My coal mine canary returns

in Bill Rauch/Contributors/Voices by

Photo above: At 4 a.m. the storm wobbled to the northwest and for 45 scary minutes Matthew’s eye headed straight for us.

By Bill Rauch

When the rain really started to come down at 3 p.m. Friday (Oct. 7) I watched my family — my wife, two boys, mother-in-law, three dogs — drive out the driveway.

After looking at the National Hurricane Center’s tracks, and hearing the governor, the president and the Weather Channel, I had decided to do what I have always done: ride it out.

It felt a little lonely watching them drive off.  But parting always does.

Frankly, there was less good reason to stay this time to visit firsthand with Matthew. In 1989, with Hugo bearing down on Beaufort, I had a newspaper, The Lowcountry Ledger, to look after. And as we all know, news and her deadlines come first.

In 1999, when Beaufort evacuated for Hurricane Floyd, I had a town — a great and delicate town — to look after. Only in extremis do mayors leave their towns.

Both times I never considered going.

But why stay now? It’s crazy. My grown children now living in New York, my sister, and several friends told me so … in no uncertain terms.

But not Beaufort people. They mostly said, “Sure, stay. That’s what I’m doing.”

What is it about New Yorkers who are so tough that they are so careful too? Everyone with whom I communicated Friday night who lives on Manhattan Island begged me to leave immediately for high ground. Maybe it’s that New Yorkers are a pretty smart bunch.

The evening started calmly enough. In fact, I called the family to say goodnight and turned in early. But then at 2:30 a.m. an odd thing happened … like a canary in a coal mine. The gas detector — the thing that hangs on the wall and sounds like a smoke detector — went off: “Beep” … “Beep” … “Beep.” First I thought I was dreaming it.  Then it woke me up.

May I say without my readers thinking me crazy that things like this used to happen when I lived in The Castle on Craven Street. It was always at night. A door would slam. A window would creak. I’d wake up, “What was that?” Then I’d hear my daughter in her crib who had the chicken pox crying … or a son sleepwalking. It was weird.

I don’t know why the gas alarm went off.  I had shut the gas to the whole house off. But I fumbled around with resetting it, and while I was up I thought I’d take a look outside.

I took the flashlight and went against the wind out to the porch and looked around. There was water everywhere! The house, up on 2-foot brick piers, was surrounded by water! I shined the light under the porch. There was water everywhere.

Amazingly, the lights were still on, so I fired up the laptop and looked up the tides: high tide would be at 2:49 a.m. So the water was definitely still rising.

When I was mayor I took a group of 115 intrepid volunteers down to Long Beach, Miss., to help that devastated town chainsaw out from under Katrina. Then after I was mayor I worked a couple of years for FEMA, helping mayors negotiate the byzantine FEMA post-disaster reimbursement process. So, as New Yorkers would say, “I know from floods.”

Now I was in for one. Between about 3 and 4 a.m., while the house still had lights, I moved things up onto beds onto tables onto shelves, wherever I could find a spot. It’s interesting what you choose. Here’s the priorities list: (1) favorite guns (2) anything to do with the children (3) family stuff, photo albums, etc. (4) everybody’s tennis rackets, sports equipment, shoes and boots (5) anything else of value.

Then, at 4 a.m. I found WSAV’s live stream — WSAV did an award-winning job and public service covering the storm — and their weather people said, “Matthew is still tracking due north and will make landfall between Tybee Island and Hilton Head Island.”

Whoa, I thought, that’s us!

Then the lights went out.

There’s lonely, and then there’s LONELY!

With my flashlight I checked the water level under the house. It was unchanged. The tide might be supposed to be going out, but it was clearly no match for the wind.

Back inside, in my mind I ran over my alternatives. That didn’t take long. There was only one: whether to put on my son’s old t-ball batting helmet that I had just dug out of the back of a closet. I thought, nah, and — having done what I could do —  settled into my favorite reading chair to listen to the majesty of the wind, and for the gurgle of the sea rising up through the floor boards.

It was so dark that there was absolutely no difference between having your eyes open or shut.

When I woke up, the water was running out of the yard.

Matthew had moved on.