As hurricane Irene was approaching, nearly everyone on the island began making mental calculations. How strong were the winds likely to be? Category 1, 2, or maybe even 3. Where would she likely make landfall?
I thought about my house -- more than one hundred years old, a survivor of many storms, completely rebuilt and strengthened six years ago.
I thought about Ocracoke -- battered by major storms in 1899, 1933, & 1944, as well as Isabel, Earl, and Alex in recent memory...some major structural damage sustained by several homes, but never a life lost.
On Saturday morning, the day Irene struck, I awoke thinking about risk. Everyone has a threshold of risk he or she is willing to endure. A major hurricane clearly poses many risks. It would be foolish to second guess anyone's decision about leaving or remaining on the island as a tropical storm approaches. So many factors come into play -- children, family, health concerns, proximity of one's house to Pamlico Sound, emotions, level of anxiety, etc.
Then I thought about traveling by automobile on Interstate highways. Hardly anyone gives more than a passing thought to the risk involved in barreling down the highway at 70 mph with cars and trucks whizzing by at 75 or 85 mph. We get behind the wheel, strap the kids in car seats, and set off for the mall, grandma's, or the Grand Canyon. Most people consider the risk acceptable for the convenience of fast, easy, relatively comfortable travel.
If there were a 24-hour-a-day TV channel dedicated to reports, photos, and videos of fatal automobile accidents most of us would think more carefully about getting into our cars and trucks.
I know that hurricanes and Interstate travel are very different things, but considering them together helps put risk assessment and decision making in perspective.
I often remain on Ocracoke as hurricanes approach because on those occasions when I have evacuated I have always regretted leaving. It is often very difficult to get back home after a storm because of flooded roads, fallen trees, and downed power lines on the mainland. Several times when I have stayed I was able to saw off branches to prevent damage to my building. Once I propped up a tree to prevent it from falling on my house. After the storm I can begin clean up immediately -- replacing shingles, broken glass, etc. I am also part of this community where neighbors help neighbors, especially in emergencies.
I also think of Henry Beston's sentiment in "The Outermost House": "The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things." Hurricanes and storms are elemental. The raw power of wind and water provide modern human beings with a sense of awe. It is not for everyone. And it may not be for me the next time a storm threatens Ocracoke. Every storm is different; every person is different; every time is different.
It is a matter of risk assessment, and deciding where the threshold lies.
Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is a history of the marine hospital on Portsmouth Island. You can read it here: http://www.villagecraftsmen.com/news082111.htm.