A Saturday afternoon update: My friends and former neighbors Warren and Dana Walker stayed in Kill Devil Hills, as predicted. Around noon they went out to check out the ocean; when they came back, a tree was down where their truck had been. Warren also sent pictures of Kitty Hawk Bay on the Albemarle Sound from his back porch. During the day, southern winds pushed the water 50 yards from the end of the dock. At 4:30, Dana wrote: "Wind just shifted — already filled up the sound — hope it stops there!" Water was over the dock and filling the back yard. By 5:30, water was under the house. The Walker home, like many in the Outer Banks, is on stilts.
Hurricane Irene is like a slow-moving train wreck about to happen. You know it’s coming and can’t turn away.
I don’t have a very good Midwest perspective here. Although I was raised in Jefferson County south of St. Louis, I lived and worked for more than 16 years in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. My last mailing address there was a half-mile from where the Wright brothers first flew, in Kill Devil Hills.
On Friday, I watched news types broadcasting from the same town. Same beach.
Much of it is hype and more hype — more heat than light, as an old editor of mine used to say. It’s hard to keep a story going for days when that story is moving at 14 mph.
The Missourian ran articles this week about the storm, and put a “hot topic” link on its homepage to many more sites carrying hurricane information.
It makes me wonder whether I’m pushing something that’s not really on mid-Missourians’ radars.
So I asked for a show of hands in the newsroom of who was following Irene. It was near unanimous, for reasons that ranged from the country's cost of all these natural disasters to a question of whether mid-Missouri databases would be affected by shutdowns in "cloud" computing buildings.
NPR reported Friday morning that 80 million people could be affected. That’s 80 million chances a friend or family member of yours is riding out the wind and rain this weekend.
Many more of us have visited places like Washington, D.C., or New York City, and can imagine the damage a big hurricane could wreak there.
There are plans to shut down New York City's subway system in advance of the storm. I spent most of this summer working there for the MU School of Journalism and can attest that Manhattan moves underground. The gridlock of humans from a train stoppage would make your worst waiting-in-traffic story seem insignificant.
From the International Space Station, the storm looks like a cotton-on-print painting framed by the curvature of the Earth. At 230 miles away, its size still impresses.
You’ll see the narrow divide between paradise and disaster on North Carolina’s Outer Banks from a slighter lower setting.
I once went over North Carolina’s Outer Banks in a small prop plane for an article on the menhaden fishing industry. (The menhaden spotter plane buzzed our plane to chase us off. But that’s a story for another day.) Houses and businesses rest on land that’s flat as the farms around Centralia and just a few feet above the ocean. Only a dune, built by the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, separates water from buildings.
In Kill Devil Hills, the flat runs about three blocks, from “beach road” to “big road,” where the highway is elevated a couple of feet. The flat then continues west, to the Albemarle Sound.
A little land. Lots of water.
Mandatory evacuations have been issued. Most of my friends will stay, as they have for hurricanes past. I always stayed, too, for the job. But I sent my family away. My wife, a Missouri native, figured that the great benefit of hurricanes over tornadoes was that you had time to get away.
By lunchtime Friday, Irene was 300 miles away from Cape Hatteras. We’re already feeling the effects; the Associated Press reported that East Coast refineries were shutting down, and gas prices were going up across the country.
It’s going to be a long weekend.
Ps: If you want to follow coverage of the storm from an Outer Banks point of view, check out Island Free Press and the Outer Banks Voice. Other links to bigger newspapers and other sites can be found from the Missourian's home page.