Editor’s Note: Hannah Cheng is another MIT science writing graduate student to accept the Hurricane Sandy Challenge. To read more of Hannah’s work, check out Scope or her blog Unsanctioned Speculation. You can also follow her on Twitter @haychling.
My dad has probably never been to a casino, religious and awkward as he is. All the same, he taught me how to gamble — with my home, my possessions, and possibly my life — because in the eighteen years we lived on the storm-lashed coast of South Carolina, we only evacuated once, and that one time we did, Hurricane Hugo hit the Charleston area right on the nose.
First, you assess the news. You study the reporters, note the wind speed and barometric pressure, listen for either “will” or “may” to precede verbs of destruction. Over time, you listen with one ear and simply eyeball satellite images for storm skirt size and eye formation. Is the storm’s eye glaring at you, well-formed and hateful? Or is it wandering, wall-eyed, blinking and sliding in and out of focus?
Experience colors, the facts, and this is where things can go wrong. Sure, the last hurricane to hit the area took shingles off the roof; that’s no biggie. But how close did it hit? In state, out of state? You don’t remember, so you fudge things.
You list precautions in your head, confident that acknowledging danger is enough to prevent it. You know to keep an eye on rainfall estimates even though you don’t technically live in a flood zone (but let’s face it, if your town is 10 feet above sea level, you’re a pro basketball player’s bunny-hop away from immersion). And the live oak trees in your backyard—they’re old, they lean over the roof. Some wind means branches thunking against the roof; stronger winds can mean the tree itself.
The deciding factor could simply be the availability of escape routes open to you. Question: do you live in the South? Then fact: public transportation sucks, you’re on your own. Question: do you live in a metropolitan city? Follow-up to a yes: do you even know how to leave town?
Very likely, you’re leaving town by car, and that means you need uncongested roads to get anywhere. Is there a mandatory evacuation notice? Have the highways and evacuation routes been updated and expanded since the last population boom? Unsavory possibility: you may just be stuck on the highway when the storm hits.
Once you’ve made the decision to stay, and you’ve hunkered down in your safety zone with friends and booze and rations—you wait. Your justifications circulate in the back of your mind. You wonder. And though you hope you’re right and the worst passes you over, you also feel a bit guilty that someone else somewhere may have bet wrong.