Hurricane Evacuations: Lessons in Minimalism
I’m tired of hurricanes. I’m tired of flooding. And most of all, I’m tired of evacuating.
I grew up in a coastal Florida town that has an altitude of 16 feet. I currently live in a coastal South Carolina town with an altitude of 20 feet (on a good day after a few Bloody Marys), earning it the title “Lowcountry”, and both are regularly plagued by hurricanes and flooding. (Hell, Charleston now regularly floods WITHOUT any rain.)
Each fall when hurricane season hits its peak, some storm comes along (they all blur together after a while), there’s a mad dash to the gas station, the grocery stores sell out of bottled water while we make the same tired jokes about stocking up on wine instead of water, the weathermen reach a giddy state of near-hysteria while we think up clever hashtags, and my phone lights up with “Are you riding it out or going?” texts.
In my childhood it was the delight of unexpected days off school quickly followed by the frustration of being cooped up inside for a day or so, and sometimes the restless humid nights of sticky sheets that come with power outages in Florida. Oh, and the flooding around town.
We never evacuated. My parents’ home is over 100 years old, three stories tall, and not in a flood zone... and parents, whose youths were spent in the Orlando area and Miami, respectively, are no strangers to hurricanes. (I suggest everyone take mandatory evacuations seriously, but this was my youth.)
More than that, though, we’ve dodged bullets. The Gulf Stream swings out just along the coast of Jacksonville, offering protection as it steers hurricanes toward the Carolinas, where I currently live. The devastation that you see from storms like Hugo, Andrew, Katrina, Irma, is horrifying and terrifying. That threat is real. Those are people like me, like you, like my elderly next door neighbor. They’re vulnerable, unsuspecting, just trying to enjoy their lives and somehow still pay taxes, ordinary people at the mercy of the wind and water. I can’t speak for those who have lost everything in these storms, I won’t even try to imagine out of respect for their pain. I’m grateful to have repeatedly come out unscathed, but that gnawing fear has made me bone weary.
In adulthood, an oncoming storm means calling my mortgage company to make sure they did in fact renew my flood insurance (every September), anxiously checking hurricane projections, finding an evacuation hidey hole willing to take my sweet but ridiculously high energy dog, packing up my belongings, and wondering if sandbags would even do any good.
I live in a flood zone. It floods for real.
During “The Great Flood” of 2015, caused in part by Tropical Storm Joaquin, my property and neighborhood was heavily flooded. I did photograph a wedding that weekend, but only because some woman named Emily was able to pick me up on the high spot in my street in her husband’s SCDNR truck. I waded out with my camera gear over my head, wondering how much one stumble would cost me and how much further the water would rise while I was gone. The bride’s ceremony venue was closed down and reception site was shut down by government order. She had a beautiful wedding at a family friend’s home on higher ground, and everyone used the hashtag #joaquindowntheaisle.
The next year around the same time we were under threat of Hurricane Matthew. Get your things and get out, get on the road by 4AM, the bride mentioned above said. We bonded during her hurricane wedding, and her husband worked for SCDNR. After an exhausting day of tucking away anything in the yard that could launch itself against my windows and shatter them, packing up everything of personal significance and cramming it into my car, and lifting everything else I cared about onto tables and shelves in my house, I loaded my dog in the car and got on the road. There was traffic at 4AM, and I wasn’t even entirely sure where we were going - just higher ground. A family friend took us in at their beautiful mountain home in Cashiers. The wedding I had scheduled to shoot that weekend was called off and moved when government ordinance forced the venue to shut down. The bride moved her wedding to a new city, though one still in the cone of the hurricane. I found her a wonderful and talented photographer local to her new location after no less that 10 calls (which was still in the hurricane’s path), and we both cried. I later looked and her photos were beautiful, by the way. A friend who stayed in town drove his truck as close to my house as flooding allowed and sent photos. Once again the yard flooded but I emerged unscathed - a tree fell on my friend’s house, however.
Last year brought a new level of anxiety with the unpredictable Hurricane Irma. Slated for a solid hit to the Charleston area at the time, we bought and cut plywood for the windows of my home and my boyfriend’s house and rental property while I tried to reassure a sweet bride whose guests were canceling on account of the storm, who had to move her wedding date forward a day and now use her rehearsal dinner spot as her venue. We waited in unbelievably long lines for gas, and then the gas stations sold out. We got an AirBnB in Asheville. I packed up everything that had belonged to my grandmother in one backpack. If a category three hurricane made landfall in Charleston, there would be water in my home. Then the hurricane pivoted away from us, and still the flooding came. I relocated to my boyfriend’s house on the more elevated side of town. Higher in the yard than Joaquin, but still not to the steps. Garbage drifted blocks in the tide of water and littered my front yard, the wind blew part of my boyfriend’s fence away. A friend on the marsh whose house is on stilts watched the water rise higher and higher in his garage.
And today I’m writing this from my parents’ home in Florida, once again following mandatory evacuation orders. They’ll tell you they dodged last year’s storm without issue. But they’re Floridians. Without issue meant the restaurant down the street had feet of standing water inside. Bridges were impassable. Flooding reached the top of the wrought iron fence at a local park. Water damaged in the roof caused the popcorn ceiling they never got around to removing to rain in the kitchen of their three story home, and a family friend had to be rescued by boat and was living in the guest house. As hurricane veterans, Floridians eye hurricanes a little differently.
Evacuations exhaust me because I know a direct hit from a hurricane would likely mean somewhere between several inches to several feet of water INSIDE my home, my beloved first home I purchased all by myself as a single woman, which can cause catastrophic damage. It would mean changes to a city I love, damage and loss to people I love. I remember the storms on the news. I won’t even let the horrors of Katrina or Harvey come to mind. I tell myself there’s no chance it will be THIS storm. Not THIS time. Not to ME. Not the people I love. And likely, this time, it won’t be. But what about the next hurricane? The one after that?
What about the people who aren’t in a position to evacuate? Don’t kid yourself, evacuating can be incredibly expensive and not everyone has somewhere to go or is able bodied enough to do so each time an evacuation is declared (which is about once a year at this point). Not only must your car be in the condition to move you, your children, and all your belongings you intend to keep often a full state away, there’s the cost of gas, of hotel rooms (if you can find ones to allow animals, if you have them), of eating out until the storm passes. Evacuating can be a privilege not everyone can afford.
We the privileged laugh our way through evacuations -or hurrications, as we frequently call them - as much as we stress through them. When the storms don’t come, those who stay throw hurricane parties and canoe their way down the flooded out streets of historic Charleston. You’ve seen it on the news. We get happy hour the next week and trade storm stories, roll our eyes at the previous panic. Those who lived through Hurricane Hugo in Charleston react a little differently. They KNOW. They saw and they can’t forget.
We are lucky to be in a position to laugh, and we know it. We dread the day it will be our turn. Living here means an annual game of Russian roulette where your home, local economy, and people’s lives are at stake.
This post isn’t meant to be about the fear or the way my heart squeezes for those who have lost everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - in previous storms.
This post is about what I’ve learned from my evacuations:
What you pack is what matters.
The rest is just shit you own.
Each time I pack up my car, I put supplies for my dog in first. Then comes my camera gear, followed by hard drives and a box of photos, both respectively packed with memories. I pick through and locate all the jewelry I have from my grandmothers - mostly costume jewelry with precious memories on the price tags. Then a suitcase of clothes for the trip.
Each time I leave my house, I take that last look over my shoulder at my home, my things. There are things in there I’d like to keep. But I can certainly live without them. Most of the things I own I wouldn’t miss and probably wouldn’t bother to replace. Would it royally derail my life in the short term if I lost everything? Absolutely, and I don’t mean to diminish the struggle of those who HAVE lost everything.
Not everyone is in a situation to recover from the devastation of a storm. Please remember this.
When a storm is approaching you realize…
It’s the people that matter.
And that’s the lesson to be learned from evacuating.
Your belongings are just stuff. I’d still have the memories of my grandmothers without their jewelry, Gracie’s watercolor paintings, even without the photos. I want to keep these things, but they’re simply symbols and reminders of people I’ve loved.
Each time I’ve evacuated, I’ve taken a moment to watch the people around me. We check on each other. Do you have a plan? Do you need help? We open our homes to each other, to friends of friends, to strangers. We carpool, we take care of each other’s animals. We check on each other’s houses, even in hurricane-strength winds. We help each other cut plywood, we help strangers at Lowe’s load supplies into their cars. Neighbors I don’t know well keep an eye out for looters as they weather out the storm. Former clients reach out to see if there’s any way they can help and send me tips from insurance companies on how to document all my belongings before the storm comes.
These moments of kindness are the things I can’t live without.
As this storm approaches, take a moment to take stock of the relationships in your life. Reach out to those you love. Help a stranger.
Storms. They’re better when weathered together.