Saturday, September 03, 2011


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:


  1. Amen, Philip. You have summed it up perfectly with these words: "Every storm is different; every person is different; every time is different."

    May God bless us all.

  2. Well played Philip.

  3. I am blessed to have someone as wise as you in my life...even if it is just through a blog on the internet. VERY well said!

  4. Anonymous7:53 AM

    We all make decisions in our lives....whether it is to stay in one place during a hurricane or to retreat to another, "safer" area; whether to go to the hospital when one has been sick for so long with a tough disease, or to just say "enough" and remain home; whether to end a promising career to stay home and care for a loved one; whether to quit one job and take that uncertain new job or make that big move across the country. We are given the opportunity to make life-changing choices when we reach that fork in the road. Once a choice is made, we own it.

    I totally understand and respect your decision to remain on Ocracoke Island. The difference with you, Philip, is that you realize the risk and do all that is humanly possible to prepare and then leave the rest on Faith. It's not that you remain on the island to be a hero or martyr. Your reasoning to remain isn't superficial. Your decision is made soundly (no pun intended) and after great thought and wise planning. No doubt, you learn more with each storm and have gained much experience in the "how-to-survive-a-hurricane". (a possible book title?)

    I'm so thankful you were there with Blanche. She has witnessed even more storms than you and being "home" on the island means the world to you both. It's in your blood.

    As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Anonymous8:43 AM

    Very well said Philip.


  6. Good thoughts-Many thanks for sharing them with your "virtual community".

  7. Anonymous9:20 AM

    If I lived on Ocracoke, I'd propbably evacuate for an expected strong cat 2 or higher (because I'ma chicken), but I'm certain my boyfriend would stay for nearly all hurricanes. I don't know if its because he has more courage than I, or can assess risk better ... and its likely a combination of both ... but I do know it would take a monster of a storm to get him to leave, and perhaps not even then. With the logistical problems of evacuating and returning to Ocracoke, I can understand the residents reluctance to leave. I try not to judge the anguish of those who choose to stay, or those who drive away, looking back at their home and wondering if thats the last time they'll see it standing.

  8. Anonymous10:01 AM

    Very well spoken Philip.

  9. Well spoken, Philip, those Howards are very reasonable folks. Now those O'Neals, on the other hand... just kidding, though it reminds me of the old quotation, "A poet is someone who goes outside and stands in the rain hoping he'll get struck by lightning"?

  10. Anonymous1:31 PM

    You explained yourself well, Phillip. And, you explained the feelings involved with making such a decision to a tee! Glad you are OK, and I know you are TIRED!!

  11. Anonymous8:51 AM


  12. Anonymous5:46 PM

    RON... It is Sunday, Sept. 4 & I "just" got that . I must say-- I am not laughing & I don't think my Great Granny O'Neal would think it was funny either! :)

  13. Well, my gransmom was an O'Neal so I'll have to ask her when we meet up again. Meanwhile, I'll see if Rex'll weigh in. (: Please understand, it's all in fun, in fact, "No fools, no fun."

  14. Anonymous8:12 PM

    The funniest part -- there must be something to what you say cause it took me 2 days to get the joke. From what I've heard, the O'Neals are known for their sense of humor & we sure can use some laughs right now. Thanks for the comment. :))

  15. Anonymous8:34 PM

    "The Outermost House" . . . I must read it yet again, one of my favorites. Read it first time in a leaf and stick hut in the South Pacific . . . thanks so much for bringing it to mind.

    On the subject of risk, Peter Sandman summed up well why we fear the storm and not the drive--one is "exotic" and happening TO us, the other mundane and of our own creation.

    Glad to hear all is well. One of these years I really ought to stop in the store and tell you in person how very much I enjoy your blog.

  16. Anonymous1:32 PM

    Since you owed us no explanation whatsoever, I think this article shows you have a real concern & respect for your readers. I thank you for the compliment.


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