I never thought I’d make my home without the Atlantic right there in my peripheral vision. More than a decade after leaving the coast for the piedmont, the water girl-turned-woman in me keeps a browser window open to the latest forecasts, dreading the computer-modeled paths for each storm.
It stays open from August until November arrives and another hurricane season passes.
The coastal town where my parents and brother still live, where I left at 18 and have never lived as an adult, is again at the margins of my thoughts. My digital weather eye trains on the place where I came from, hundreds of miles away, where I can only grind my teeth in my sleep and pray for the mercy of oceanic currents and low fronts sent by God or some other kind of benevolence.
My Yankee-transplant parents brought me home to a barrier island, where they'd planted our family's roots in the maritime forest between the shifting dunes and the pluff mud. We had just enough elevation to hope our part of that island would be around past Labor Day, even if the dunes and the tidal marshes failed to blunt the force of something blowing up from the Caribbean.
Our hummock of wax myrtles was a haven in the scrubby leaves from the traffic of summer’s tourist high season. The trees were a playground custom made for climbing. Some of my earliest memories are of the fall of 1989, when everyone else had left and I could run around as a mostly-naked toddler. That same season saw my parents board up our windows and stuff the station wagon with photo albums. That was the season I got my first pair of shoes, because my parents evacuated us for Hurricane Hugo. It followed us to Charlotte. My mother still tells stories about the way our hotel windows flexed with the pressure of the storm and how quickly they left again for the relative safety of Atlanta.
Sometimes we came back to sigh in relief, sometimes to set up the sump pump because something named Fran, or Floyd had “hit.” At five, I knew hitting wasn’t nice, but that this kind of hitting was different.
The layers of life close to sea-level don’t wash away. I learned early to track that specific pop-up thunderstorm pattern that brews up the Ashley River and races across the harbor against the sea breeze. I taught others how to recognize the tang of ozone that comes with lightning and what to do about it. Pull that boat out of the water, get away from that mast. Maybe most vividly, leave it, we don’t have time.
I still think about that leaving.
That barrier island taught me more about how the natural world than I realized until after I moved away. I warned college friends about incoming rain on a regular basis, and I wasn’t often wrong. I know things that sometimes surprise me—things like why pine trees are a liability when the hurricanes roll in. They lance houses like pins through a cushion, or lean too hard and crush whatever’s below.
That same island taught me other lessons about the artificial, man-made world. I learned that we were lucky to have a station wagon, lucky not to depend on water in a bathtub for days, lucky to take our old people with us. I learned that leaving itself was a kind of good fortune. I learned that getting safely away meant we had a responsibility to those who couldn’t leave when we came back. I remember days clearing brush and checking on people, dropping off groceries and water. I think of the farm workers who bundled up cosmos in the Post & Courier at the farmstand whom we later saw in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot with all of their possessions. I think of my babysitter and her nieces and nephews, who rarely had the cash to get around in normal circumstances, who’d stay in their house on its cinderblock foundation while the storm brewed. I think about the Catholic nuns who had been on the islands since the 1930s and sure as heck weren’t going anywhere.
The unfamiliar, unseasonable cool blowing through my windows prickles my senses. This timing isn't right. It’s too early, I think, as I pedal my bike up the now-familiar hills of the inland town that I’ve made my home.
Here I am, hoping that I’m wrong, that the coming storm won’t do the damage I know is about to happen to someone, whether my past-places or another’s home. I should be there to help, like I was for evacuations in the past. My parents are aging, though their autonomy and stubborn resolve aren’t. It’s a mixed blessing. My thoughts rotate around a central axis of worry. Is my mom up on that ladder without someone to spot her? What if their evacuation plan lands them in a day of traffic? What about my brother and the service jobs he depends on?
I remind myself that at least they can gas up the car and go. At least they tell me the insurance is paid up and hanging plywood isn’t worth it anymore. At least they’re not new to this. I hear them check all the boxes in our phone calls, from repeating that stuff is just stuff to the video diary of the house, right down to freezing a new lasagne, for whatever reason that’s important.
I want a part in this evacuation, to help. They say they won’t come to me and my house that’s too small for as many adults as we are now. They say they don’t want to intrude, though this season hardly cares about upending the Southern politeness we’ve adopted as a family. Before, when my brother and I were still portably-sized, we could have turned it into a sleepover, the living room a fort, the house a place where the adults could watch the storm and their children play havoc, one more distracting than the other.
Now, I dream about more space in my landlocked adult life, where I could offer them shelter the way they found it for all of us in deadly Septembers past. This November, I heave the usual sigh of relief layered with another kind of emotional heft. I know this is the first of a series of changes in our hurricane seasons, where the new storms come ashore both here and there won’t move aside for any of us. Lucky we have plenty of practice taking what matters and keeping on going, coming back to assess the situation and put the pieces where they should go.