TODAY I, along with thousands of my neighbors, reluctantly begin the work of evacuation. This means bringing everything inside, boxing books and papers in plastic containers, carting more books and papers and my daughter Hadley’s baby photos to my office at school. (Later I learn that the roof of our school building is only rated for ninety-mph winds. “Firm ground is not available ground,” as the poet A. R. Ammons said.) It is a strange business, leaving your life behind. There is only so much you can carry in a car or pack in places you pray are safe. I jam everything I can in closets and nail them shut.
Earlier I called my wife to check in. She and Hadley are safe and settled at my sister’s house in Durham. They have one yellow Lab with them; I have the other.
After we hung up, I called an old friend, the coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey, and told him I was coming his way. Orrin is a Duke University professor emeritus who has long been a galvanizing figure in the coastal battles of North Carolina and beyond. For the last decade or so he and I have been traveling up and down the East Coast, studying how storms affect the built environment and vice versa. After Hurricane Sandy we went to New York and New Jersey to survey the damage.
“You’re about to officially become a climate refugee,” he said when I told him I was evacuating. For the last week the only place names on the weather maps have been Bermuda and Wilmington. It is coming straight for us. Hurricanes are the one time the name of our town appears in the national news.
Before we hung up, Orrin reminded me that 250,000 people left New Orleans during and just after Katrina. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, 20,000 of those Louisiana refugees were still there. Homeless again.
During Hurricane Irene in 2011, I slept in the upstairs hall as what sounded like cannonballs thudded against the house. Nina and Hadley had fled the day before. As she was leaving, Nina posted a status update on social media: “Hadley and I (and possibly the dog) are going inland to Chapel Hill. David is going down with the ship.” After some debate, we decided that the dog, in fact, would stay. Missy would not wander more than an inch from my side for most of the next forty-eight hours.
That night we watched the storm in the writing shack I had built on the edge of the marsh. I sipped a beer and looked out at a green heron — “You should already be hunkered down,” I scolded — as it shot low across the water. Everything was rushing for safety, and Missy was whiny and anxious. But I needed to stay a little longer, compelled by a different instinct, the instinct to be out in it, the same instinct that so bothers the weather reporters when they see us mere civilians risking life and limb just to glory in the storm (though clearly the reporters themselves glory in the same feeling). At that moment, the most real and immediate danger to life and dog were falling branches, and we had a roof over our heads, albeit a thin plywood roof. Just three weeks before, I had spent a hot day nailing in roof shingles, and I was glad for it now. For a while we stayed relatively snug and dry, despite the uproar outside.
I was feeling quite proud, maybe even a little hubristic, about how the shack walls were holding up in the wind gusts, when trouble came from below. Outside, the water rose above the threshold and began to seep over the shack floor. Within ten minutes the water inside was three inches deep. When Missy and I finally stepped outside, the water was up to her belly and my knees. I put up the plywood board that protected the screen window, and we sloshed back to the house. Due to a combination of new moon high tide, winds from the southeast, and the excessive rain, the yard was now a brackish lake. Black clouds curled overhead like great dark wagon wheels.
For Florence, I don’t wait around for the storm to hit. It is mid-morning when I evacuate. I expect massive traffic jams, but most of my neighbors have already left, and Missy and I fly up I-40 with only a few slowdowns. The journalist in me feels guilty. Isn’t it a dereliction of duty to be driving away from the storm, not toward it? There is virtually no traffic going in the other direction, east toward Wilmington, but I imagine the few cars I see belong to my fellow writers, journalists, filmmakers, and photographers. That should be me, I think. Instead I am running away.
Six hours later Orrin Pilkey and I are eating lunch in a Mexican restaurant in Durham, around the corner from the retirement community where he now lives. The first bands of Florence have begun to hit the Outer Banks.
“What am I doing in there with all those old people?” he said after I sprung him from the home. He is in his eighties and has been through three cancers, but today he is full of the storm’s energy and looking like his usual indestructible self. In the next twenty-four hours he will be quoted in a New York Times op-ed and interviewed on CNN. He does not dislike fame.
“My son, my own son, didn’t evacuate from Myrtle Beach during Matthew,” he says between bites of burrito, shaking his head. “Can you believe it? I’ve written forty-seven goddamn books about how you have to get out and my son stayed. After all these years he still doesn’t listen to his father.”
Forty-seven might be a slight exaggeration, but between the books he has written and those he has edited, Orrin has been a virtual font of productivity, with most of the work focusing on the same theme: the seas are rising.
Back at the nursing home, I meet his little dog Buddy, a Jack Russell terrier built along the same lines as Orrin. Low to the ground, strong, solid, and wide.
“I once dog-sat for a dog named Buddy on Cape Cod,” I tell him. “He was a rescue dog from Katrina.”
“Another refugee,” Orrin says.
I drive back toward the Chapel Hill–Durham line. We will be staying at my sister’s house for now, though the path of the storm is still uncertain, and we have talked about retreating farther inland. While we are here, Hadley and Nina are staying on the top floor in my niece’s room, and I will take over my sister’s husband’s study. He is a minister at a southern university, a university with Baptist roots, but at home he is a Buddhist. I drop my bags and books between meditation pillows and statues of the Buddha.
Once I’m settled, I call my neighbor Tony, who has decided to stay. He tells me that two big trees have gone down in our backyard, cracking like masts, but they have missed the house. Just. One landed two feet from the deck. Tony also sends me a picture: a glass of red wine in the foreground and the marsh in the background. It was taken in the writing shack. He went out there to sit and make a last toast. To say goodbye.
“It’s good I got out there early,” he tells me. “The water has come up high, and it’s listing backward now. Like it’s popping a wheelie.”
In 2006, I spent a few nights camping in the dunes of Masonboro Island, the uninhabited barrier island to the south of Wrightsville Beach, the island where I then lived. Those days were full of deep pleasures— with watching a marsh hawk scythe over the back of the island, with drinking beer around a fire, with seeing thousands of migrating shorebirds— but I understood that they were temporary pleasures. Orrin had told me the little scrap of an island would be swallowed by the sea by the time my daughter was my age. Still, I delighted in watching a red moon rise over the sea at night, letting the pounding surf lull me to sleep, and spending time with only the dolphins, buffleheads, ospreys, loons, cormorants, sanderlings, and pelicans for company.
Masonboro Island might have been in the midst of a disappearing act, but for the moment it gave me the opportunity to study a true barrier island in action. That island was what Wrightsville Beach would have been without the thousands of people who lived on it. Masonboro was a mirror reflection of Wrightsville in size and shape, but with one big difference. Bolstered by its backside marsh, it still handled storms in the oldfashioned way. Although it did not exactly look hardy, its marshes allowed it to receive and interact with storms in ways developed islands like Wrightsville cannot: sand spilling over the island and the marsh growing, the island gradually but constantly migrating landward. Orrin has estimated that Masonboro was probably moving landward to the tune of sixteen feet or so a year. And because it had been left alone and undeveloped, experts pointed to it as the healthiest example left in North Carolina of the way a barrier island survived and changed during a storm.
Masonboro handled storms through a kind of elemental judo: storms pushing sand landward and the island jumping over itself and growing on its backside. Back on Wrightsville Beach this ancient judo technique no longer worked, thanks to me and the three thousand other people who crowded its six miles of shore.
In fact, when I finally packed up and paddled home toward my own cluttered island, it looked decidedly fragile. And, as I got closer, a strange metaphor came to mind. With its flat treeless land and tall buildings, the island looked like nothing so much as a dinner table full of empty plates and bottles after a party, waiting, I thought, for an angry drunk to come along and sweep it clean with his arm.
It is a strange business, leaving your life behind. There is only so much you can carry in a car or pack in places you pray are safe.
The power is out in the neighborhood. But Tony’s phone is working. He sends me a picture of the shack with six feet of water in it. More trees have come crashing down, though none have hit our house.
Others are not so lucky. A former student of mine evacuated with his wife and two children, but a neighbor reports that a great water oak has smashed down on the ridgeline of their house, gouging a hole that opens it to the world. For the next week rain will fall right into the house and winds will blow through it. They will return to a world of destruction and mold. A wet and reduced existence. Wind and water have changed their lives.
But at least they have their lives. The story on everyone’s mind is that of the woman who, holding her baby tight, was crushed when a tree fell through her roof. They both died immediately while the husband survived. He was bawling when the ambulance arrived, having somehow made its way through a forest of downed trees. Rushed to the hospital in critical condition, he had lost everything — wife, daughter, home — thanks to one burst of wind, one falling tree.
Throughout it all the rain won’t stop. Some people think they have made it safely through the storm, but then they see the water rising toward their doorsteps. The storm dumps ten inches of rain, then twenty, but still doesn’t stop. In some places, over thirty inches of rain will fall, and for the first time on record our annual total will top one hundred inches. The world is drenched through. Permeated. Tony sends us a picture of the lake that is our backyard. Fallen trees float on that lake along with pieces of the shack. We gave him a key before we left and he takes a tour of our home. It looks good so far, he tells us. No leaks.
After the winds and days of rain the humidity is now returning, the blazing heat. Even under normal circumstances Wilmington in September is your town on the hottest day of the year. Food rots in powerless fridges. People are hungry, unshowered, uninformed. Some have not had power for days, and there is no projection as to when it will return. Primitive times. The few stores and restaurants that are open become neighborhood commons. People need to get out of their stifling, leaking houses. People need to see other people. People need to tell their stories. Stories of disaster: the tree that fell right through our living room, that split our house. Stories of near misses: the man who decided at the last minute not to sleep in the room he deemed safest and woke up to find that an oak tree had bisected that bed.
Tales of survival, yes, but also tales of ruin.
It’s Orrin’s birthday.
“Not every day you turn eighty-five,” I say.
“Hey, eighty-four, eighty-four!”
“One resource the world is not running out of is old people,” he says.
I am picking him up at the retirement community. It’s like college, he tells me. You’ve got the popular kids. The loners. The cliques.
We talk about the damage done by Florence.
“The Outer Banks seem to have survived,” he says. “For now.”
It is on the Outer Banks that Orrin stirs up the most controversy. The locals haven’t burned him in effigy, at least not yet. But there have been threats. Especially when Orrin spearheaded the retreat of North Carolina’s most famous landmark, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Locals hated the unmanly idea of moving the lighthouse back from the shore, refusing to admit that if they didn’t, it would simply fall into the sea.
“There was one powerful local woman who was virulently opposed to moving it,” Orrin told me a few years ago, when we visited the lighthouse. “She said, ‘Someone is going to get hurt if they move it.’ A fellow scientist misunderstood and tried to reassure her. ‘No, Mrs. Dillon, we can move it perfectly safely.’ I had to explain to him that that was not what she meant.”
Orrin and I had walked the twenty-nine hundred feet from where the lighthouse had been built in 1870 to the spot where it had been moved in 1999. It rose above us like a giant barber pole.
“Mrs. Dillon always claimed that moving the lighthouse killed her husband. The stress, you know.”
I asked if Mrs. Dillon had passed away too.
“She’s still alive,” Orrin said. “Unfortunately.”
He tells me the story of a local woman who bragged about staying through a hurricane and managing to save her house by shutting an upstairs window. He shakes his head.
“People think they can protect their houses, but what can you do when the winds are blowing a hundred miles an hour? It isn’t brave to stay, it’s stupid.”
I tell him that I am shocked by how many of my friends, and even friends with kids, stayed. I understand the protective impulse toward your home, but it isn’t as if you are going to be out there during the storm putting up tarps.
I take Orrin out for a birthday lunch at an Italian place down the street. The sausage sandwiches are a revelation.
“Hey, I’ve only been here for dinner,” he says. “Now I’m going to start coming for lunch.”
He predicts that in the near future 2 million climate refugees will come from the Mississippi Delta and 4 to 6 million will come from South Florida. A couple hundred thousand from the Inner Banks of North Carolina. “These are the three areas that will flood most quickly,” he says, “at least here in the United States.”
He says he has been encouraged by some examples of increased awareness since our last trip up the coast together. In Norfolk, where flooding is so frequent, they have begun to list the tides in church programs. In New Jersey, the state is purchasing at-risk coastal homes, demolishing them, and making the land public property. In Charleston and Manhattan, they are building seawalls.
“I thought you hated seawalls,” I say.
“I hate the ones that destroy beaches,” he says. “It’s okay for Charleston and New York and Boston to build seawalls because there’s no beach there. So you don’t have to worry about the question of which is more valuable, buildings or beaches.”
I mention Miami, which seems to have dodged a bullet again this year. He shrugs.
“Not much you can do there. Miami is doomed.”
On the way back to his place we stop at the Eno River and watch the rising water. All around the state the waters are still rising, and my route back to Wilmington is impassable. Orrin is living the last years of his life inside the predictions he has made.
I call my neighbor Tony, who has decided to stay. He tells me that two big trees have gone down in our backyard, cracking like masts, but they have missed the house.
I make my way back to the soaked city, past warped signs and high creeks. Awnings have blown off gas stations and thousands of trees are down. I do not take the main highway I drove up here on. That is because the eastern parts of that highway are now a full and deep river. You can float boats on it but there will be no cars driving certain sections for weeks.
I work my way toward Jacksonville before cutting south. Eventually I pull onto Topsail Island and try to make it out to the beach but am stopped by a roadblock. I pass the Tsunami Surf Shop and the Shark Attack Souvenir and Gift Shop and note that the giant plastic shark survived. Not so the mangled billboards and awnings. I know it was irritating to locals that during their one moment in the spotlight the national press kept mispronouncing their island’s name. They called it “Top-Sail,” not “Tops’l.”
Years ago, on my very first trip with Orrin, we had visited Topsail, an island whose doom Orrin had often predicted.
“I wonder if the media know we’re here,” he had said as we crossed the bridge onto the island.
This was only partly a joke. It wasn’t unusual for the local paper to report Pilkey sightings if they discovered he was on the island. Here was where his local fame — and notoriety — shone brightest, or darkest, depending on your take. If you wanted a good litmus test for how Topsail Islanders felt about their island, you could just find out if they were pro-Pilkey or anti-Pilkey, which would tell you where they stood on most local issues.
We were traveling incognito, and the paparazzi were nowhere to be seen, though a local cop took interest and cruised behind me, sharklike, as we turned toward the north end of the island. (Beach town cops lead a strange life: four months or so of insane overstimulation followed by eight slumbering months during which they are forced to entertain themselves by hassling offislanders or handing out tickets to people going three miles an hour over the speed limit. I kept it to three under and had a North Carolina plate, and after a while the cop got bored and pulled off into a convenience store, where he could lie in wait for other prey.)
As we approached the northern tip of Topsail, Orrin pointed out the multistory hotels and condos that perched over the eroding beach, dipping their toes over the scarp line, as if ready to plunge into the Atlantic. Due to their size, there was little hope for relocating them.
We passed Hot Diggity Dogz and a dozen other tacky beach stores, but the sign that really caught my eye was a small handpainted one that said, with no explanation, ATLANTIS. A mile farther, another appeared: ATLANTIS in simple blue letters. Finally, we reached the northernmost public access point. I parked, and we walked down to the beach. There it was. Atlantis. Or at least the beginnings of Atlantis.
If any place seemed a physical manifestation and confirmation of Orrin’s warnings about the coast, it was the northern end of Topsail Island. The other towns and places we had stopped to examine over the previous couple of days gave you a sense of impending disaster — “One big storm from the right direction and they’re done,” Orrin had said— but here the disaster was already under way.
An entire row of houses looked like it had grown sick of land and begun a single-minded migration out to sea. The sheer incongruity of seeing those water houses was startling, and maybe a little thrilling. It made me think of Charlton Heston coming upon the Statue of Liberty on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes.
“Holy shit,” I muttered.
“Yup,” Orrin said. “Here it is.”
On the drive in, Orrin had given me a short history of Topsail, which hadn’t been developed at all until the 1940s. For years he’d predicted that due to its low elevation, lack of vegetation, eroding inlets, and overbuilding, it was a prime candidate for being destroyed by a powerful storm. In fact, it had already suffered that fate once before, in 1954, when Hurricane Hazel washed over the entire twenty-six-mile island and destroyed 210 of 230 houses. But that was just a warm-up for the summer of 1996, when the island was the stage for just the sort of mini-apocalypse that Orrin was inclined to envision. Within the space of eight weeks Topsail was dealt a double blow by Hurricanes Bertha and Fran, which served to first strip away the scant dunes and then wash over the entire island, leaving all the buildings battered; many, including the police station, washed out to sea. The houses that did not float away were flattened, except for the lucky few that were merely flooded. If these were archetypal storms, essentially submerging and razing the town, then the reaction to them was also an archetypically human one. If ever there was a time that people might have been ready to listen to Orrin Pilkey’s cry of “retreat,” this would have been it. But Americans don’t like the sound of that word, especially not Americans who have invested millions of dollars in their homes and don’t want to hear that those homes are temporary. And so, like ants barely pausing after their hill has been kicked over, the residents set out to rebuild exactly where their homes had been built before— that is, right in the line of fire of the next storm. They were helped in this by federal aid and by a federal flood insurance program that encouraged people to build on the shore in the first place. The ocean had swept the table clean, and now the table was being immediately reset.
From Topsail I drive south and finally reach the swamp that is Wilmington. Thousands of trees are down all over town. At the university the roof of the biology building has blown off. A friend of mine, a dean at the university, struggles in darkness to retrieve the samples and specimens that make up his life’s work, but nearly everything is lost. The students are returning to find their rooms flooded, their belongings soaked or gone. My daughter’s high school has taken on a new identity as an emergency shelter. Her freshman year of high school has been a strange one. Three weeks of school followed by almost a month off. How long this will go on we have no idea. Ordinary life grinds to a halt in Wilmington. It is both a taste of the past and a taste of a possible future.
The writing shack, miraculously, is still standing, though its door and front wall are torn off, mud covers the floor, and an eastern red cedar pushes down on its roof. It is on its last legs, down but not quite out.
The residents set out to rebuild exactly where their homes had been built before — that is, right in the line of fire of the next storm.
I spend the morning hammering the fence around the marsh back together so the dogs can’t get out. Some workers I have hired help me push the red cedar off the top of the shack. The whole root ball is out but we replant it. Trees are down all over the yard, and shingles have been ripped off the roof of the house, but so far it looks like we are among the lucky ones. At night my neighbors and I throw a block party in our cul-de-sac. Tony and I stay up until after midnight. Nina and I give him a case of wine for his work watching over our house during the storm.
In town, a curfew is in place. The usual tension in Wilmington is exacerbated by the heat, the scarcity of food. There is looting at a dollar store downtown. The police are called in, but it is unclear whether the store’s owner simply opened his doors and let those in the neighborhood help themselves to the food before it rotted. Either way, reports of the looting breed fear. My friend Dave goes looking for his cat in the neighbor’s yard, and the neighbor points a rifle at him.
In the wake of Florence, those who built the most expensive homes receive the majority of the federal aid. But there are ironies, too. Wilmington’s most prestigious and tree-filled neighborhood saw the worst downing of trees, while some poor downtown neighborhoods were protected by their relative treelessness. And if Florence brought attention to the economic gap in our city, this sort of primal event also reveals how clearly we are all part of the same ecosystem. That includes not just poor and rich, but selectmen and sandpipers, developers and dolphins. All impacted. All intertwined. All part of a complex and messy whole.
Today I head downtown. I eat lunch at Anne Bonny’s, a bar that is a boat on the docks of the Cape Fear River. During the storm this barge-bar rose almost to the top of the pilings, ten feet above where it rests now. In the bar everyone is talking to each other, excited and clustering in a communal way. Florence this. Florence that. I stare out at the rushing black water.
The river is high, brimful, moving at a speed I have never seen it before. The river is a train charging from west to east. The river is not a train because no train ever had this power. The river erodes its banks and pulls down trees and carries their branches and whole trunks down toward the sea. Earth, too, takes a ride, so much soil that there are places where it looks like you could walk on water. But you wouldn’t dare. Two people drowned yesterday. And it isn’t over. People will drown in their cars as the rivers turn roads into their tributaries.
The river reeks. The smell fills the town. You can’t escape it. What is causing the smell is the point of much discussion in town. Chemours, a spinoff company of DuPont, has for years dumped a chemical called GenX in the Cape Fear River. It causes tumors in lab animals. Now, GenX is just one ingredient in the great poisonous stew that is the racing river: added to it are over 5 million gallons of partially treated sewage from a spill, coal ash from Duke Energy, and the waste of 6 million hogs. The farms upriver have contributed not just tons of excrement, but carcasses of drowned pigs and chickens and cows.
The water is the same water that the dolphins and fish are swimming through, and that the ospreys and other birds, who eat the fish, are ingesting. Nearby lakes have had huge fish kills, caused not by sewage or hog waste but by all the vegetation blown into the waters that, when it decays, causes anoxia, a severe depletion of oxygen in the water.
Sometimes, as if for fun, the river will pull a house down off its banks and carry that along too. The houses and trees and planks of wood and branches all travel so fast atop the water that they look like they could pass powerboats. But there are no boats on this river. This river will flow without humans and their contraptions for many days to come. Humans regard the water warily, not wanting to get too close. We back away, and then the river, as if emboldened by our timidity, comes after us. It spills over the banks and covers Front Street and then starts climbing the hill of Market Street toward the heart of downtown. We keep thinking it will abate, but each day it gets higher, each day faster, each day more powerful. O
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