Covering Hurricane Florence: If Waffle House is closed, you know there's a problem

September 14, 2018
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Editors note: Ryan is covering Hurricane Florence for 1010 WINS digital.  Look for his pictures and videos as he travels along the Carolina coast and inland communities. You’ll find his daily blogs right here as he shares his experience of covering the storm.

BY RYAN JONES

My father and I spent Thursday in Wilmington, North Carolina, the same town we've devoted almost all our time to since landing in Raleigh Tuesday afternoon. Wilmington's expecting the worst of Hurricane Florence's force, boarding up every window downtown in their efforts to survive the dreaded storm surge unanimously predicted by meteorologists and government officials alike. Most people left, some stayed, and the time for reconsideration had long since passed.

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The morning was dark, overcast, ominous, and started with business as usual on my end. I rose early, dressed fast and got out to the parking lot of our hotel, looking to talk to some frustrated, possibly displaced, travelers. A woman from Beaufort, North Carolina said her family was prepared to try and ride out the storm at home before the government stepped in and took away that option by issuing a mandatory evacuation. Jeremiah, a guy from Atlanta who assesses damage after a storm, couldn't have been less concerned with the warnings of governors.

"C'mon, man," he said, laughing as he walked to his car. "It's a category 2!"

Getting off I-40 and driving towards downtown Wilmington bordered on surreal. The town had been taking flight the past 2 days, the westbound lanes chock full of folks deserting their homes, but nothing could prepare me for the emptiness of it all: midday on a Tuesday afternoon in the historic downtown section of Wilmington, and there were more bloggers and TV crews around than regular citizens down on Front Street.

There were a couple people who gave me a couple minutes of their time, though, people who were taking one last stroll out in the muggy air before tucking away in their homes to wait out the storm. Franklin Evans was nice enough when I asked him why he was still here, but I could tell he didn't like the question too much. 

"Family!" was his answer; anybody who leaves family is a person Franklin doesn't understand. Robert was out by the bridge, dressed for the beach and riding his bike around with about a dozen other muscular young men, and he seemed confident the only flooding that was going to happen in his quarters was him flooding his stomach with all the beer he had stocked up for the occasion. 

Daniel though...Daniel was the most fascinating, and the most tragic. Daniel is an older gentleman with a marvelous, flowing white beard and the eyes of a professor nearing retirement. We spoke downtown, and he knew darn well evacuation was an option for most people, but not for him. 

"I got no place to go, and no way to get there," he told me. He then shrugged, turned, and marched by his lonesome down the empty sidewalks, and instead of gazing at his reflections in glossy storefront windows he had only plywood to look at. He was gone as fast as he appeared, sauntering down block after block of lifeless sidewalks and streets.

Watches ticked, hours rolled by, and before long the street was full of nothing but a bunch of journalists looking at the sky. We hopped back in the RAV4 and decided to check out the closed drawbridge leading out to Wrightsville Beach. Eventually it was late afternoon, and since Florence hadn't shown up yet, we decided to just cruise around Wilmington and wait for preparation time to give way to the brutality of the main event.

This right here was the most striking part of day 3, this drive through Wilmington. It was desolate, so desolate that an eerie feeling had seeped into the thick, humid air, and Wilmington didn't feel so safe anymore. The emptiness of the streets and shops made it seem like we'd missed the rapture, but the growing winds warned of something more sinister. We drove on roads that were entirely ours, and marveled at the complete hibernation of the population. 

When the Waffle House is closed, you know there's a problem.

After a strange and fruitless search, we circled back downtown again, hoping there was something we'd missed. In all of Wilmington, one restaurant still had a pulse: the Port City Cheesesteak Company is a tiny little hole in the wall joint on Princess Street, and music played from the inside, the neon "open" sing welcoming us with an orange flicker. Chap and Porter own the place, and they proudly announced plain patties with cheese on bread were all they had left, since the rest of their food had been bought up by a ravenous populace with limited options. The power went out two minutes after we arrived, but Chap cooks with gas, and we ate well.

Leaving, I felt better, less scared. Those guys spoke so casually about Florence, dismissing her like she was an annoying kid sister instead of an amorphous terror, that I started to feel like maybe the storm wouldn't be much. I mean, we hadn't experienced much at all, and the rain had been light for the whole time we lingered over our burgers.

We left Raleigh, since darkness never provided any good video, swearing we'd get this storm on camera one way or another. I pulled off I-40 in Warsaw to get some gas at the Pilot station just off the highway. When I opened the door to climb out the vicious winds ripped it from my hands. I looked around. Trees were blowing, and the wind was loud, blasting the side of my face and rendering everything else silent for a moment. 

There are about a dozen gas pumps at the station, and they were all wrapped tight with plastic in anticipation of the storm. People were filling up, buying snacks inside, chattering about the looming presence of the storm. I don't know if it was the plastic or the wind that reminded me, but I suddenly remembered that it doesn't matter what Chap or any of the locals in Wilmington say. A hurricane is descending on the Carolina coast, one that is crawling instead of sprinting, and that is terrifying. Back at the hotel now, I watch the television like everyone else, waiting to see which fate unfolds in the coming days in this American South. It's like a choose-your-adventure novel, but without the choice. 

People will suffer, and people will lose things, material things. Hopefully not lives. Here in Raleigh the town has welcomed displaced people from Wilmington, the Barrier Islands and more, and we hope to find more people Friday and tell their stories.​