A WEEK ago, when Hurricane Matthew was still just a swirling blob over the Atlantic, some of you knew exactly what to do.
Those with clear means and ways took the cue from South Carolina to gas up and start packing. Others started securing their perimeters, coolly making a run for batteries, beer and extra toilet paper while nailing down the shutters.
The rest of us vacillated in a sine curve of indecision, trying to suss out the best situation for ourselves given the unpredictability of this 500-mile wide monster. It lumbered slowly but evasively, like the injured roach you chase all over the kitchen that still manages to slip under the fridge.
Should we stay or should we go? we sang with a half-hearted shimmy, stoked to have a true punk reason to invoke The Clash but also seriously conflicted in our adulting.
If we go there will be trouble, the very least of which might include hotels we can’t afford, valuables left behind and being stuck for 18 hours on the highway with a farting dog.
But if we stay there could be double, as in power outages, food shortages, mass destruction and possibly worse.
Some of us got caught in a roiling eddy of ADD and OCD as Matthew churned towards the Bahamas. We packed suitcases and filled up the bathtub. We cleaned out the Red & White of sardines and Gatorade then fell asleep in the hallway while putting all the photo albums in plastic tubs. Conversations went in circles. Maybe they went something like this:
Spouse #1, glued to weather app: This is going to hit us hard. We should leave.
Spouse #2: OK. Where do we go?
Spouse #1: Oh, I’m not going anywhere.
Spouse #2: Uh, what.
Spouse #1: You take the kids. I need to protect the house and business.
Spouse #2: With what, a BB gun and a golf umbrella? No way, we’re sticking together.
Spouse #1: Hurricanes don’t really hit Savannah anyway.
Spouse #2: So we’re staying?
Spouse #1: I didn’t say that.
Spouse #2: I’ll be over here stress eating all the ice cream.
County and state officials seemed stymied as well, issuing partial evacuations for the islands but hedging a full out mandatory evacuation for the Georgia Coast even as photos of heartbreaking devastation in Haiti emerged. We looked to the dataheads for assurance, especially the analysis of local Enki Research. We pored over the meteorological data and radar rainbows, trying to pinpoint ourselves in the cone of uncertainty.
Flummoxed by the thought of merging with several hundred thousand drivers who can’t even handle coming off the Truman at rush hour or facing a wall of seawater, we remained in flux. The conditions worsened by the hour, devolving into a state of useless inebriation heretofore known as “Hurricane Brain.”
Spouse #1: What do you want to do?
Spouse #2: I don’t know. What do you want to do?
Spouse #1: We sound like the vultures from The Jungle Book. [dancing around like a bird] I dunno, whatchu wanna doo? I dunno, whatCHU—
Spouse #2: Your British accent is awful and I want to slap you.
*Blink at each other for ten seconds then repeat until friend sends a photo of $5 hurricane cocktails at Cotton & Rye.
Spouse #2: I’ll be over here, collecting tiny paper umbrellas.
The truth is, leaving home as disaster bears down is one of the hardest calls any of us will ever have to make. Even if all we really own is some nice paintings, garage sale dinner plates and a Rooms to Go couch, our houses are our nests and our refuge. Abandoning them to the elements—both natural and human—feels like giving up everything we cherish.
As Matthew buzzsawed Cuba and headed for Florida, plenty of seasoned storm watchers decided that Matthew might rattle the windows and down few trees, but wouldn’t be bad enough to bail. Others dug in for logistical and financial reasons, though transportation and provisions were in ostensibly place for my disabled neighbors, others with special needs and the homeless.
Some didn’t have a choice. The brave men and women who serve as our firefighters, police, doctors, nurses, hospital admin and government staff sent their families off to safety and squared up, enduring poor planning by upper management (most had to provide their own food) and the unnecessary shenanigans of assholes who just stuck around to party.
Finally, CEMA announced evacuation orders, which was our family’s tipping point.
We got on the road without a clear destination, since every pet-friendly hotel, VRBO and Airbnb within a 200-mile radius was booked. We pulled onto Highway 17, following South Carolina’s official evacuation route via Augusta. It was shockingly empty, probably because our neighbors to the north had a day and half head start.
Spouse #1: Whelp. Any suggestions for this evacu-cation?
Kid #1: Can we go to Harry Potter World?
Kid #2: It apparated to Canada for the hurricane, stupid.
Spouse #2: Canada! Maybe Justin Trudeau will take us in. [swoons]
Sobered by the suffering in Haiti, Syria and that of the other 65 million refugees around the world fleeing bombs and starvation and torture, we couldn’t even pretend to relate. I mean, no matter where we ended up, no one was going to spit on us and call us rapists and terrorists. Unless we got lost in the swamps with a Bernie sticker on the back of the Subaru.
We were unbelievably fortunate that friends Jay Winner and Nancy Wallace offered up their place in western North Carolina, where we gathered in a sports bar with climate exiles from as far away as Florida. Tethered by digital clouds as Matthew’s began to sweep water onto the Georgia coast, we spent Friday night and the wee hours of Saturday riveted by the Weather Channel and the drunken ribaldry of Jeremy Ribardy and Steve Todd from a Tybee Island parking garage.
The next day brought a stream of soft disaster porn, from downed pines knifing through roofs and broken grandmother oaks in Forsyth Park to docks swept away and flooded living rooms. Our buddy Tommy Holland’s morning cruise down our block revealed that our house came through intact, though the neighbors three doors down now have a patio instead of a porch.
Some who dug in slept through the wind and rain; others were shaken and terrified. Though most avoided the worst of it, there was also news of terrible loss, including the tragic death of Isle of Hope’s Jefferson Davis, a young father who’d stayed behind, and several denizens of the Presidents Street homeless camp are still missing.
As of this writing, the city is back open though mostly without electricity. Some have rushed back, others are heeding the pleas of first responders and Georgia Power to stay the hell out of the way while they do their jobs.
The miracle of connectivity is showing us myriad stories of kindness and cooperation, but also revealing tension between the “stayers” and “goers,” a disturbing and unnecessary rift for a community that must rebuild together. As I watched from afar as friends in town rushed to each other’s aid and comfort, I will admit I felt a tiny bit envious of their shared experience of surviving the eye of the storm.
But looking at my spouse and the children and the dog sleeping safely on a borrowed couch, I have no regrets.