Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hanna, Ike, and Josephine

I grew up and spent a good part of my life in northern Ohio. We had blizzards, ice storms, tornadoes, and the occasional flash flood. Typical Midwest stuff. My first experience of hurricanes came a couple of years after we’d purchased our first vacation condo on Hilton Head, South Carolina. Hugo blew by just a whisker north of the island and spent its wrath on beautiful Charleston. I had a niece going to college there at the time, and she and some of her equally insane friends decided to ride out the storm in a house down on the Battery, a row of antebellum structures which directly face the water. Only two good things came out of their youthful stupidity: they all survived, and I learned a healthy respect for the power of tropical storms from listening to their horrifying descriptions of roofs being ripped off and large boats ending up smashed to splinters in the front yard.

Oh, and I used some of their experiences while writing a hurricane scene in my second book, AND NOT A PENNY MORE. When you’re a writer, no good story ever goes to waste.
So when I moved to Hilton Head permanently, I felt fairly well-prepared to deal with our infrequent brushes with hurricanes, comforted by the fact that the island hasn’t taken a direct hit since 1893. We’ve evacuated three times in the nearly fifteen years we’ve been here, nightmare excursions of heat and exhaust fumes and not being able to stop to go to the bathroom for hours. The absolute worst part was pulling away from my marshfront townhouse, hoping I’d managed to stuff everything important in my life into the back seat and trunk, and glancing over my shoulder wondering if I’d have anything to come back to.

And after every one of those anxiety-ridden, desperate flights away from our island, the storm ended up hitting North Carolina, hundreds of miles from our shores.

Okay, the scene is set. Fast-forward to the first week of September. On that Friday, the 5th, I was throwing a birthday party for my dear husband. Beachfront party facility rented, caterers engaged, nearly 100 RSVPs received. It was a particularly significant birthday. Friends and family were driving in from Tennessee and Florida, flying in from Ohio and Texas.

Then murmurs began about the “Big Three” rumbling around out there in the Atlantic. A follow-the-leader trio of tropical depressions quickly morphing into tropical storms: Hanna, Ike, and Josephine. I flipped on the Weather Channel and rarely left it for a week. Hanna looked like the most likely to give us trouble here on the Southeast coast. For a few days she meandered around the Bahamas and Hispaniola, doing swoops and dips and circling back on herself, flirting with hurricane status but never quite getting there. Then she headed north.

We’ll be okay, I kept saying to myself. It’ll skirt on by and give us a little rain. Maybe some wind. I can live with that. But before long, Hilton Head had become ground zero in their little “cone of disaster” models. I toyed with canceling the party. Everyone said not to worry. They’re almost never right five days out. I waited. The cone shifted slightly north and east. Inexorably Hilton Head moved to the outer limits of the danger zone. The weather forecasts ameliorated. Forty per cent chance of showers. Winds around 25 mph. We’d had worse conditions in summer thunderstorms. I forged ahead.

Then Friday morning dawned, the storm shifted slightly back west, and the rumors began. Just a trickle at first, but soon the whole island was abuzz. Voluntary evacuation. Mandatory evacuation. The only bridge off the island would be closed because of anticipated high winds. Our small commercial airport would close. Businesses and government offices were shutting down and sending their employees home early. My anxiety level, fed over the past few days by the ever-increasing doom and gloom predictions of the forecasters, rose to almost unbearable levels. Cancel the party? Get out of town ourselves? What about the people coming in from out of state? Would they be stopped at the bridge? Could those flying in be rerouted to Savannah?

It began raining about noon. Nothing heavy or continuous, just a few short bursts followed by calm. In my mystery novels, my character, Bay Tanner, is fond of saying, “In for a penny” when she’s about to embark upon some action she isn’t quite certain will prove to have been the wisest choice. It became my mantra. I dressed in my party duds, loaded the decorations and my husband into the car between rain bands, and headed for the beach. If no one else showed up, we’d be drinking a lot of wine and eating a lot of leftovers.

But this story has a happy ending. The dire predictions proved inflated. Once again. Yes, it rained. Yes, we had a little wind. The Beach Club at Shipyard proved a perfect spot from which to watch the waves, higher than usual but not threatening, tumble onto the shoreline. Everyone from out of town made it, including the fliers. And so did most of the guests. A few were scared off, but it was still a hell of party. It’s certainly a birthday my husband won’t soon forget, for any number of reasons.

There’s a point to all this. I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the folks on Galveston Island who didn’t evacuate ahead of Hurricane Ike. The devastation wrought there after the storm passed made my heart hurt. It was truly a “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling. It could happen to us one day. But all the wolf-crying that goes on whenever a hurricane develops has jaded many of us who could potentially be in harm’s way. So many times the predictions for landfall are off by hundreds of miles, and tens of thousands of people have evacuated or boarded up, stripped the stores bare of bottled water and batteries, and suffered days of anxiety, only to be told, as Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner as Emily Latella used to say: “Never mind.”

So I’m cutting the Galveston folks some slack. Unfortunately, their decision to stay proved disastrous, even fatal for some of them. It was a bad choice. But it’s one most of us on the hurricane-prone coasts can understand.

Except if Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel suddenly shows up in town. Then you definitely want to get out of Dodge.

Kathy Wall grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. She and her husband Norman have lived on Hilton Head Island since 1994. Her 8th Bay Tanner mystery, The Mercy Oak, was released in May by St. Martin’s Press. Watch for Covenant Hall coming next spring. Visit her at .

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