Coastwide
As Hurricane Dorian moved closer to Charleston on Wednesday, people who chosen not to evacuate watched waves crash at The Battery. Matthew Fortner/Staff

The boy who cried hurricane? Annual storm scares can leave residents jaded

They binged on Netflix and junk food. They dusted off board games and wrestled crosswords. They read. They drank. When the power went out, one family grilled frozen pizzas.

Many students and teachers hadn’t been back at school for two weeks before this week’s surprise “hurrication” used up their weather make-up days for the year. Again.

For the fourth time in as many years, coastal South Carolinians lost another spate of school days, work days, tourism dollars and belief that the collective trauma of Hurricane Hugo will repeat itself anytime soon. Fed up and worn out, hundreds of thousands of them stayed home despite Gov. Henry McMaster’s mandatory evacuation of the coast as Hurricane Dorian taunted Florida, a sluggish bully just out of arm’s reach and headed our way.

With the farewell of yet another major storm that proved not as destructive as forecasters feared, hurricane fatigue has settled in along the coast. It creates an interesting cognitive dissonance given the increasing frequency and intensity of these storms means that the risks are increasing just as the fatigue grows more numbing. Plus, the year remains young, as measured by hurricanes.

Michael Emlaw, meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Charleston office, recognizes the challenge.

“It’s the boy who cried wolf syndrome.”

However, what if Hurricane Dorian, with its 115 mph winds, had joggled just 30 or 40 miles closer to Charleston, as it easily could have? And what if no one listened to the warnings?

“I worry we’ll get a Hugo type of storm coming at us,” Emlaw said. “It’s the horror story that I have nightmares about.”

Fourth year uncharmed

Elizabeth Fishburne, mother of an infant and a 4-year-old, normally evacuates and stays with family in Atlanta. Doing so for each of the past three years has meant preparing their West Ashley home for a major storm, packing everyone up, driving for five hours and then watching from afar for several days as the storm proves not to be a catastrophic event.

Rinse and repeat.

This time, on the fourth year, she looked at Dorian and declined. It started with Monday’s evacuation order, which she thought was way too soon.

“It started my mindset of this being ridiculous,” she said.

Fishburne is sympathetic to officials’ efforts to save lives and limbs. She’s lived here for 18 years. She’s seen many hurricanes come and go. “But people are getting tired of the same story over and over again,” Fishburne said.

Ditto for Paul Chernoff, a waiter at the upscale Palmetto Café and former restaurant owner, who was shocked Monday morning to hear about the evacuation order.

“I was like, what?

He saw a storm in no big hurry and not headed right at Charleston to boot.

He didn’t leave town until after the storm — and then only because everything was closed and he had no electricity.

Susan Cutter has studied hurricane evacuations in the state for more than 20 years and sees the hurricane fatigue even from Columbia where she is director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

She thinks officials need to do a better job of explaining why McMaster called for an evacuation and reversed the lanes of Interstate 26 early Monday for a storm whose winds didn’t arrive until well after most people were asleep Wednesday into Thursday. Why does it take 24 to 36 hours to mobilize and get people out of harm’s way?

“People are being asked to evacuate on a sunny day,” Cutter said. “They don’t see the urgency in it.”

They often don’t believe it either, partly due to information overload and partly due to the broader national tenor.

“We don’t believe authority figures, and we don’t respect the perceived authority’s information,” Cutter said.

The National Hurricane Center, the weather service division that tracks and predicts tropical weather systems in our corner of the world, issues official big-picture news and predictions. The local office then fine tunes that for emergency managers who, in turn, make decisions about resources and evacuations aimed at saving lives.

But, beyond these agencies, residents now have many more sources of information to weigh, more news sources to consume, more opinions of their own to form. And many more places to vent them.

There are websites, Facebook pages, Twitter banter, Weather Channel reporters facing down wind gales, forecast models in the form of spaghetti and cones. People can follow the storm’s every jostle and swerve and form their own conclusions.

Emlaw and his wife saw people who chose to evacuate mocked on social media. Others sparred with the state’s chief Emergency Management Division spokesman, over cell phone alerts that read “Residents Must Leave Now.”

“Who the hell do you think y’all are telling us to leave?” one man challenged in a direct message.

An hours-long commentary ensued.

Dark clouds, silver linings

Charleston County Treasurer Mary Tinkler didn’t evacuate so she could help answer citizen helplines at the Emergency Operations Center. But once the storm finally gusted into town, neighbors contacted her.

A giant white oak tree had slammed onto the front of her house.

“Small house, big tree,” she explained. It took off part of the front roof and allowed water damage inside. But it could have been downright frightening.

Thankfully, her family and dogs had evacuated. Given they were OK, she was OK.

“This is what they warn you about,” she said. “This is why they do it, to make sure that lives aren’t lost.”

While flying in a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter on Friday surveying Charleston, Mayor John Tecklenburg also saw a silver lining in the hurricane clouds.

“This string of storms has prepared us, strengthened our level of preparedness and professionalism. It’s strengthened our resiliency,” he said.

But resiliency of what sort? The challenge for officials in the next hurricane, Cutter noted, will be convincing residents that the best resiliency isn’t found in the comfort of home, reading books and grilling frozen pizzas.

Contact Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563. Follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

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