Millions of people in the path of Hurricane Florence are frantically preparing for a monster storm that’s anticipated to make landfall as early as Friday afternoon. Residents in states from Virginia to Georgia — especially those who live in flood-prone areas or on the coast — must decide whether to stay or go.
For some, like the Richards family in Virginia, the choice was easy. They have a month-old newborn, and they’re headed to Michigan. For others, like Chris Pennington in South Carolina, the choice was less clear. So he decided to board his home’s windows Wednesday, regardless.
Here are some snapshots of a region awaiting the hurricane:
WAITING TO SEE
Chris Pennington was boarding up the windows of his Myrtle Beach house late Wednesday morning after seeing the latest National Hurricane Center forecast bringing Florence inland nearly over his home about a half-mile (.8 kilometre) from the ocean.
He planned to stay before and was still leaning that way, but said he will be checking the weather keenly for the next 24 hours.
“I have until Thursday afternoon to leave, I think,” Pennington said. “In 12 or 18 hours, they may be saying different things all over again.”
Pennington said there are two big draws to staying: His wife can be available to help if needed at the local animal hospital where she works and he doesn’t have to wait to return home inside the evacuation zone.
“It’s terrible trying to get back,” Pennington said.
A FINAL GLASS OF WINE
Hours before a mandatory evacuation took effect, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, resident Phoebe Tesh paused between loading her car to have a glass of wine on the steps of the house where she and her husband rent an apartment.
“We just love it down here so much we want to spend as time as we can,” she said.
Tesh, who works in IT for UNC-Wilmington, said she and her husband have been making trips back and forth to carry valuables to her parents’ house on the mainland in Wilmington, where they are going to ride out the storm.
“We started out with anything that cost over $200. Now we’re down to anything over $30,” she said, waving toward an SUV crammed with plastic bins and various items, including a block of chef’s knives. “Next time we need a box truck.”
She said she and her husband, a professor at UNC-W, loved the beach so much they sold a house on the mainland to be full-time renters since 2013.
She said they typically evacuate for major storms, and even neighbours who tend to ride our hurricanes are leaving.
“We don’t know of anyone who’s staying for the storm,” she said.
SOLITUDE ON THE BEACH
Chris and Nicole Roland arrived for a week of vacation at North Myrtle Beach on Sunday. By Monday, a mandatory evacuation was ordered. But they looked at the forecast and decided it was safe to stay until after dark Wednesday as long as they boarded up their uncle’s condominium.
They have been rewarded with the rarest of luxuries on South Carolina’s most popular beaches — solitude.
“It’s been really nice,” Nicole Roland said. “Also, a little creepy. You feel like you should have already left.”
The Grand Strand around them resembled a ghost town. Only one person could be seen in the wide expanse of beach typically packed with people well into September. Tourism officials estimate 18 million people visit the area each year. On Wednesday, all those restaurants, beach wear shops and mini golf courses were closed.
Chris Roland planned to leave around midnight Wednesday to go back to Chillicothe, Ohio.
“I think we have time to lay out a little longer,” he said.
Forecasters said the heavy rains and winds should hold off until Thursday afternoon.
COMING OUT OF RETIREMENT TO HELP
Looking at a fleet of utility trucks staged at a parking lot near Charlotte Motor Speedway on Wednesday, retired utility worker Paul Anderson confessed that helping out with recovery efforts from Hurricane Florence was a rush. He admits the pay is good, but there’s another factor that moves him.
“It’s adrenaline,” said Anderson, 59, of Lake City, Florida. “As soon as I get the call to go to work, I’m a changed man. My wife will tell you that. It makes you feel good to go help people. Plus, you get paid.”
Anderson didn’t hesitate when he was asked to work, gathering people from Florida and Alabama to head to the Wilmington, North Carolina, area. At least two dozen trucks were parked near the speedway, and some workers were gathered at a trailer loading the truck with various pieces of equipment.
“When (my boss) asked me if I’d go down to the coast, I said yeah. And he said ‘You know what you’re getting into, don’t you?’ and I said, ‘That’s where I want to be. I want to be right in the middle of it.'”
Finally, Anderson admitted to one fear.
“I’m scared of the water,” he said. “I’m not scared of the wind. (Hurricane) Irma had a lot of wind. You don’t want to be out in it but you can protect yourself from that. This water thing, we’ve never had to face that. “
IN LUCK AT THE FUEL PUMP
At a Han-Dee Hugo’s convenience store in Wilmington, that had been out of gasoline, customers were waiting at the pumps when a tanker truck arrived to replenish the supply Wednesday.
Sarah and Bryan Dankanich were at a pump when the attendant pulled off a yellow bag saying it was out of service. Sarah Dankanich said she felt lucky they got there at the right time because gas availability has been hit or miss recently.
“I put $1.19 of gas in my car on Monday and then the thing ran out,” she said.
This time, they were filling up the car as well as gas cans.
“We’ve made three trips to Home Depot,” she said, pointing to the SUV with plywood sticking out the back.
Asked if they are concerned about the forecast, she said: “We’ll see. Our family thinks we are crazy.”
At a pump nearby, Wilmington resident Michael Wilson also was waiting for gas. He has been fortifying his house because of concerns about wind and rain.
“The biggest thing is you’re always worried about yourself and friends and family — and whether they’ll have a place to come back to,” he said.
FRANTIC SCENE AT HOME DEPOT
At the nearby Home Depot in Wilmington, people were waiting in line for an hour or more to get lumber to board up their houses. At least one person was seen sprinting to get in line for supplies at the store expected to close later in the day.
Mickey and Diane Manes were loading a half-dozen long plywood boards into his pickup for boarding up the windows of their Wilmington home.
“I had to wait an hour in line to get this lumber,” he said.
“We’ve been through about three hurricanes and we never boarded up the windows, but this time we are,” he said.
Asked why this time is different, he replied: “how fast the wind is.”
As they lifted the last two boards, another frantic customer ran up and asked if she could have their cart to go get in line.
LEARNING FROM PAST EXPERIENCE
Seth Bazemore lives in one of the most flood-prone neighbourhoods in Norfolk, Virginia: A sliver of land known as Willoughby Spit that juts out into Chesapeake Bay like a thumb.
Previous hurricanes have made him a survivor.
On Wednesday, his brick house was lined with sandbags. Six bilge pumps sat inside on the ground floor, ready to push out the heavy rains and possible flood surge that the outer bands of Hurricane Florence are forecast to deliver.
“It looks like a ship moored to a pier,” said the 62-year-old engineering manager at Newport News Shipbuilding, a nearby shipyard the builds aircraft carriers and submarines for the U.S. Navy.
“I’ve learned from past experience,” he said. “But believe you me, if I think it’ll be worse and more than my setup can handle, we’re out of here.”
Bazemore was feeling some relief Wednesday. The forecast showed that Florence may strike the East Coast even further south in the Carolinas and bring less rain and wind to Virginia.
EVACUATING WITH A NEWBORN
Colin Richards was among the military personnel leaving coastal Virginia and North Carolina ahead of Hurricane Florence. Many of the region’s ships had already headed out to sea.
The 28-year-old mostly was concerned for his daughter, who is one month and two days old.
“It’s very simple,” he said Wednesday morning. “We don’t want to live without power with a newborn.”
Richards is a U.S. Navy diver based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach. He and his wife, Louilyn, live in the Norfolk neighbourhood of Oceanview, which sits on the southern edge of the Chesapeake Bay.
Florence is projected to strike the Carolinas. But heavy rains, winds and flooding are expected in Virginia.
“It’s just not worth the risk,” Richards said. “We’ve lost power frequently in the past.”
The family planned to head to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Richards is from. He said many of his neighbours in Norfolk planned to wait out the storm with generators.
Skip Foreman reported from Charlotte, North Carolina, Jeffrey Collins reported from Myrtle Beach, Ben Finley from Norfolk, Jonathan Drew from Wilmington and Tamara Lush from St. Petersburg, Florida.
For the latest on Hurricane Florence, visit www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes.