Before moving to North Carolina's Lower Cape Fear nearly 30 years ago, I'd never witnessed the eye of a hurricane firsthand. Then, in 1996, I got to experience the eerie calm of the eye not once, but twice — when hurricanes Bertha and Fran swept over Wilmington within seven weeks of each other.
My then-wife and I always did what most people on the Cape Fear coast have done: We rode out every storm, with almost a sense of defiance. It didn't matter that we lived in a creaky 90-year-old, wood-frame house surrounded by monstrous trees. Hurricane Bertha — a Category 2 storm — peeled off our roof shingles as if scaling a fish. But in a short time, we had a new roof and were ready for the next storm.
Eastern North Carolina has a long history of riding out hurricanes. But people here are taking hurricane preparedness more seriously than ever. Since the late 1990s, coastal flooding from storms has become more frequent and serious. With our current visitor, Florence, the most arresting difference is that it's a Category 4. The Carolinas have been slammed by only two storms of that ferocity before -- Hazel in 1954 and Hugo in 1989 -- and they are legendary.
Hurricane Bertha felled thousands of trees of every size across the region. Tall, long-leaf pines snapped like pencils at their midpoints, their downturned crowns often all pointing in the same direction. Hulking live oaks crushed vehicles and collapsed porches. And Bertha was only a Category 2. Only.
Less than two months later, hurricane Fran turned the steeples of the First Baptist Church in downtown Wilmington into swaths of red-brick rubble down Market Street. Built in 1870, the twin steeples had been among the town's tallest, most recognizable features of the skyline.
With a parade of storms coming through in a few years, southeastern North Carolina took its turn as "The Hurricane Coast." Neighbors of mine typically stayed on to deal with leaking roofs or broken windows before they caused major water damage. I'm hearing that rationale less often lately.
Everyone is taking Florence seriously. Mandatory evacuations of low-lying coastal areas, not just the beaches, were issued earlier for this storm than I recall happening before. In fact, I do not recall the entire county of New Hanover ever being asked to evacuate before. Schools and government offices have closed. Despite the long lines at gas stations and home-improvement stores, city traffic is light this Tuesday.
At the university where I work, a voluntary evacuation of students took effect Monday, a mandatory evacuation Tuesday. Classes are canceled all week. Exterior furniture has been stowed, fountains shut off. IT systems have been powered down. This afternoon, a Tuesday, the campus is vacant and eerily still.
Last October, my university coordinated a statewide hurricane preparedness drill to plan for a Category 5 hurricane. The five-day "Hurricane Zephyr" exercise involved hundreds of people at 14 UNC campuses, local emergency management offices, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Weather Service, the National Guard, and student volunteers.
The university's carefully orchestrated, proactive response to Hurricane Florence is very much a result of that exercise. As I write this, students without off-campus refuge, many of them internationals, are being bussed to a shelter at UNC Asheville, accompanied by several university staff. I've not seen such comprehensive, well-coordinated, proactive measures executed in advance of any previous storm.
That wasn't always the case. Decisions to evacuate were often made late in the game, presumably to avoid acting unnecessarily, should the storm turn back to sea.
This longer view of preparedness is likely to become the norm. Evacuating a university, a beach or a county is costly, inconvenient and massively disruptive. But the fear of evacuating unnecessarily has been replaced by caution. Early evacuation gives everyone time to get to safety and reduces the risk of being stranded on windswept or flooded highways choked with vehicles.
That's not to say that everyone who lives within scent of sea spray will leave. But the number of people I've spoken with who are leaving is unprecedented in my experience.
This Tuesday afternoon, two days before Florence's predicted landfall, I, too, am fleeing inland — a no-brainer. I live in a ground-floor apartment in a neighborhood of mostly one-story homes, not far from a creek. Florence is predicted to slow down once it makes landfall, making severe flooding more likely. Tall pine trees surround the house, two of them standing far out of plumb due to previous storms. All the forecasts paint this storm as perhaps unprecedented in strength for this area.
Category 3s are scary enough. I don't need to stick around for a 4 to see how bad it can be.