I woke to a terrible sound early Friday morning. It reminded me of the high-pitched notes made by blowing across the top of a glass bottle, but far more powerful. It was the sound of 90 miles-per-hour winds pounding against the walls and ripping the plywood from the windows of my home in Wilmington, North Carolina, just a few miles from Wrightsville Beach, where Hurricane Florence was making landfall.
I grew up outside Washington, D.C., where we had thunderstorms, but no tropical cyclones. I had no idea what it would be like to be in the direct line of a hurricane. Most of my friends had fled town. I decided to tough it out because I wasn’t willing to leave my cat behind, and I wanted to try to protect my house. I don’t regret staying, but it was a terrifying experience. Wilmington likely will be suffering for weeks or months to come.
I have heard and read a lot about climate change, but this is the first time I felt as though I had seen its effects firsthand. Scientists have shown that rising temperatures are making hurricanes more destructive by fueling faster wind speeds and heavier rainfall. The result is storms like Florence that are powerful enough to break dams, flood bridges and knock down power lines, leaving communities like mine defenseless. It’s astonishing to me that our climate-denying North Carolina state lawmakers passed a law six years ago banning the use of climate science in making coastal policies. They should take a stroll through my neighborhood today.
As soon as Florence hit, the power went off. The house grew dark and stiflingly hot. I tried to peek outside to see what was going on, but when I grabbed the doorknob, the wind blew the front door wide open. I struggled to pull it shut. Outside, wind and rain came from every direction, toppling trees in the park across the street. Branches flew through the air, and siding from neighboring houses landed in our yard. Had the winds been any faster, they might have leveled our one-story home.
My roommates and I hunkered down inside and listened to the rain pour down. I had gathered enough bottled water, bread, chips and sliced meat to last a week. For the first three days of the storm, I lived on turkey sandwiches. I probably ate 18 of them.
The storm continued unabated through the weekend. The air in the house remained stuffy and stale, but we couldn’t open the windows. Cold showers offered some relief, but not much. On Saturday, we got our hands on a small generator which allowed us to turn on the air conditioner and charge our phones, but the lights were still out, as was the water heater, and we only had so much fuel to run the generator.
By Sunday, the wind had eased, but the rain was at its worst. The main streets were flooded or blocked by fallen trees and downed power lines. We managed to get around town on side streets, though many of those were flooded. We turned down a road to find a car completely underwater.
We saw people outside their homes trying to clean up fallen branches from mangled trees. I went to check on a friend who lived nearby, taking off my shoes and socks and wading through knee-high water to get to her door. All the time I was sloshing through the water I couldn’t see my feet, and I worried about what lay beneath the surface. I had heard about snakes being carried into town in water that overflowed from the Cape Fear River. But I couldn’t think about that while worrying about my friend. Fortunately, she was OK.
It finally stopped raining on Monday, so I went out in search of gas. Flooding had rendered the main roads impassable, cutting off Wilmington from the rest of the state. It was hard to find fuel in town. When I finally happened upon a gas station that was open, I had to spend an hour waiting in line.
I’m tired, hot, wet and hungry. That’s unpleasant and inconvenient, but I’ll get over it. I had a lot of scary moments, but many people — nearly three dozen at last count— have died, and hundreds had to be rescued from the rising waters. I’m safe. My friends are safe. And my cat is safe.
It’s not clear when things will be normal again, but the people in Wilmington are wonderfully resilient, even in the face of catastrophe. Walking around town, everyone I saw smiled and asked, “Are you OK? Do you need anything?” A hurricane may destroy homes, but it can’t do away with Southern hospitality. Storms may get worse, but I can count on my neighbors to maintain their strength, dignity and humanity.
Ben Cimons, 28, lives and works in Wilmington, N.C.