Should I stay or should I go? Letter from Hurricane Dorian’s path.

Why We Wrote This

The choice ahead of a hurricane may seem simple from afar: Get out. But not everyone has that luxury, as our reporter learned firsthand when Hurricane Dorian came barreling toward his family and neighbors.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Tybee Island, Georgia, resident Doug Perry sandbags the door to his low-lying apartment in preparation for Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 2, 2019. The island, along with much of the southeastern U.S. coast, is under a mandatory evacuation order. Mr. Perry has chosen to stay.

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As a reporter who has spent two decades covering hurricanes, I know full well the devastation that hurricanes can leave behind. And I’ve always been struck by the difference between evacuees and those who refuse evacuation orders. This past weekend that dividing line hit home as I evacuated my two children and two cats from our home in Tybee Island, Georgia, leaving my wife, Alice, a “critical city employee,” behind. 

In the wake of a devastating hurricane, it can be easy to wonder why people ignore evacuation orders. But for those in a hurricane’s path, evacuation decisions are complicated calculations. Of our friends, some chose to stay out of a sense of willful defiance. Others had nowhere else to go and lacked the means to hole up in an inland motel.

Living in paradise has also been a lesson in privilege for my family. We are aware that newcomers like us are helping to marginalize the casually idyllic culture that drew us here. Dorian’s approach, and our ability to respond, has underscored that privilege. I hold hope that the same sense of community that welcomed my family will carry the neighbors we left behind through the storm.

My buddy Doug Perry has a catchphrase about living on Georgia’s Tybee Island: “It’s a good life.”

Doug’s the kind of guy you’d expect to be living on an island paradise. He’s often clad in flip-flops and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt. My wife calls him “The Dude.” But like many of our neighbors, he is starting to have second thoughts about island life. The impending arrival of Hurricane Dorian this week is putting the staggering natural beauty of the barrier island into stark relief. 

After thrashing the Bahamas – stranding residents on roofs and killing at least five people – Dorian appears set to skirt up the Southeast coast of the United States. The hurricane’s strength has eased since the weekend, when it hit Category 5 status and became one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic. 

By Tuesday afternoon, it had been downgraded to a Category 2, though it still poses risks for Southeastern coastal communities, particularly from flooding due to storm surge or rainfall. It is also growing in size.

After years of chasing hurricanes for the Monitor, I have found myself – and my family – at the center of the story, weighing whether to retreat inland or make a stand at home. It’s a question more than a million residents under evacuation orders in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina have been pondering over the past few days.

It can be easy in the wake of a devastating hurricane, like Katrina, to wonder why so many people ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind. But for those in the path of a hurricane – or rather, the hypothetical, potential path – opting whether to stay or go can be a complicated calculation.

Of our friends, some chose to stay out of a sense of defiance. Others, however, simply had nowhere else to go and lacked the means to hole up in an inland motel.

Leaving is expensive and can mean lost wages, shuttered businesses, and unexpected costs. Just on the Georgia coast, this is the third hurricane in four years to generate evacuation orders. Compounding the difficulty with Dorian: its extremely slow progress. We’ve been getting geared up for Dorian’s arrival since Thursday. Evacuation orders were issued Sunday. By Tuesday, the hurricane – at times moving at just 1 mph – was still stuck over the Bahamas off Florida’s Southeast coast.

It’s been devastating for the Bahamas, where Dorian has unleashed the bulk of its fury, dropping more than 30 inches of rain, along with 185 mph winds and a massive storm surge. The storm stalled over Grand Bahama Island, which is just 95 miles long, for more than 36 hours. But for those on the U.S. Southeast coast, the snail-like progress of the storm makes it even harder to time evacuations.

As a reporter who has spent two decades sliding in behind storms, I know full well the devastation and loss that hurricanes can leave behind. But I also have witnessed equally staggering levels of hope and resilience that emerge in such situations.

I have always been struck by the difference between evacuees and the outlaws who refuse evacuation orders.

This long weekend that dividing line hit home as I packed up my teenage son and daughter in the family van with our two cats. My wife, Alice, a “critical city employee,” would stay behind and likely evacuate later with other first responders to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. She had wanted us to leave sooner rather than later.

There are two kinds of evacuation. The orderly kind ahead of the storm with little traffic to deal with. Then there’s the more panicked version that happens when a storm suddenly turns your way. It is a game of weighing odds with each three-hour cycle of National Hurricane Center advisories. Kids, pets, grandparents, cars, boats, the potential for looting – they are all thrown into the equation. For those reasons, we went with the first kind of evacuation – leave early and beat the traffic.

Before we left, my son, Jacob, posted a snapshot on Instagram with his island buddies Clayton, Phoenix, Ryan, and William outside our house. Three would stay behind. Two, including Jake, would leave.

When finally the Chevy van was packed, my Gheenoe trot-liner boat in tow, my wife and I said goodbye. She smiled and said, “Thank you for listening to me.” 

That’s when it welled up. Why did we do this? Why live on a marsh that can rise and kill? Is the risk really worth it?

Everyone of course has their own reasons for wanting to live on the edge of the continent, or along a flood-prone river. For us, we had vacationed on Tybee for nearly 10 years until one year we realized we didn’t want to leave. I also grew up on a remote island in the Baltic and wanted my children to have a chance to experience that unique way of living.

Living in paradise has also been a lesson in privilege for my family. Unlike the gated coast just north on Hilton Head, South Carolina, it has never been exclusive. A post-World War II building boom allowed a quirky, blue-collar culture to develop that still exists, epitomized by raised Tybee cottages with wraparound porches. It’s a casual idyll that our family has settled into with ease. And we have been fortunate to find a warm welcome. At the same time, we are aware that newcomers like us are helping to marginalize this culture. Dorian’s approach, and our ease in finding somewhere to retreat to, has underscored that privilege. For many of my neighbors, escape can be a luxury outside their reach.

As I file this story from the Taproom Coffee Shop in Atlanta, I take comfort in knowing that the same sense of community that has made my family feel so welcome will carry the neighbors I left behind through the storm.

Amanda Paulson contributed reporting from Boulder, Colorado.

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