If you’re a native of the Lowcountry and eligible for AARP membership, you’ve experienced your share of hurricanes (or, as we pronounce them down here, hur-rah-kens). Gracie is the first one I remember, which hit in September of’59, my first full month of first grade. My parents, adventurous folk, rented a small cottage in Summerville and had little to lose, so the preparations for the storm took on a rather festive air. Gracie offered excitement – a glorious pre-storm sunset, the solemn glow of hurricane lamps, howling winds, and a week off from school spent scrambling up and down uprooted oaks, their tangle of limbs creating grotto-like openings and aerial opportunities for make-believe Johnny Weissmullers.
After Gracie, whenever a hurricane churned its way northward from the Caribbean, I desperately wished it would strike so that we’d miss school and enjoy the romance of 19th century lighting and outdoor grilling. Alas, my boyhood hopes were always dashed, though a few storms coyly teased us every so often, only to run off to North Carolina and the Outer Banks. At any rate, I had become very interested in hurricanes and became very good at determining their ultimate destination, a talent that has served me well.
There was one pre-Hugo glancing blow, Hurricane David, but I was grown, in fact, lawfully wedded, and living in the Andrew Moffett House on East Bay Street. JBirdsong and I-and-I hauled our furniture, paintings and books to the upper floor to avoid a storm surge that never materialized. Yet, I confess, I still wanted David to hit. For some perverse reason, I craved chaos. Concerned relatives cajoled us to flee inland, but I told them I suspected that the Moffett House had seen its share of hurricanes and would hold up just fine, thank you.
By the time Hugo appeared in ’89, we were homeowners on the Isle of Palms with two springer spaniels and two sons. Harrison was in kindergarten, and, like his ol’ man, was about to experience some hurricane vacation, though his was to be longer and a lot less fun-filled. As a matter of fact, Hugo destroyed his school, and he had to finish the year inland in Mt. Pleasant at Whitesides Elementary.
As the storm approached, I could see we were about to get clobbered. This hurricane wasn’t following the typical pattern of sweeping up from Florida but was funneling between upper level low and high pressure systems. Hugo was bearing down on Charleston from the wide open ocean.
Pressure drop, oh, pressure drop!
On the Tuesday before Thursday’s landfall, I went to hear Allan Garganus read from his just published The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All at Chapter Two Bookstore. I bought a copy, had him sign it, drove home, and boarded up the house in the dark.
With dogs, sons, photographs, books, paintings, and insurance policies in tow, we drove to Summerville around eleven, spent the night, and were off to Columbia by six the next morning, beating the horrid traffic jams to follow. The Garganus novel ended up being a good antidote for the ensuing destruction. Reading about the horrors of Reconstruction put our plight in perspective.
So, I’ll spare you the saga of our homelessness – the inability to return to the island to find out if we still had a house, the pulling up ocean-soaked carpets, etc. and instead offer these photos, all taken by JBirdsong:
Perhaps, however, my greatest Hurricane coup was deciding to ride out Floyd here on Folly in 1999. We avoided the nightmarish gridlock of I-26 where it literally took hours to inch up a couple of car lengths. (I’d rather huddle in a closet in fetal position all night than be stuck in non-moving Interstate traffic).
Floyd was the typical Florida skirter who bumps more northerly than the prognosticators predict, and having seen this phenomenon so many times in the past and realizing that Floyd was no Hugo, we enjoyed a night of swaying on pilings in gale force winds and watching the transformers blow across James Island. As an added benefit, the next day, no one but residents could return, and the boys and I had the 6th Street swell all to ourselves.
Of course, I no longer wish for hurricanes, but as soon as I saw the Irene’s first trajectory, I knew that she wouldn’t be hitting Charleston. In fact, I was sorry that school closed because I wanted to organize a happy hour expedition to Blu to watch the breakers from the front beach. I knew the surf was going to be enormous because on Thursday evening we could see from our deck waves crashing out beyond Morris Island.
Alas, when I awakened Friday at 5:30 to walk Saisy, a phone message informed me that school was cancelled. JBirdsong, on the other hand, drove inland to Berkeley County for a half day of work, which, given the looming daylong power outage, wasn’t that bad of a fate.
By 7:30 a power pole had snapped and fallen across the bridge, robbing us of electricity and all of its beloved by-products – air-conditioning, lights, refrigeration, and the Internet, so Ned and I drove down to the Washout to check out the waves. There, a professional photographer informed us that the beach was closed to traffic. Lance Crosby, the cat who rakes reeds and builds dunes on the east beach, regaled us with his libertarian views on public drinking and pissing. “Where are the Port-o-lets?” he asked, extending his arms in exasperation. “People were drinking on this beach before we were born and people will be drinking on this beach after we’re gone.”
A few brave surfers made it outside and were rewarded with some steep and hairy drops but no one was, as they say, “ripping it up.”
Lance said he thought it was better at 6th, my spot of choice. Here’s a shot by Ned of 6th Street:
So once Judy got home we spent a lovely day sitting on the bug free deck being buffeted by the winds, and sure enough, once the storm passed, we were treated by one of those surreal hurricane sunsets, as beautiful a phenomenon you’re likely to witness on the 3rd planet from the sun.
The breathtaking beauty lasted at least a half hour with every ensuing second bringing a different shade – robin egg blue, sherbet orange, aquas, and purples.
Heaven on earth and the very best aftermath imaginable – a few shorn palm fronds, some reeds on the dock, and a sky whose beauty affirms the pricelessness of being alive to witness.
It’s enough to make you type something stupid like “bring on the next one.”