An Evacuee’s Perspective
Wednesday, September 12
The street light across the boulevard cast its usual cool twilight on our one-year-old house, as I turned the key in the car to evacuate ahead of the monster Hurricane Florence. It was so peaceful at 6 a.m. No other souls stirred in the neighborhood this morning. The palm trees on the front lawn rattled gently in the light breeze. In the darkness, Bobbie and I could scarcely make out the beautiful Carolina blue color on the home we had come to love so much since moving to Ocean Isle Beach a year ago July. Bobbie wondered what we might return to after nature’s wild dance. Category 4 Florence was coming, but it was going to be a nice day. The calm before the storm.
We pulled away slowly, craning our necks for a last look. Mandatory evacuation. Every weather model I could find showed “Flo” moving this way, or that way, but not the interior Georgia way. So, on to Macon, Georgia we would go. Taking familiar back roads to South Carolina, and into North Myrtle Beach, we were surprised at how few cars were on the road. Where was everyone? We followed the established escape route inland. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster smartly directed all roads leading to the beaches be reversed, so traffic moved westward only. State and local police, and the National Guard, positioned themselves at every crossroads to ensure drivers would not make a tragic wrong turn. Smooth. Efficient. We were impressed.
Having lived for decades on the Outer Banks, we encountered all kinds of hurricanes, and nor’easters that had been worse than hurricanes. But we never met a CAT4. Bobbie said, this one is going to be different. There was just a different feel about it, and we couldn’t divorce the ride to safety ahead of us, from the unpleasant prospects at home. But one thing was certain: We were not going to die as a consequence of Hurricane Florence. With a CAT4, not much stands. We tried to blot it from our minds and have a nice trip to a place we had never been.
Eight hours later we found our pet-friendly hotel on the outskirts of Macon. The Carrabba’s Restaurant within walking distance would work just fine. We ate at the bar so we could watch the Weather Channel, to which we became addicted for the week. The mind is already fuzzy, but I recall the great prognosticators declaring Flo reduced to a CAT3. We’ll take it.
Thursday, September 13
Over the next two days, I believe a miracle occurred through the amazing power of collective prayer. Hurricane Florence would make landfall near Wilmington on Friday, and drop to a CAT2, then a CAT1. The windwheel was fading, but the weather experts had no reason for it. Bobbie and I went into downtown Macon for the first time, to explore.
We didn’t know what to expect. We learned immediately that Macon is not Atlanta. At one point in the 1800s it was as far west as Americans had chosen to go. It’s old residential and factory brick buildings still stand, with many of them vacant. It’s the fourth largest city in Georgia. There’s a revival of sorts happening in the city proper, as folks in suburbia desire to live in a city atmosphere, where shops and restaurants are within walking distance. Pricey lofts in pre-Civil War buildings are all the rage, although there is not a huge population in the city’s center right now. The multi-story structures and long boulevards are covered by 170,000 cherry trees, which provide an attractive, shade-covered and inviting environment for residents and visitors, alike. The shade is a good selling point, too, because Georgia is hot, and it was 95 degrees.
Bobbie and I made our first stop the Macon visitor center. We must have looked like lost puppies. It didn’t take long for the employees to identify us as evacuees, and they immediately wanted to do anything possible to ease our trauma. Would you like a tour of the city, they asked? Free of charge. Located smack dab in the center of the state, we were about to learn a great deal about “The Heart of Georgia,” and the hospitable heart of its people.
Macon is one of those cities that keeps alive the architectural splendor of the Old South. The tour passed by some of the largest and most beautiful collections of antebellum churches and homes, in the south of America.
We checked out the only house in Macon hit and damaged in the Civil War; a seven-story mansion with an 80-foot cupola; and the former home of the Allman Brothers Band, which holds the world’s largest collection of their memorabilia. The motto of Macon is “Where Soul Lives,” and it hosts the mini-museum of the King of Soul, Otis Redding, with exhibits and displays provided by his family. There’s a museum of arts and sciences, museums of aviation and African American art, history and culture, an authentic cotton plantation nearby, and several expansive churches.
When the tour ended, Bobbie and I wanted to give the driver and historian a tip, but they refused. And then they told us the city was providing evacuees with free entry to some of the city’s amazing attractions. Our hearts were truly touched.
We wanted to pray, so we returned to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, of which the tour guide sang praises. On the National Register of Historic Places, this 19th Century gem is called, “The Jewel of the South.” It is a massive church, with cross-topped twin spires in the Romanesque, Neo-Gothic style. It’s adorned with Bavarian stained-glass windows and awe-inspiring Italian marble carvings. Visitors are welcomed outside by a statue of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Bobbie and I thought about this holy family’s evacuation to Egypt from another kind of hurricane, named Herod. We prayed for the evacuees and those in harm’s way. I asked Jesus to stop the wind, as He did in the boat on Lake Galilee.
Humbled by the beauty and hospitality of this city, we went to our hotel home to check on Facebook and neighbors who had decided to stay home during the hurricane, and to do some face time with the Weather Channel. Florence was an anomaly, somehow powerful yet sleepy in its pace, still offshore but very near home.
Friday, September 14
It was crunch time. When we awoke and turned on the TV, the Weather Channel described the wind-swath which had pounced on Wilmington, with a broad breezy reach north to the Outer Banks, and south, just licking our beloved Ocean Isle Beach. Although now “only” a tropical storm, Flo was a creeper, crawling slower than most of us can walk. This meant that torrential rains of up to 30 inches would raise the rivers, lakes and ponds, overwhelm street storm drainage systems, and render normally dry places totally underwater. At some point we started receiving alerts from Brunswick County’s CodeRED notification system that there was flash flooding on our street. We heard from neighbors that the power was out, but best they could tell there was not any serious damage — yet. Psychologically it helped not to be there, and to delude ourselves by visiting some Macon sites.
I have always loved the stand-out voice of Otis Redding, and memories of (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay in the 1960s. What a treat to see where he and his family lived in Macon, and where he performed with the greats, such as James Brown. Bobbie and I were the only early morning visitors to The Otis Redding Foundation & Otis Redding Mini-Museum this day. We had the Foundation director all to ourselves, and she told us about the exciting work in which they were involved. At their annual summer camp, for instance, children received music lessons, got a chance to write and perform their own tunes, and even learn about the business of music production. The family still lives locally, and misses their loved one who died too young, too soon, in a plane crash. We bought some items from the museum to support the cause, and cracked open the CD of Redding’s biggest hits in the car. I especially enjoy his heart-wrung, “Try A Little Tenderness,” and “I’ve been Loving You too Long (To Stop Now).” The folks in the museum were very kind to us and wished us well.
We couldn’t resist a free entry into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. The cashier was so sweet to us, and escorted us to the movie for an introduction to the museum. She made sure we had accompanying literature and chatted for a long time after we had taken our time inside. This is the largest state sports hall in the U.S. There are 300 inductees and 4,000 artifacts. Exciting for me was the jacket worn by members of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team, where Georgian Steve Lundquist won two swimming gold medals. I had been a torchbearer for those Los Angeles games, and still have my cherished jacket.
Before leaving, the wonderful lady let us know there was a very special annual event taking place the next day – a celebration of Native American heritage and culture at the 17,000-year-old Ocmulgee National Monument. Not to be missed!
Before we left, we received a CodeRED that our street was flash-flooding.
Saturday, September 15
The photos and videos coming in from Facebook and TV were heartbreaking. Our neighbor couldn’t get his generator started, and prospects for restored power were somewhere in the future. Soon, refrigerated foods would spoil, and those without air conditioning certainly were already uncomfortable. The image of hundreds of people in the sweltering shelters at home was difficult. CodeRED spouted new warnings of flooding in the neighborhood, but those who quickly ventured outside assured that it was not terrible in Ocean Isle – yet. Florence spun a slo-mo dance skyward, pouring down all the ocean moisture it had collected from weeks at sea.
On the east side of Macon is the Ocmulgee National Monument. The site evidences continuous human settlement stretching back 17,000 years. It is sacred to Native Americans, not least because of the ceremonial mounds built by the Mississippians around a millennium ago. These pyramid-shaped structures demonstrate high levels of technical skill, especially the Great Temple Mound, which stands 19 yards in height. The smaller Earth Lodge has a fireplace and 47 moulded seats where the culture’s high priests met.
Every year, the Muscogee (Creek) natives return there from Oklahoma. That’s where they landed after being banished from Georgia during the Trail of Tears. They come back to honor their ancestors and to thank Mother Earth for her powerful beauty. They thank her by dancing, singing, drumming, telling stories and fluting. I joined in the opening ceremony, which is a counterclockwise dance. The natives believe Mother Earth’s power is clockwise, and they dance in the opposite direction – like a hurricane – to help her slow down and preserve her power. I prayed as I danced for Hurricane Flo to slow down, but to end her power.
Sunday, September 16
Bobbie and I decided to attend services at St. Joseph’s Church. I do not think the homilist realized how many people with out-of-state plates were in the church, and that he was addressing so many evacuees. However, we felt blessed that the congregation prayed for all those affected by the storm.
We had checked on Flo before church, and we were, and are, grateful. If this is what a tropical storm could do, we cannot absolutely envision what a strong Category 4 would do.
All the CodeRED messages aside, neighbors assured us our neighborhood, and Ocean Isle Beach was generally spared, but still without power. Don’t return, they said, until power is restored. Images continued to pour in of the immense damage all around southeastern Carolina. Bobbie and I made a reservation at a hotel near Charleston, SC, in hopes of getting at least half way home the next day.
Monday, September 17
We had planned to sleep a little later than usual, and leave for Charleston after breakfast. The news about road closings and flooding was not good, but we felt it was time to travel. Bobbie slept as I checked Facebook. Super news. Our neighbor wrote that power was back on. I woke her gently and said the plan had changed. Time to rise and get ready for a longer ride than expected. We’re going home.
The hotel housekeeper and staff had been very attentive, and I announced to the front desk clerk, we were on our way. “Have a nice life,” he beamed, Macon-style.
The trip home was mostly uneventful. Route 17 off I-95 all the way, with only a short road-flood crawl on Pawley’s Island. A few lingering raindrops. And home.
Hurricanes past, Bobbie and I have experienced the backbreaking limbs down, the horizontal rain penetrating the ceilings, windows and walls. Our house has shaken so hard, the toilet water threatened to spill to the floors. We have felt our heart rates rise as the gusts screamed at us with scary window-whistles throughout the nights. We hunkered under blankets away from potential breaking glass, trying to ease the shivering fright of our little pets. So many times we have hauled the propane tanks, filled the spare gas cans, cranked up the generator, and prayed for it all to stop. But never for a CAT4. For all the pain that our surrounding neighbors are going through, we truly understand, and we are back home where we can help with food, clothing and a hand. But it could have been deathly worse. We thank God he arose and rebuked the wind as in Galilee. Imagine what it might have been.
When we opened the door to our home, it smelled like the new house that it is. What an amazing fragrance. Home. No flooding. No damage. I flipped on the TV and it worked. Selecting the Pandora app, the oldies channel was on and starting a song. It was Otis Redding’s, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now).” Bobbie and I looked at each other in disbelief. Really? Thank you, Macon, for caring, and for showing Carolina’s evacuees the heart of Georgia.