Before I wrote this post, I checked the local weather forecast once again. As of this moment (just after 5am), it looks like Hurricane Irene is not going to smack Charleston. We might get some wind and rain. But maybe not. That's the thing about hurricanes. You have to keep your eye on them. You need an emergency plan, even if you don't use it. Those who lived in Charleston in 1989 know this well.
Many of us remember Charleston County Council member Linda Lombard (who is now a bond court judge) saying on live television, "Get out now." This week, people joked about it on Facebook. "Somebody let me know if I should be worried about Hurricane Irene," read one status update. "If Linda Lombard pops up on TV, give me a call."
But that's not exactly how it happened. According to this article on WisTV.com, officials did not order residents to evacuate. What Lombard actually said was, "If you want to leave the Charleston area, please leave now. You cannot delay. Because shortly it will be too dangerous to leave..."
Lombard says the speech was carefully crafted. Officials went over it countless times, trying to find the words to encourage people to take the threat of Hurricane Hugo seriously. "The night before Hugo, the governor had not yet declared a state of emergency, so we could not demand that people leave," said Lombard. "We could only ask them."
Mayor Joe Riley ordered City Hall be boarded up, to send a message. "You have to strike a balance between fear and panic," said Riley. "You have to convince people their lives are at stake. Everyone remembers, 'leave now, you must leave now' as though it were an order."
My mom and I did not evacuate, because we lived farther inland. But the day before Hugo, we spent the day making sand bags to shield the sliding glass door leading to our apartment. We taped the windows. I'm not sure how masking tape stands a chance against a hurricane, but we did it anyway. Mom filled her car with gas and stocked up on ice. Hugo left us without power for days and days, and I can still remember the container of cream cheese and half gallon of milk floating in the cooler.
We spent part of the night in the downstairs half bath, bracing ourselves as Hugo hit. During the eye of the storm, we walked outside. Everything was pitch black. We hurried back inside, and I fell asleep on the living room floor and woke up at 6am, when the phone rang.
"Angie, come meet me. This is terrible." It was my friend, Meg. I walked outside, climbing over fallen trees and navigating the destruction. Our townhouse was spared, but many homes in the neighborhood were not. Once I found Meg, we spent the day walking every street. Cleanup had already begun. I was only 15, and I had never seen anything like it.
We all know Hurricane Hugo is not the worst storm our country has seen. But living through it, even at a young age, taught me to strike a balance between fear and panic. Some people aren't so lucky. They don't have time to prepare. So yesterday, my husband reserved a hotel room out of town, just in case. And I hope I have the pleasure of canceling that reservation.