How It Started
Last Tuesday I was having a fairly normal school day. Hurricane Matthew was well out on the periphery of my consciousness. I was thinking about planning, grading, deadlines, and delivering instruction. In between teaching and duties, I started to hear rumors about mid-morning. Hurricane Matthew was on a course that would possibly impact our area. Several people came to tell me that they had heard South Carolina governor Nikki Haley was going to order an evacuation of coastal South Carolina, and that school would be cancelled for the rest of the week. I started texting my daughter (she's living upstate on her own) and making plans. By third block we still hadn't heard anything official, but there were rumors flying about. Some of my students were scared or worried, and some of them were texting their parents. I teach all seniors this year, and many of my students had never had to evacuate for a hurricane. The last evacuation we had in this area was in 1999. By the end of third block we were openly discussing the possibility that there wouldn't be school for the rest of the week, and I was pleading with my students to bring their copy of Frankenstein if they had to evacuate. We were kept in suspense literally until the last minute: Nikki Haley had her press conference at 3:00, and at 3:30 the information that we were under evacuation order was public. Our school day ends at 3:40, and the announcement was made over the school loudspeaker at 3:39.
I live on an island, accessible by a single bridge, I had texted my husband, but when I called him at the end of the school day, he was in the midst of preparing to secure the boats he's responsible for: he works for a small, family-owned company that offers boat tours and dinner cruises. My first job was to secure a rental vehicle, which wasn't easy, even though I had reserved one earlier in the day. My daily commute is made in an Acura that has 203,000 miles on it---not the car you want to take on a long and arduous journey. The car rental place was in a state of panic, with the phone ringing continuously. Somehow I drove away in the last available car. I give my mother all the credit for this one: she taught me tenacity and a certain kind of authoritative attitude. When I left the car rental place there were more than a dozen island visitors or residents waiting in line, hoping that a car would be returned before the place closed.
When I got home I started to pack because Matthew was a category 4 storm, and I wasn't going to hang around to see what it would do to our little island. It was a surreal experience, and looking back I don't think I was thinking all that clearly. I remembered my medication, books, and phone chargers, but I didn't pack a single pair of shoes. I walked out wearing an old pair of flip-flops that I wear around the house. At the last minute I ran back in and grabbed one sweater.
My husband was already committed to staying the next day to work. They have a very small fleet (five boats) and he and a few other employees spent most of that day (evacuation day) moving the boats from the commercial dock to a spot between two small islands. They secured the vessels, removed electronics, dropped anchor, and hoped for the best. That took the entire day (mandatory evacuation for the area started Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.). Miraculously, the boats are apparently okay. A local captain did a post-hurricane trip around the area and reported that the boats look good.
Wednesday morning I left Hilton Head at 8:00 a.m. It was a horrible feeling. I hated leaving my husband behind. I knew he had to work, and I knew he still had a vehicle and could leave if he wanted to. But my husband is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, where there is no place to evacuate: there is no bridge! He's been through a major hurricane there, and he's physically strong and a survivor. Still, it was a bad feeling leaving him behind.
Because I left so far ahead of the official evacuation order, I avoided much of the traffic. I did hit a big traffic jam on I-26, as this is where all the Charleston evacuees were. A drive that should have taken less than four hours took five, but I count myself lucky. I reached the Charlotte, NC area by 2:00 p.m.
My Word of Advice
Evacuate. If you possibly can, leave. There are no material belongings that matter more than your safety and your life. Leave as early as you can, preferably before the official evacuation time. Traffic will only get worse. I think one reason people don't leave is that they dread being caught in the evacuation traffic, or they are afraid they won't be able to get back when they want to. But if you don't leave, you may be stuck in place for days or even weeks. There will be no power, no water, and no access to food or water. Every gas station in my area was out of gas by Thursday. Many stores were out of water. Then, after the hurricane hit, there was no electricity to run gas pumps or stores anyway. ATM machines were empty.
The Worst of It
The worst part was the waiting. My husband was alone in our apartment. He didn't want to leave and kept assuring me that he would be fine. Horrible images ran through my head, and I became instantly addicted to social media. I watched the hurricane move toward our coastline, and it was excruciating waiting and wondering. I was on the phone with my husband constantly quizzing him about who was still there at our apartment complex, and urging him to leave.
When the Hurricane Hit
The hurricane made landfall on our island on Friday night through the early hours of Saturday morning. At about 4:00 a.m. it got intense, but somehow our building made it through the storm intact. I think this is because we are on slightly higher ground, and because our building doesn't have any trees right next to it. Hilton Head has a natural beauty that comes from an abundance of vegetation, including beautiful old live oaks and other tall trees. But our trees are all well away from the building.
The Next Day: Silence
Thank goodness my husband kept cell service throughout the ordeal. The community where I teach, a few miles inland, is just getting some cellular service. My husband had no water, no electricity, and no contact with the outside world. The fire stations had evacuated the island on Thursday. He was truly on his own. Since I had internet access, I became my husband's contact with the outside world. I was on social media constantly, and locals formed an informal network that was really kind of amazing. A surprising number of people stayed on Hilton Head, and they were sending videos out relatively early. I was giving my husband reports about when fire and rescue personnel returned to the island, where one little grocery store was open on the island (they had no power, but brought locals in a few at a time--shopping by flashlight, cash only). There was no power or water on the island the first day, but by that evening, my husband had power. I still can't believe it, but I'm so relieved. If I was unable to talk to him it would have been awful, and he had no way to charge his phone. Note: get an extra phone battery and a car charger.
It takes time for things to return to normal.When a hurricane lands on your community, things aren't going to return to normal right away. Fortunately, we had no loss of life in our area. Things can be replaced.
There were trees everywhere on Hilton Head. Roadways were entirely blocked throughout the island. A few intrepid islanders posted videos that showed the destruction.
It's been a week since I evacuated. They only started letting people back into our county a couple of days ago. I still can't go home. The roadways had to be cleared, and fire stations and the local hospital had to be restored. Tomorrow afternoon they will begin to let people back onto the island. From what I understand, cars started lining up on the bridge yesterday. I'll wait one more day.
Firefighters Are Awesome
As soon as the firefighters returned to the island they started going door to door checking on people. They stopped by on Sunday, and were back again yesterday. They chat with my husband and offer him water and food. They'll be back again tomorrow.
People Love Their Normal Lives
My friends and colleagues ended up everywhere: Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio. Lots of people went to Augusta, Macon, Atlanta. Charlotte is full of evacuees. My sister and her family were in Charlotte, having evacuated from Charleston. I got to have lunch with my Charleston family, and dinner with Hilton Head friends all in one day. But everyone is ready to get back to their normal lives. People are anxious about their homes. Those who are able to get back cry tears of reliefe.
Evacuation is Expensive and Strenuous
Have a plan. Really. If you live paycheck to paycheck, evacuating can be incredibly stressful. It can hit you so hard in the wallet. I was lucky: lucky to have a regular paycheck, lucky to have a safe vehicle to use, lucky to have a place to go.
Fun Stuff I Did During My Evacuation
I watched Netflix (don't have time for that during the school year). I caught up on Luther, watching two seasons in two days. I read, but not as much as I expected to. I'm almost finished with Crime and Punishment. I bought a book (one!) because a trip to the bookstore was inevitable. But mostly I was on my computer, anxiously looking for news of how things were going back at home. I was on the phone with my husband constantly. If his phone had gone out it would not have been good. If there is a next time, I hope we will be together, because being separated for this amount of time is not good for either of us.
What I Learned
It's the people in my life that matter. I wasn't worried about my stuff. Well, okay, I worried about my books. I'm happy that the library I accumulated over decades is intact. The rest of it--just doesn't matter.
The friendships and family relationships I have sustained me through this ordeal. I kept in constant contact with friends and family, and that is what kept me going.
I really hope I never have to evacuate again, but I learned a few things about how to do that, too. And next time I will pack at least one pair of shoes.
I hope to be going home on Wednesday. I may kiss the ground.
We are so fortunate to live in a place with the resources and infra structure to handle weather emergencies when they happen. Haiti was completely devastated by Matthew, and had a horrifying loss of life. Friends of ours were part of the recovery operations after the earthquake, and the schools they helped build after the earthquake are gone. It's heartbreaking. We are lucky, lucky, lucky. Our actions need to reflect that. We should give from our abundance.
Nikki Haley handled the evacuation and public safety issues from the hurricane amazingly well,
My students and I will be back in the classroom next week, Together.
How did Hurricane Matthew affect you? Have you ever fled a natural disaster?