Nobody expected Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and those who lived through it, learned from it

Outside the nursing home, the statue of a praying angel was turned over on its back so that it wouldnt fly through a window. Down the street at the restaurant, the bartender said trivia night was canceled, and the tough-guy firefighter who raced to New York on 9/11 had a beer and told a stranger about his worries.

Across from the bar, the hardware store owner who lost three family members 64 years ago in a hurricane here in Shallotte, North Carolina, stared out the window and talked about science and the past.

Just depends on where youre standing, whether its a tragedy or a lesson, Bobby Williamson said.

As the forecast for Hurricane Florence made a mean shift toward North Carolinas Brunswick county on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, people here shifted, too. Some canceled hurricane party plans. Others made them. Some who on Tuesday swore they wouldnt board up windows Williamson included had plywood in the beds of their trucks by Wednesday afternoon. They considered lessons theyd learned from other hurricane tracks Matthew in 2016 or Gloria in 1985 but they knew it was foolish to compare storms. Devastation is devastation.

Besides, theres only one that still matters here, and thats Hazel.

On a Friday in October 1954, Hazel came ashore at Ocean Isle Beach, one of four barrier islands that protect the rest of the county, as a category 4 storm. Hardly anyone expected it. Children got on school buses that morning; the eyewall hit at 10am. That happened to be the exact hour of the autumn full moon high tide, the highest tide of the year. The surge turned Ocean Isle into the ocean floor.

Bobby Williamsons uncle Sherman Register had decided to ride it out with his wife, Madeline, and their two children and a son-in-law. Bobby was five months old then and his family lived in downtown Shallotte. Water rose nearly to the door of their house. But what happened on Ocean Isle, about 15 miles away by car, is a story thats pulled his familys wagon ever since. Sherman and Madeline and the kids drove a truck to the highest point on the island. As the water reached the tires, the men got out and tried to hold the truck down. Then came a massive wave, scattering the family like debris. Only Shermans daughter and son-in-law lived to tell about it. Madelines body was never found.

Thats what Bobby was thinking about as he stared out the windows of his hardware store before closing on Tuesday. Not made-for-television-news, should-I-stay-or-should-I-go quotes, but family. For six decades, Bobby has driven across the Intracoastal Waterway bridge and on to Ocean Isle beach, looking out at the patchwork of rooftops and imagining what it would look like if it were all covered by water again.

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People who arent from around here wonder why residents stay. There are more than enough clips of gonzo surfers catching a storms first waves, or shirtless drunks steering boats down some main street somewhere with fishing lines cast, to contribute to the narrow idea of dumb southerners. But the connections to the marshlands and waterways of North Carolinas coast are deeper and more meaningful than that.

About 200 miles north of Brunswick county as the pelican flies, Hatteras Island sticks out into the Atlantic in the northernmost swoosh of the Gulf Stream current. Its one of the most vulnerable stretches of shifting sand on Earth.

Earlier this week, when it looked like Florence would give Hatteras a direct blow, Lynne Foster didnt think about evacuating; she just went to work. She grew up in Pennsylvania and lived in London for 10 years as an adult, but moved to Hatteras 25 years ago when she married her husband, Ernie, a lifelong resident. Ernies dad, Ernal, started whats believed to be the first charter-fishing business in North Carolina in 1937. Ernie inherited it, and Lynne now runs the business side. The fleet has three boats, and the Fosters dont leave them to thrash around.

The Fosters have plenty of company for Florence: church groups and friends. On Tuesday the Hatteras volunteer fire department brought supplies for residents to have after the storm. Any boat left in the harbor is tied up extra tight, Lynne says. They moved theirs to sturdier docks. On Wednesday morning, when I called Lynne to check on things there, she was cooking food that would keep baked beans with no chunks of meat, turkey stuffed peppers with eggplant and rice. If the wind really starts to tear things apart, she says, theyll leave their house and ride it out in the local grocery store.

I told her she sounded as calm as any old Hatteras pro.

Well, you just have to go through it, she says. If you leave every time youll never learn.

Some have more learning experiences than others. The North Carolina coast has been a popular spot for northern retirees in the past 20 years or so, but still most towns have families that go back generations. Going south from Hatteras, Ive met residents in Ocracoke and Harkers Island and Beaufort whove ridden out every storm since the 50s. Same for Wilmington, the big city here, and down through Southport.

But few have a story like the Williamsons.

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Madeline Williamson Registers brother Odell, a retired army captain whod fought in Europe during the second world war, had gone in with another man to purchase all 4.5 square miles of Ocean Isle beach in 1953. After Hazel came through in 1954, his business partner wanted out, so Williamson bought the rest of the land. His neighbors thought hed gone crazy. But Williamson laid out plans for a four-mile road and a bridge and got to work. Williamson dug most of it himself, all while wearing a suit and tie and a hat. He divided the island, sold it into pieces, and became the richest man in the county.

Now there are more than 2,500 housing units on Ocean Isle. My mother-in-law owns one of them.

On Tuesday night, a few people walked on the beach with the faintest sliver of a crescent moon overhead. The lights on the fishing pier shone out into the water, decades of teenagers memories underneath.

While Bobbys uncle Odell was transforming Ocean Isle into the destination it is today, Bobby stuck around Southport with the hardware store. He never wanted a house on the ocean, following the advice of his maternal grandfather, who told him, If you build on the beach, build a shack on the back side of the island, so when a hurricane comes, you wont be lost nothing when it all blows down.

Bobby got interested in storms, though. Talking to me on Tuesday night, he had on a blue Carquest shirt with white shorts that looked like hes wiped years of grease on them. He rested his hand on a rack of piston ring installers and timing gear pullers, and this man who lost so much of his family to hurricanes started talking about the parts of them.

A hurricane is a heat engine, he said. Its a natural phenomenon. The problem is people build on its path. Its like a forest fire. They are a natural process. The only problem is people live in the way of them.

When I left his shop on Tuesday evening, he said he wasnt going to board up the store windows. But when I came back on Wednesday, he was screwing plywood into the outer walls.

I didnt expect this, he said.

Overnight, Florences track changed. Now it will make its way to the mouth of the Cape Fear river around Fort Fisher, where a century and a half ago slaves on rafts escaped at night and jumped on Union ships with secrets that helped win the civil war. Then it will stall there, its eye hovering over the ghosts of hundreds of shipwrecks at Frying Pan Shoals, before turning around and heading toward Brunswick county.

That could change, of course. The only reality with this storm has been that, as its approached, the decision to stay or go has gone from uncomfortable to excruciating.

I met a man named John on Tuesday afternoon. John is a retired firefighter from Massachusetts who hopped on the first train he could to get to New York in 2001 after the World Trade Center collapsed.

John has family in Myrtle Beach who were planning to adhere to the mandatory evacuation. They would be coming here, just 45 minutes north of Myrtle, because the evacuation wasnt yet mandatory. I showed him an update on my phone that said it was.

Im staying, he said. Where else am I gonna go?

The manager came by. He knew her. Are you staying? he asks.

She says shes not, because her kid has a college tour already scheduled out of town, because leaving needs an explanation, too.

Everyone has a reason for whatever decision they make, and often its more personal than any television camera could possibly capture.

John asked if I was staying. I said yes, and told him why.

My fathers in the nursing home here in Shallotte. I drove in from my home in Charlotte on Tuesday to relieve my mother, who evacuated. The nursing facility staff tells us the building is the safest spot in town. I told John I was staying because I cant leave my dad.

But on Wednesday morning, the nursing facility administrators saw the forecast and heard from the sheriffs office that we could be without power for three weeks here. So they began a restless evacuation process.

I dont know if Johns plans changed, but mine did. Im leaving now, because as I type this my reason for staying is on a bus to some other location, one of 104 elderly people in wheelchairs displaced from Shallotte, North Carolina, because of Hurricane Florence, many of them, including my father, in hospice care and just hoping to make it back.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us