A Hurricane Warning from 1996, Still Unheeded
“Here. Right here,” he said, almost triumphantly. “He said it would be right fucking here.”
I was a reporter for The Daily News of Jacksonville, N.C. He was the science writer for The Charlotte Observer, back when a newspaper that size could staff such a position. It was Sept. 6, 1996, the morning after Hurricane Fran had made landfall in North Carolina. We were looking at a newly created inlet barged through the midsection of Topsail Island, straight through to the Atlantic Ocean, splitting the beach where my parents took my brother and me when we were very young.
Topsail Island is a minor barrier island on North Carolina’s southeastern coast, below Cape Lookout and the iconic halo of the state’s Outer Banks. But there is a small sound between it and the mainland, and Fran’s 12 foot storm surge built up so much water pressure on the sound side that it burst through at the weakest point and broke the island in two.
I forget the writer’s name, but that summer, before two hurricanes pounded Topsail Beach—part of my beat territory—he had written an extensive Sunday piece about the renowned Duke University earth scientist Orrin Pilkey—the “he” quoted reverentially—and his grave warnings for the fate of North Carolina’s barrier islands and the abject stupidity of governmental policies encouraging development there. Pilkey predicted the creation of this inlet, as assuredly as he railed against the creation of New River Inlet Drive, which extended development up the north end of Topsail. The road helped create high-rises like the St. Regis and Villa Capriani, places I briefly considered renting when I moved to Onslow County. It was a classic land boondoggle engineered by developers and elected officials, bringing construction and occupants and the need to insure, serve and protect both, with attendant high cost to the public.
It was a newsroom joke back in Jacksonville that North Carolina received more cyclonic weather activity than anywhere in the world save Bangladesh, and that Onslow County had more mobile homes, per capita, than any other county in the state. And when Fran blew through, she took with her the North Topsail Beach Police Station—literally a mobile home trailer, replacing the actual police station destroyed a couple months earlier by Hurricane Bertha.
Pointing out any morsel of the laughable irony in this was no more a popular story in 1996 than it would be in 2012, and the Observer’s writer was carpet-bombed with nasty, know-nothing, politically motivated anti-science the-jury-is-out conjecture left on his voicemail (and even sent to him by fax), because our society hadn’t yet figured out how to chill speech with Internet comments and passive-aggressive Facebook replies.
Today this attitude is coded into law in my home state, whose insane Republican legislature has specifically forbidden—outlawed is another valid term—the use of scientific predictions of rising sea levels by any state agency concerned with oversight of coastal development. The embarrassment of this thinking, which comes from the same proudly unteachable ignorance as “intelligent design,” won’t get the immediate comeuppance it deserves because the process of washing out our islands is painstakingly gradual, like evolution. Instead, the Yankees in New York and New Jersey—and Atlantic City is the Homestead, Fla., the Charleston, S.C., of this terrible storm—get to deal with it.
When I read that Hurricane Sandy had ripped up Atlantic City’s boardwalk and shoved a tanker aground in Staten Island I immediately thought of 1996 and my time covering the hurricanes on Topsail. The Scotch Bonnet Pier, a landmark where my brother and I landed a whiting as 6- and 4-year-olds, was annihilated by Bertha. I was in the police SUV when a voice on the radio said it had been dragged out to sea, as if by a monstrous squid. During Fran, a commercial ship was basically floated inland several miles, literally aboard Camp Lejeune, by the storm surge, before it desperately steamed out through the swamp. It dredged something the Marines called “Butt Creek.” As in, the pilot’s butt was puckered tight through the drive back out to the Atlantic.
When morning broke after Fran, North Topsail’s No. 1 developer, who by God got that road built, said this still was the easiest place in the world to make a million dollars. His son was the mayor at the time. I saw a helicopter rescue a lance corporal from Iowa, who had gone with two buddies to the coast with a hatchback full of Coors Light, utterly heedless of the storm. He spent the night clinging to a treetop as the water rose to a foot from his shoetops, praying that this shit was not really happening. His friends drowned.
We’re still praying that this is not really happening, or that it’s someone else’s problem. The storm that pounded New York briefly drizzled rain on me here in North Carolina, where I now live beneath the cold sweep of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But the world is more connected than the one from 16 years ago. My publication is still, like The Daily News in 1996, getting the product out with a kit-bashed solution. We’re still battling utility outages with no definite end coming and editors are still dictating copy over voice channels. Childhood memories are just a pile of lumber floating in the Atlantic, and there’s a tanker pushed inland by the surge.
If it feels like 1996, then it should also feel like 2028, because our society refuses to have a mature conversation about why these disasters take place with increasing frequency and intensity, or to even protect our dense, coastal areas from the seas’ advance. So, after we spend $50 billion cleaning up from a self-inflicted wound on the world’s capital of media and finance, and congratulate ourselves for heroically persevering through it, (especially the media (and the weather media)) just know that wherever you are, we’ll be telling the same story next year. We’ll be paying for it and patting ourselves on the back through the recovery. It is coming back again. It’ll be here. Right fucking here.
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