In light of the weather news this week, I thought you might enjoy reading a column I wrote 20 years ago for The Virginian-Pilot when I was an editorial columnist. It appeared Aug. 29, 1998 and was headlined “OUTER BANKS HURRICANE WATCH: Bonnie Moved Slowly, as I Waited.” You’ll note that I refer in the article to Hurricane Felix, a 1995 storm. Unfortunately, I cannot locate a copy of the Aug. 27, 1995 column that I wrote about Felix. In that piece, I stopped and interviewed people in Kitty Hawk, KDH, and Nags Head who, in general, were taking the storm in stride. Here’s my report on Bonnie:
WHILE OUTER BANKS VACATIONERS panic at the words “mandatory evacuation” and rush to sit for hours in traffic gridlock, we barrier-island locals know just how long the wait for a hurricane can be. Too many times, I’ve kept an anxious eye on one of these anthropomorphic forces of nature only to have it fail to show up or be a shadow of its former self when it did.
Of course, tourists have to be ushered off the beaches early to minimize later potential disaster, though it’s a shame they leave on the lovely sunny day (last Tuesday) before the hunkering-down begins. Realistically confronting a hurricane, not simply fleeing from its possibility, is largely a matter of mathematics. And unpredictability. A hurricane’s slow course cannot be confidently plotted. This much I’ve learned.
Am I better off waiting in Elizabeth City or Norfolk? And when a hurricane’s as big as Texas—Bonnie’s girth—is there any hiding place? There will be ample time to tell.
At 9 a.m. last Wednesday, Bonnie was 100 miles south of Wilmington, N.C., and moving at 14 miles per hour. Slower than the previous night. It doesn’t take a calculator to figure that if Bonnie, which was packing 115-mph winds, continued at this speed and on its north-northwest path, it wouldn’t reach Wilmington for seven hours; and since Wilmington is a fair bit south of my inland Outer Banks residence, I had hours to while before deciding whether to hightail it out. What to do?
Hit the town. What else?
Theoretically, everyone should leave during a countywide mandatory evacuation; and certainly, if you’re a tourist, the hotels and cottage rental companies can oust you. But the police don’t go door-to-door, forcibly removing people. And until a curfew is issued, the roads are fair game.
Three years ago, when I waited out Felix—which traveled at 6 godawful slow miles an hour before it stalled off the coast and went out to sea—I felt as if I had returned to 1975, so wide-open were the roads. But today, with the increase in the number of Outer Banks year-rounders, the tempestuous Bonnie had much more company.
At 10:30 a.m., there was traffic. No wind, no rain. But traffic. The 7-Eleven in Kitty Hawk was a happening place. “Welcome, Bonnie,” the message on its window boards teased. “Come on in . . . OPEN.” And people did, buying milk, bread, toilet paper, gas. The mood was festive, but the wait had just begun.
Down the road in Kill Devil Hills, 40 cars were parked at Kmart, as signs there promised batteries and water and announced that the usually jam-packed store was “being run by all volunteer staff.” “Volunteer” is code for bored locals going nuts at home.
A couple in cutoff jeans emerged carrying two big boxes of detergent: Bonnie had forced them to confront laundry day.
Open supermarkets and combo service station-convenience stores were doing a brisk business, as was Ace hardware. Two men fished in the pond next to the Nags Head movie Cineplex. I wondered if there actually were fish in it, but didn’t stop to ask. Only one police car passed by. On the Nags Head oceanfront, a construction crew banged nails on a partially built cottage.
“My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean—Stay There” was the hands-down favorite message spray-painted on boarded-up windows. With an ungrammatical variant having Bonnie laying over the same.
A young man sat in front of Las Trancas restaurant in Nags Head, playing an accordion. All of the hotels were closed, except the Ramada Inn and Holiday Inn in Kill Devil Hills, where droves of newspeople were staying. These unlucky folks start out thinking a hurricane watch is exciting, then end up hyping ocean surge far weaker than the typical nor’easter produces.
By noon, Bonnie had slowed to 12 mph. Still no rain. In the woods of Southern Shores, a man watered his lawn.
Seeing people at the Exxon convenience store near the old Trading Post in Kill Devils Hills reminded me of the waterspout that came in there in 1978. The black wind tunnel damaged the pink Wilbur Wright Hotel beyond repair and caused a refrigerator to move in a house across the street, crushing a woman to death. I stood watching it from two miles away, transfixed.
Up in Kitty Hawk, Miles Davis, owner of Winks grocery store, which is closing on Labor Day after 45 years,* greeted customers in search of eggs, bacon, bread, batteries, bottled water and ice. Auto mechanic Kevin Bradshaw popped in. He was enjoying a “free day” at work—no phone interruptions. The popular Kitty Hawk pier restaurant was packing ’em in.
To the north, upscale Duck and Corolla were deserted.
By 3 p.m., Bonnie, which had hit land at Cape Fear, was 40 miles south of Wilmington and moving at 10 miles per hour. Simple math: The wait lengthened.
At 5 p.m., I looked out at the same gray sky, the same still trees in the same still air. Bonnie had slowed to 8 mph; it was 21 miles south of Wilmington, heading inland and weakening.
By 9 p.m., the Texas-size hurricane had stalled. Still no wind or rain. Ditto at 11 p.m.
Hundreds of people were rescued from the ocean at the Outer Banks during the first two weeks of August when a storm system whipped up the surf and created dangerous rip currents. Four people drowned. Maybe it’s because I know that the Outer Banks is never without danger that I can wait for new danger to arrive.
By 9 a.m. Thursday, the wind had finally picked up. A light rain fell. Bonnie, now blowing 75-mph winds, was near New Bern, N.C., moving northeast at 6 mph. People were talking about a new girl named Danielle. It was going to be a long day.
In an online report on Hurricane Bonnie, Wikipedia says it was “the most observed hurricane in history.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Bonnie_(1998).
*Mr. Davis did sell Winks in Kitty Hawk, but the new owner retained the name.
MY BOTTOM-LINE ADVICE: If you find yourself panicked by all of the hurricane-watch hype—and it is both extensive and relentless—take a deep, deep breath; turn off the Weather Channel; and seek out someone who you know is unflappable in an emergency. Prevail upon a cooler head to help you restore your equilibrium. You will have plenty of time to engage in reasoned decision-making, based on facts, not fear.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 9/10/18