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Eyeing the hurricane

Florence was coming. But disaster didn't happen as expected.

By Glenn McDonald

It was the scariest map I’d ever seen.

On Monday, September 10, four days before the eventual landfall of Hurricane Florence, I clicked on a weather story on my phone. It featured a color-coded meteorological map showing the projected path of the hurricane. I zoomed in and traced the path inland. Uh-oh.

At that point, Florence was still far out at sea in the Atlantic Ocean, but it was clearly a monster. It had just been upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane, with peak intensity winds at 140 mph. The projected path had its eye passing over the Raleigh-Durham area.

I live in the Raleigh-Durham area — Chapel Hill, to be exact — and like everyone else in town, I commenced to freaking directly out. The gas station was mobbed. The grocery stores were swamped. Schools and colleges shut down. Those of us with friends and family on the coast started prepping couches for a wave of evacuees. For three straight days, all of us were glued to our TVs, our computer screens, our phones.

I couldn’t stop checking my phone and calling up that map. I couldn’t shake the image; I dreamed about it. Even my 10-year-old daughter, typically a ray of oblivious sunshine, was obsessively checking the Weather Channel. Like a psychic storm surge, the hurricane was pushing a wave of dread and anxiety ahead of it, amplified by our ubiquitous, insistent, always-on digital devices.

There’s an emotion that comes with a near-miss catastrophe like this: part relief and part concern, but also a note of letdown.

As it happens, Florence stalled off the Carolina coast, gradually weakened to Category 1, took a left turn, and made landfall on Friday of last week. You know the rest. The storm utterly devastated coastal communities from New Bern to Wilmington. Destructive winds, widespread flooding, and several spawned tornadoes have claimed 39 lives, at last official count. Officials estimate that more than 10,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed. The Cape Fear river crested at 25 feet above flood level. Hurricane Florence has been a catastrophic and life-changing event for a lot of people. It’s the story they’ll be telling their kids and grandkids.

In Chapel Hill, we got lucky. Due to shifting offshore weather, the storm was deflected south of the Raleigh-Durham area. We got high winds and some ominous skies, but that was about it.

There’s an emotion that comes with a near-miss catastrophe like this, but it doesn’t have a name, so far as I know. It’s part relief and part concern for those who weren’t so lucky. But there’s also a note of letdown in that emotional chord. The relentless media onslaught — the forecasts and warnings and those goddamn maps — had put a kind of electric charge into our collective limbic system. Our fight-or-flight instinct triggered, we were left with an adrenaline hangover and nowhere to go. So we went back to our computers and phones.

I spent much of this last weekend looking at videos of the destruction on the coast and the trauma my neighbors were enduring. It’s a 21st-century phenomenon, this compulsion — a side effect of our digital age habit of staying informed about everything, everywhere, all the time. Sociologists have a term for the broader dilemma, information overload, and psychologists are isolating more specific variants in which people obsessively seek out images and information that make them upset. Click around online and you can find a whole community of people that have trouble with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Part of it is just the dark thrill of disaster porn, but there’s something else happening. Watching so much tragedy from a safe digital remove summons a fundamental feeling of helplessness. In the wake of my near-miss experience with Hurricane Florence, I wanted to respond, to do something. Instead, I found myself watching endless news reports online. What’s worse, I saw my daughter doing the same thing.

I finally had my chance on Sunday morning, when Florence’s slow-motion assault arrived in Chapel Hill. Hours of overnight rain had triggered extensive flooding around town. Several of our neighbors had basements flooded out. I got a frantic call from an elderly neighbor, who had been house-sitting for a friend and woke up to discover the basement flooded with a foot of water. There was a cat meowing somewhere down there, but she couldn’t get to it.

I went over there with my teenage son and we staged an improvised cat rescue. Well, he did the rescue; I assumed a supervisory role. He waded into the water to track down the cat, which turned out to be stranded on stack of boxes. The cat also turned out to be big and mean as hell. We both got claw marks for our efforts, but I’m happy to report that the cat is now back to terrorizing everyone on dry land.

That’s his job — and the forecasters and media outlets were doing their jobs, too. The storm surge of information surely saved lives. It just created an odd tension for the rest of us. It’s too easy to experience other people’s pain as a spectator sport. The frisson of disaster, once removed, can be addictive. I imagine the map will always haunt me, but at least that cat owes me one. 

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and a frequent contributor to Experience.


Satellite image of Hurricane Florence in the Atlantic from NOAA via Associated Press.


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