ATLANTA — Norma Lemon, the owner of a Caribbean-themed restaurant on the South Carolina coast, knows well the power of a hurricane to shatter both property and lives. She can recall the distinctive sound of roofs being ripped away by the winds of Hurricane Hugo as it tore though Charleston in 1989. She spent nearly three months restoring her Island Breeze restaurant after it was flooded by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
On Sunday, she was also aware of the strange way that a brutal threat like Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm churning on an indeterminate path in the Atlantic some 500 miles southeast of her, can also bind a disparate community across states and nations. She knew that all of them — the millions of people living in Dorian’s direct path, or within its vast cone of probable movement — were inhabiting a distinct universe of worry.
“We are in the same boat, pretty much,” said Lemon, 57. “They’re saying 175 mile-per-hour winds. You’re thinking about people in the Bahamas and other places that’s really getting it. And then you think that it’s coming to you.”
The National Hurricane Center said Sunday that Dorian was still growing and moving west toward the Florida coast, with hurricane-force winds extending 45 miles from the center and tropical storm-force winds another 95 miles beyond that. The storm tore into the Bahamas Sunday, with wind gusts more than 220 mph— the strongest storm on record to hit the archipelago.
If it maintains those wind speeds and makes landfall in Florida, it would be the most powerful to strike the state since the devastating Labor Day hurricane of 1935.
But it was unclear whether the eye of the storm would reach land in Florida, or anywhere else. Dorian’s possible paths forward were as expansive as they were unsettled. After approaching the Florida coast Monday, the storm is expected to turn north, but questions about when it would make the turn, and whether it would hug the Atlantic coast or spin farther out to sea, were still unanswerable.
Officials issued a formal hurricane warning Sunday afternoon for the Florida coast from near Titusville south to Jupiter, and a storm surge warning south to Lantana, with watches posted for areas to either side. But those were just the places expected to feel the storm’s impact in the next 36 to 48 hours. Longer-term cautions were sounded much farther north along the coast as well, with officials in Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia urging residents to prepare for potential catastrophe in the coming days.
It was a familiar feeling of dread for a region where residents mark their lives by the hurricanes they have survived. Their relationships with storms, with their power to kill and destroy, are primarily built on fear.
Those who live with storm threats, whether on small islands in the Caribbean or along the American coast, share the rituals of boarding up, of packing up, of moving out when they can.
The repetition, season after season, can be exhausting. “The hurricane seasons are what age you around here,” said Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, west of Miami, who has tracked storms for 20 years. “This kind of stuff gets old.”
But it does not necessarily get easier.
“I’m close to tears,” said Lemon, who has evacuated three times in the past few years. “It just feels like here we go again with this one, like it’s not going to be good, you know?”
Lemon’s restaurant, a laid-back place where reggae pumps constantly, overlooks a densely forested marsh island at Mosquito Beach, set between Charleston and Folly Beach. The menu emphasizes the easy cultural harmony between the Caribbean and this stretch of Carolina coast, where Gullah accents lend what to an untrained ear might feel like an island flavor.
Lemon said she did not want to leave her restaurant again. But she knew she might have no choice but to evacuate soon. “I don’t even think we care where we’re going to go, because we’re leaving this precious place that we love so much behind,” she said.
Those in the hurricane zone are bound by the grim reality that a near miss for them could still mean ruin for their neighbors.
Puerto Ricans felt collective relief when Dorian, then barely a hurricane, skidded to the east of the island last week and made its first landfall in the Virgin Islands instead of the predicted direct hit on Puerto Rico. But by Sunday, some expressed dread that the Bahamas would experience deadly destruction similar to how Hurricane Maria wrecked Puerto Rico two years ago.
“We had neighborhoods here without power for eight or nine months,” said Luis Raúl Sánchez, the vice mayor of Humacao, Puerto Rico, near where Maria came ashore in 2017. “We had no fresh food. No communications. We know that the Bahamas are about to experience something that could be very difficult.”
Residents of the Abaco Islands felt the storm’s wrath Sunday morning, as residents scrambled for shelters or took refuge in churches. Storm surge of up to 23 feet was possible, along with 25 inches of rain, threatening to swamp many low-lying areas of the Bahamas. Parts of Marsh Harbour, the principal town in the Abaco Islands, were flooded.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis urged residents of Grand Bahama Island, the next in the storm’s way, to move to safer ground in Freeport, the main city. “As a physician, I have been trained to withstand many things — but never anything like this,” Minnis told reporters.
The day before the storm struck, the Nassau Guardian newspaper had posted an article on its website detailing evacuation options with the bluntest of headlines: “Get out.”
The hurricane zone is connected by networks of charity. In Miami on Sunday, Valencia Gunder, the unpaid executive director of Smile Trust, a nonprofit group, said she had spent $15,000 buying 11 pallets of water, a half-dozen generators, grills, rice, chicken and hot dogs in case she needed to launch a Miami feeding operation.
If Miami is spared, Gunder said she would do what she did last year, when she got 18-wheelers and shifted her operation to the Florida Panhandle, where Hurricane Michael hit. She has already decided to kick off a response for the Bahamas. After all, she said, much of Miami was built by Bahamian labor.
And the region is kept up and running after storms by people like Stephen Neville, a power lineman full of purpose and swagger.
“When we hear there is a storm, we are walking around the yard, high-fiving each other saying, ‘Bring it on!’ ” said Neville, who works for Florida’s largest utility, Florida Power and Light. “Everybody is pumped up. We are like dogs in a cage, ready to attack.”
The hurricane zone is connected by the mix of people taking flight, and by people who never went back to battered hometowns. There are Puerto Ricans in Florida. There are New Orleanians in Georgia. It is full of people who want to leave when a storm like Dorian approaches, and people who cannot — or will not.
In Cocoa, Florida, on Sunday, Renora Johnson, 69, chatted with friends and family outside her home at the Regina Myra apartments as clouds rolled by and wind whistled through the palm trees. Brevard County has ordered a mandatory evacuation by 8 a.m. Monday for beachside residents in Cocoa, but not for most inland residents like her.
Almost exactly two years ago, she considered evacuating to her family in Georgia for Hurricane Irma. But that seemed like too much of a hassle. She made it through that storm, with water leaking into the bedrooms, but she was anxious about losing power again. One of Johnson’s daughters is partially paralyzed and uses an electric bed.
Johnson has gathered bottled water, canned goods and flashlights. And she’s filled several bags of sand from a pile the city dumped a few blocks away. Both of her neighbors helped her board up the windows.
“I pretty much got help from this side and that side,” she said, motioning to the brick, one-story homes bordering her own. “I thank God for good neighbors.”
There are others whose family stories are told in hurricane chapters. Nancy Sikes-Kline, 62, is a native Floridian and city commissioner in St. Augustine, Florida. Her father was born in West Palm Beach, Florida, a year after the ferocious hurricane of 1928 that killed some 2,500 people, and he had memories of the infamous Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Sikes-Kline remembers being a little girl sick with scarlet fever when the eye of Hurricane Donna went over her family’s boarded-up house in Lakeland, Florida, in 1960.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew sent 4 feet of water into her one-story house. The next year, Hurricane Irma took out all that was left on her lot, a small shed.
Today, she and her family have a new, raised house, and a plan to evacuate Tuesday, if necessary. Still, she was all nerves Sunday, like so many others near and far. She would have turned to the succor of church, but services were canceled. “So we didn’t go to church,” she said. “We went to Target to get flashlights instead.”