Stranger in my Home Town - Hurricanes


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North America » United States » South Carolina » Charleston
September 12th 2018
Published: September 12th 2018
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Growing up in Charleston, a coastal city with large areas that are at or below sea level in elevation, one learns to respect hurricanes. We moved here in 1952, moved away for two years 1954-6, then back here permanently. So we missed Hazel. But we were here for Gracie.

At that time we were living in the apartment building on Dunneman Avenue on the Citadel campus. Only the practice football field lay between us and the railroad tracks. At night we heard the poor lion in the small Hampton Park zoo with his coughing roar. Transistor radios were relative rarities, and computers for the home were not yet invented. So what guidance we got was from the television (as long as the station, and we, had power) and from the radio. Radio was mostly AM at that time, and subject to a lot of static. But it was what we had.

I had a small crystal radio, shaped like a small plastic rocket ship. There was a cable with an alligator clip that you could hook up to almost any piece of metal to act as a larger antenna, so I hooked up mine to the window screen. Since all of its power came from the actual radio signal, no batteries were required, and it was independent of the power in the building. We were put to bed, and told to go to sleep. I doubt my parents got much sleep that night, and I fell asleep with my small earbud in place, listening to he radio and waking up intermittently to hear music and hurricane reports. Although the peak of its popularity was the year before, for some perverse reason the radio kept playing Jody Reynolds' Endless Sleep - or maybe played it once and I remember it as endless repetitions due to the content.

"I looked at the sea and it seemed to say

I took your baby from you away.

I heard a voice cryin in the deep

Come join me, baby, in my endless sleep."

Only a day after the first hurricane warning was issued. the storm struck at the south end of Edisto Beach about 8:30 PM that Tuesday night, and made its way up eventually through Appalachia, where the rains measuring up to about 13 inches were mostly helpful to a drought-parched region. Since the shore came ashore at low tide, flooding effects were relatively minimal in Charleston, despite the fact that we were on the most dangerous northwest quadrant of the cyclone. But I remember the storm lashing us throughout the next day. The gravel on the flat roof of our building was mostly blown off and virtually sand-blasted cars in the parking lot. Large oak trees were uprooted all around us. The basement of the building flooded, meaning that some of the more adventurous of us kids could not resist a brief swim, in water that contained God knows what dangerous substances. The day became a bit of a hurricane party since we denizens of the apartment building were isolated. We had plenty of water, since we had dutifully filled our bathtub prior to the storm's arrival. (I don't think there was any bottled water back then, and people frankly would have probably thought it strange to fill plastic bottles with something you could easily get from a tap). We had the only gas stove in the building, in our 4th floor apartment, and the neighbors in the first floor had the only transistor radio, and so everyone congregated near that stairwell. I think we stayed out of school for several days, but my recollection is that things got back to near normal pretty quickly. We had survived the strongest hurricane of the 1959 season (although only a category 2 at the time of landfall, it had been as high as a category 4).

Although I cannot find the news reports, my recollection is that it was only a day or two later that a couple of the large oil or gasoline tanks in the tank farm that occupied the neck area of the peninsula at that time caught fire. I remember Dad taking us to the roof of an apartment on Mt. Pleasant St. to see the fire. We got calls from relatives from all over since the news in other areas than Charleston made it sound like everything that had not blown away was now on fire.

Now, things are far different. We are constantly watching the tropics, and know about potential storms almost from the time they depart the coast of Africa or build in the Caribbean. We get supercomputer-generated models, with what appears to an outsider as a friendly competition to give us the best model. Right now the Europeans, who don't get hurricanes, seem to be better. We no longer fill our bathtubs with water, we just go and deplete the shelves of Wal-Mart of cases of bottled water. We have TV, and wifi, and cellular networks, with smart phones that are more capable than the biggest computers available anywhere in 1959. We know everything WELL in advance of it happening. Except we don't.

We are now watching Florence approach the NC coast. Seeing it take the more northern route, we breathed a sigh of relief. The hurricane-magnet Outer Banks were doing us a favor once again. We confidently made dinner reservations for Friday night, thinking that the absence of tourists and Charleston newbies would make ding less crowded and more enjoyable. Then this morning - wait - maybe the storm is going to play rubber biscuit and bounce down our way.

So once again we hunker down and await developments, mentally planning for the worst, outwardly hoping for the best, and accepting that we may have to put up with some unpleasantness. And once again we are reminded that the best hurricane track model is the one that comes out after the storm has passed.

It's the price you pay for days in a coastal paradise.

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