Florence Evacuees Face 4 Nights In A Shelter, And No End In Sight

Sep 15, 2018

Lawanda Jones' house near Myrtle Beach, S.C., is next to a large, lovely tree. Earlier this week, as Jones listened to the evacuation orders and hurricane warnings piling up, she looked at that tree and thought: what if it falls?

On Friday afternoon, Jones stood outside Conway High School, a Red Cross shelter and, on drier days, home of the Tigers. She and her family have been staying at the shelter since Tuesday and, although it's crowded and difficult to sleep among strangers, she said she's glad she evacuated early.

"I had to make two trips. The weight of all of us in the car, we couldn't make it," she explains. "If I had [waited] to do that until the storm came, we wouldn't have had time."

Across South Carolina on Friday, at least 5,500 people were staying at 59 Red Cross shelters, according to spokesperson Cuthbert Langley. And Florence's plodding progress means they, and potentially many more, could be stuck sleeping among strangers for days more.

"I have not slept really since I've been there," said Amanda Johns, who evacuated her camper on Tuesday. "I'm tossing and turning. They're saying it'll be four days, five days. Could be a week. I don't know what I'll do if I have to stay here that long. That's a long storm."

Florence is a very large, very slow-moving, very wet storm — the type of tropical cyclone that is made more likely by climate change. Warm ocean water and weak wind currents drive hurricanes to grow large, sucking up moisture and then stalling out over land, dropping it as rain.

For people in Florence's path, that means a more drawn out and exhausting hurricane experience.

John Smith said police in Myrtle Beach, S.C., told him he needed to leave town on Tuesday. "I biked here all the way. I got here Tuesday morning about 10:30," he said. Since then, he's been sleeping on the floor at night and trying to find ways to pass the time each day by helping people carry their things inside.

"People are panicking out there when they see the rain. [People] don't move until the last minute. It's not good, but I know they don't want to be here until they have to."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hurricane Florence came ashore more than 24 hours ago and is now a tropical storm. But don't be fooled. Rains have been relentless, and the storm's main threat, flooding, is just now coming about. NPR's Rebecca Hersher, who is in Myrtle Beach, S.C., joins us. Becky, thanks so much for being with us.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: What are you seeing? What are you hearing?

HERSHER: Well, people are taking that flood danger really seriously. So people in this beach town - they've left the beach town. It's actually kind of eerie. Big hotels and restaurants, you know, boardwalk, the whole deal - it's all boarded up, closed. Some signs have been blown down by some wind. Streetlights are out. Electricity is out for, actually, hundreds of thousands of people across the region. But here, there's really almost no one left in the town to experience that very sort of ghost-town-in-the-rain vibe. So I think the flood danger was communicated by officials, and people have left.

SIMON: Well, where did people go?

HERSHER: Well, there were people who were vacationing, and they went home because there was a lot of lead time - many, many days - or they at least tried to before airlines canceled flights. There was so much lead time, in fact, that people here who could evacuate inland, even residents - yearlong residents - they did. They went, sometimes, hundreds of miles inland away from the storm.

But for those who couldn't or didn't travel all the way inland - maybe didn't have a car that could make it or had too many people, they ended up in shelters. And I visited one at a high school near Myrtle Beach. It's really crowded. People have already been there for days, which is exhausting. I think it's easy to forget that shelters - it's better than nothing, but you're with a bunch of strangers.

I talked to one woman named Lawanda Jones. She evacuated with her family on Tuesday. Here's what she told me.

LAWANDA JONES: I had to make two trips. The weight of all us in my car, it was...

CANDACE JONES: And then, all of our stuff.

L. JONES: And we couldn't make it. Yeah. So I had to break us down into groups and then go back home and get all our stuff and then come back. So it was like, if I did that when the storm came, we wouldn't have had time for that.

HERSHER: So she's glad that she left early, on one hand. But now, she's facing a week or more sleeping on a gym floor with a bunch of people she doesn't know. And it's really disruptive, you know? It really changes your life for weeks on end. Plus, you're worried about your house. So I think that's the upshot of a storm that lingers the way this one does.

SIMON: Becky, what's in the forecast?

HERSHER: Well, a lot of rain. Rain, rain, rain for days and days more. The rivers here, including the Waccamaw and Pee Dee Rivers, which sort of both flow towards the coast through Myrtle Beach - they're not supposed to crest until Monday. There have been flash flood warnings sort of on and off. There was one until 2:30 in the morning last night.

And the rain is still falling, you know? You look out the window, and it is just relentless. People here are really tired. But they know - you know, you look at the forecast, and Saturday, Sunday, Monday - there really is no reason to believe that it will stop.

SIMON: And what's it like for people in Myrtle Beach now, for, as you describe it, the handful that are still there, and maybe some people are coming back?

HERSHER: Well, I think it's sort of a waiting game. And it's also - it's nerve-wracking because you don't know. Because water rises slowly as it continues to rain, you don't know if your house is safe. So I think, in terms of public health and safety, people are concerned for their property.

And also because freshwater flooding from rain - it's the biggest killer. It's the most deadly thing from storms. And part of that is from driving. It's really dangerous to be on the roadways if it's raining this much. You just don't know if you're driving into a flood zone, if your car could be pulled away by the water. So this adage, you know - turn around, don't drown - it definitely applies here. And people are worried about that. I think the less rhyme-y (ph) version, you know - stay inside, even if you're bored - that also applies.

SIMON: NPR's Rebecca Hersher in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Thanks so much.

HERSHER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.