches, thundering ashore. The kudzu-draped trees outside my window are heaving and swaying, dancing like monsters in the wind. The rain comes slanted out of an iron sky, streaming across the glass, as if this house were a speeding car.
Friends and family urged us to evacuate, but I was not confident in my 1987 BMW for such a haul…especially with three big dogs and no air conditioning. Instead, we have supplied ourselves with old bottles full of tap water, canned food, bottles of cheap “Tarjay rosé,” and two full tanks of fuel. We are lucky we can afford such supplies. There are people huddled in schools and shelters who could not. Tonight, I get to sleep at home. The storm is due to make landfall in a matter of hours.
Just before dawn on Friday, a heavy thump wakes me. The wind whistles and shrieks against the windows. The sky has a reddish glow; it flickers now and again with lightning. Strangely, no thunder. Out back, the kudzu-trees are being tormented. Their black shapes are bent nearly double, thrashing and whirling. When I turn on the deck light, I see leaves flying past the glass like a horde of insects, like locusts have come with the storm. The eye is thirty miles offshore. Florence, in all her terrible power, has arrived.
By midmorning, we have passed into the eye of the storm, the eeriest of calms. The windows of the house are plastered with leaves, like tree frogs spread against the glass, and the yard is littered with debris. Out back, the trees stand spindly and dazed, all but stripped of their kudzu. Some are broken, their trunks shattered into black jags. My favorite tree—“Shimma”—is simply gone, an empty spot against the sky. Still, the worst is yet to come.
Over the weekend, the rain will fall and fall, relentless, and the rivers and creeks will spill their banks. Residents of Eastern North Carolina will watch the waters rise in their yards, over the wheels of their cars and into their homes. They will have to be rescued by boat. Roads will collapse into sinkholes and major highways will flood, turning our city into an island. Thousands of evacuees will find themselves trapped on the far side of the waters, unable to come home.
I do not know when the rivers will fall and the roads open, but I know they will. I know the people of Wilmington and Eastern Carolina will recover. It is happening already. On Sunday, my neighbor Andy was out in his yard, in the rain—shirtless and brown-chested, with yellow hair—picking up debris. That night, he knocked on the door. When we opened it, he had a white styrofoam cup with a straw and lid in his hand—an unexpected sight.
“I wanted to tell y’all that hibachi express place on the other side of Target is open. I just got back—hardly anyone was in there yet!”
We could not believe it. It had been days since we’d had a hot meal—we were down to Clif bars and warm white wine. We hopped in the battered Saturn sedan and dodged our way to the restaurant. It seemed, in the span of an hour, the tiny takeout joint had been discovered. There were workers dressed like me, in hats and shorts and knee-high boots, and there were linemen from out-of-state who’d managed to caravan through the floodwaters in their bucket trucks.
Behind the counter, the family who ran the place worked through steam and flying grease. One of the sons could not have been more than thirteen. The girl at the register was using a calculator to ring up orders. She had takeout menus for tickets, circling items in ballpoint pen and hanging them on the order rail. The family was sweaty, stressed. But they were working hard to feed the people who would restore power, fix roofs, and clear storm drains.
As we sat in that clean, well-lighted place, rains continued to lash and pummel the world outside. Strangely, my heart swelled. This city might be an island, I thought, but we’re on it together.
Taylor Brown is a novelist based in Wilmington, North Carolina. His latest book is Gods of Howl Mountain.