Hurricane Florence: The Storm of a Lifetime That Wasn't. A juxtaposition of the national reporting and the week on the ground in Charleston, SC
Were all going to die! Everybody run for your lives! That was the message a full week ahead of hurricane Florence's potential landfall on the east coast of the United States. Even before it was actually a hurricane.
Saturday morning September 8th, while attempting to make a routine Costco run, there was already a line snaking around the store to the back where pallets of water were being brought in. Conversations in that line were overheard of people saying, "lets buy extra so we can sell it to people." Ahh capitalism. Way to look out for your neighbors. The gas line at Costco was out of control. No point in stopping.
Later that day a state of emergency was declared by the Governor of South Carolina. On a sunny 90-degree day this caught me by surprise. Is it me or did an emergency used to have actually happened in order to declare a state of emergency? Now apparently we declare them a week ahead of time based on the potential of an emergency.
On Sunday September 9th, before the storm was even a hurricane, NFL football was interrupted twice for a total of approximately 45 minutes by two separate press conferences - one from the Governor and one from the Mayors of Charleston and North Charleston South Carolina. The Governor was already telegraphing the issuance of a mandatory evacuation order for all the coastal counties 1 million residents. For a storm that was not even yet a hurricane, the Governor's press conference was theatre of darkness that Vincent Price would have admired. Fire and brimstone stuff. "Heed our warnings or pay the consequences" to paraphrase. By Sunday afternoon most of the gas stations in Charleston were already out of gas. All public conversations were about the storm. Hysteria building on schedule.
On Monday September 10th it was barely a hurricane, but the local Government and national media were sure this would be a Category 5 hurricane. There were actually stories about how there aren't category 6 hurricanes because after category 5 everything is gone anyway.
This was going to be, "the storm of a lifetime."
Dire indeed. Later that day Governor McMaster made good on his foreshadowing and announced a mandatory evacuation for all coastal counties in South Carolina effective noon on Tuesday. Family, friends and colleagues located in other parts of the country began to reach out as the drama was building heavy on their news feeds. People well out of the storm's path across the nation were becoming gripped by what I now refer to as "hurritainment" or the objectification of those suffering in the potential path of a hurricane for the entertainment of the masses. It’s a new genre.
Tuesday morning at 5am east bound lanes of I-26 (the main artery of South Carolina) were closed and being cleared in preparation for a lane reversal. There would be no more east bound traffic into Charleston until the storm was over. At noon lanes out of Charleston were reversed with some taking to the road to flee the foretold carnage. My mother and aunt among them heading to the mountains and high ground. I headed to a beach yoga class which was very well attended. Shout out to Melora and Serenity Tree Yoga for taking care of us. A swim in the ocean to cool off afterward revealed big, but very weak breaking swell. It was a beautiful day on the beach and a much better place to be than in traffic on the interstate.
After yoga, I headed to our local Walmart to grab a quart of oil for the car. To my surprise it was already closed and actually barricaded with pallets at all entrances. This was before the noon evacuation order even came into effect. Way to help the community in their time of need Walmart. Luckily most of the local establishments and even many of the national firms remained open.
The national hurricane center updates the official forecast a couple of times per day. 5am, 11am and 5pm. As of 5 am Wednesday it became more apparent that the storm would head to North Carolina and eventually the mountains threatening my family that evacuated there. This was not unlike Hurricane Matthew in 2016 where folks evacuated to Columbia, SC and then were subsequently evacuated from there or caught in the floods that took place as the rainwater made its way down the rivers. In anticipation of an evacuation in Asheville, my family made plans to head further west to Nashville, TN. Atlanta hotels had apparently already been spoken for.
In Charleston, despite the evacuation order, Wednesday morning was business as usual. My wife went to work. The gym was open and most of the scheduled classes even took place. Surprisingly there was little talk of the hurricane by people working out there as there had been since Saturday.
Wednesday afternoon, after a full day of appointments with clients in DC and Washington state (local appointments had cancelled), rather than going straight to https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/ I lazily googled "hurricane" and the stories that came up from the national media were alarming to put mildly. I picked up my phone to see the badgering mandatory evacuation text reminders that had been sent from the county. Rather than continuing to the reliable data driven sites I normally referred to, I turned on the TV to the Weather Channel to see predictions of a situation just short of the zombie apocalypse. Changing the channel to a local newscast was less dire, but still not what I expected with them touting the potential for significant damage to Charleston. Then I changed the channel and found Dave Williams the local weatherman on ABC News 4 Charleston. Shout out to Dave as he calmly explained the very remote possibility of damage to the lowcountry. While I am no weatherman, Dave confirmed what my 18 years of experience looking at NOAA hurricane maps told me; that this thing was weakening and there was a remote chance it would have any impact on Charleston as far north as it was heading. This was the last time I felt any anxiety regarding the storm so thank you Dave. But how could the different news sources see and present the same data so differently? Could it be an agenda?
Wednesday night in spite of a "mandatory" evacuation, the restaurants in our neighborhood were mostly open, FULL and the people were having a good time. Most of us, who had been through this many times, were going about our lives. Interestingly though, the restaurant had all of their TVs tuned to national hurricane coverage and the maps on their forecasts differed drastically from what Dave Williams had calmly explained earlier. Their maps continued to have giant swatches of red seemingly traversing the entire southeastern united states and were still touting "the storm of a lifetime." One of the quotes stated this storm would change life as we know it in many parts of the southeast.
Many of the patrons in the restaurant conversed with one another about the ridiculously overdramatized coverage by those seizing their opportunity to prove their worth to advertisers in keeping eyeballs locked to screens. At one point, an emergency evacuation text message, hit everyone's cell phones in the restaurant at the same time and was met with a collective laugh. Most of the locals were making what would have sounded like emboldened predictions if you believed the news of "no impact to Charleston." There was zero palpable concern from the people on the ground even as early as Wednesday.
By Thursday the words "still" and "possible" started to enter the media conversation. It is at this point you can basically count on being in the clear. These words are primarily uttered by those desperately trying to keep the attention of viewers. Charleston was now officially forecast to receive 25 MPH sustained wind and 2-4 inches of rain. Anybody who has lived on the coast for any period of time knows we don't need a hurricane to experience these conditions. There was actually a month's period of time during this summer where I was woken up every night by thunderstorms some of those yielding greater rain totals that predicted with this storm. Yet somehow The Weather Channel was still broadcasting an impending Armageddon. To my infuriation, press conferences from local officials continued to sound dire. Thursday afternoon during yet another press conference, the Charleston County Coroner suggested that anybody who ignored the evacuation order remain in the safety of their homes (even as it was known the storm's impact was at least 24 hours away and the weather was absolutely beautiful). If we were to venture out, be sure to have ID on our person so that we could be identified if found (implying deceased in the flood waters to come).
The negative impacts of a "mandatory" evacuation became apparent on Thursday. The gym was closed. Far fewer restaurants remained open Thursday night as they began to run out of supplies because trucks could no longer traverse the interstate. In fact, Thursday night we ventured downtown Charleston to explore and it was very quiet. Hardly anything was open on the market or surrounding areas. Many of the places had boarded up their windows and few lights were on, but there were people out at Waterfront Park and as we walked up East Bay near Broad we could hear live music. Shout out to 1 Broad Street as they were having one hell of a party with as many people jammed into their space as could fit.
I honestly don't know why other bars and restaurants downtown who had supplies weren't open as it was a very pleasant night.
Walking down the Battery we encountered The Weather Channel talking with some kids who desperately wanted to get on TV. The reporter basically explained to them that there was little interest in the Charleston as there wasn't anything major expected to happen here and that the activity would be focused on Wilmington, NC. Hmmmm that was a bit different than what was being said during their liveshots.
Friday, again the weather was beautiful. With the gym still inexplicably closed I ventured out for a run in the neighborhood. By 9 am it was already in the 80s and the blazing sun made 3 miles a chore. There were no outward signs of impending doom other than some of the newer houses in the neighborhood had attempted to board up their windows many stretching a single sheet of plywood across only the top half of their windows (I guess a 50/50 chance of flying debris hitting high and not breaking the window allowing rain to enter the home). If this was a dress rehearsal, we may need a class for these new coastal dwellers. Cover 100% or don't bother people.
The final bit of foretelling came Friday, when the national media who so heavily touted this storm to be a Category 5 started saying "don't worry about the category of the storm" it will still be a monster. At that point it was all over. Nothing to see here at least for Charleston. I think we had about an 8% probability of even tropical storm force winds (39 to 73 mph winds) reaching James island which is roughly 4 miles from the Charleston coast yet the "mandatory evacuation" order remained in effect.
I still expected some wind and that we would wake up Saturday morning having lost power and have to tough it out for a day or so without modern conveniences. I awoke Saturday to the hum of the air conditioning and a 75-degree room which was a pleasant surprise. It was raining a bit and there were some gusts but absent all of the hoopla of the preceding week I would have thought it nothing more than a routine bad weather day. After the boredom of being stuck in the house and despite the mandatory evacuation still being in effect, we ventured to the movies which were once again fully operational (they actually never closed) and packed. Shout out to the Terrace Theater on James Island. Throughout the day Saturday we saw the rain come down in Wilmington, New Bern and the surrounding areas as the media scrambled around to try and find some debris to point out. At some point the big story was that a tree fell on a house and caused a couple of fatalities. This, along with several poor souls who had electrocuted themselves attempting to start their generators, was reported as the justification for a week of ranting and raving.
Social media produced some hilarious content about the catastrophe that wasn't. The Weather Channel reporter bracing himself against the wind during a live shot only to have two twenty somethings waltz by with zero distress encapsulated the sentiment best. If you missed it you can find it here:
Reality Sets In
The hype machine will tell you this storm was unpredictable. It actually made landfall within five miles of the original forecast nearly a week earlier. The only parts of it that were "unpredictable" were those that were sensationalized for the gain of those reporting it.
It wasn't a Category 5 "hurricane of a lifetime" when it made landfall. It was a Category 1. Even still some news outlets (CNN) continue to report headlines with "Storm of the Century." Besides being completely inaccurate, this a complete insult to the nearly 2,000 deaths from Katrina in New Orleans and 3,000 in Puerto Rico and both occurred within a teenager's lifetime.
Charleston NEVER actually made it out of hurricane watch status which means that hurricane conditions (sustained winds of 74 mph or higher) are possible within the next 48 hours as opposed to the elevated hurricane warning which means such winds are expected. It baffles my mind why there was a mandatory evacuation and why it wasn't lifted sooner based on the information that unfolded during the week. This would have freed up lodging for those who actually needed to be evacuated.
Even just a few years ago Charleston would have gone under hurricane watch and potentially a voluntary evacuation order at worst. Instead I had clients in their 60s and 70s moving furniture and all of their earthly belongings to the second floors of their homes and leaving town under such great stress it is amazing it didn't kill more people from heart attacks. 1 million people in all were evacuated from the entire South Carolina coast for no apparent reason. A million people, 90% of which were never in significant danger in their homes, forced on to the road all at the same time. Let that sink in.
South Carolina's Governor McMaster is up for re-election in November, I wonder how much of this was predicated on the health and safety of South Carolina's residents vs the old adage of never letting a tragedy go to waste in getting face time with the people who will vote in 6 weeks’ time. It’s the only logical explanation I can see for what took place. Beware crying wolf too often or everyone will ignore the order at the worst possible time.
There was also the confirmation that live television is dying and it is clear those whose incomes and stock prices rely on it will now stop at nothing short of insighting a riot to draw the last few eyeballs. There is zero credibility left in the national media. Their function now is simply to sensationalize and should be ignored. Actually something really needs to be done about this because nothing good can come from fabricated stories presented as fact to manipulate viewers. Propaganda is dangerous.
The Take Away
Just like choosing a financial planner, the most prudent action is to rely on conflict-of-interest free information. Seek out the data you need firsthand by accessing information sources whose income doesn't rely on selling you something. This time my sources were https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/ and http://www.spaghettimodels.com/ma11.html (who I hadn't previously used). Make the best decision you can based on this information and be ready for the consequences that result good or bad. Don't be manipulated by authorities who remind you of these consequences. Dealing with the consequences of your decisions and actions is part of being an adult and is implied.
Finally, I don't want to give the appearance that this storm was completely innocuous. On the contrary it was and remains to be absolutely devastating to a small portion of the people evacuated from northern South Carolina and the people of southern North Carolina. While we feel fortunate to have been spared from literally any of the predicted carnage, our hearts go out to that small population of folks whose lives will inevitably be changed by this storm.