Future Development

Stocking up before the hurricane—and thinking about what comes after.

A man loads his car with jugs of water, a storm looming on the horizon.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

The parking lot of this Harris Teeter, North Carolina’s ubiquitous sort-of-upscale supermarket, overflows with trucks. Silver Toyota pickups and black Chevrolet Suburbans circle for scarce spots, with the occasional Porsche thrown in. Inside the store, the lines snake down the aisles. Someone in the very back, near the frozen foods, holds her phone aloft to take a photo of the mess. Hurricane Florence is currently expected to make landfall around Wilmington, three hours to the southeast, around Thursday afternoon as a Category 3 or 4, and then over the next 24 hours to mangle the eastern two-thirds of the state before heading north toward Richmond.

I’m at a disadvantage. This isn’t my local Harris Teeter on the other side of Chapel Hill but the one in Meadowmont, an area of new developments targeted to well-heeled Yankee retirees and professional students, so I don’t know where anything is. The cavernous beer and wine aisle is largely undisturbed, as are various specialty areas within the store. In a corner by the deserted juice bar, I find a rack of specialty La Brea Bakery bread and grab a loaf, suspecting it remains available only due to administrative oversight.

“Fresh Juice Squeezed For You”: In its specificity, the Harris Teeter’s signage resembles the legends in large white letters on the sides of the UNC Hospitals buildings in and around this mixed-use development, between which I’ve been shuttling since earlier in the afternoon. Therapeutic Infusion. Benign Hematology at Carolina Pointe II. “The Carolina Clinic at Meadowmont,” which is UNC’s “executive health and concierge medicine program.”

When I reach it, the water aisle is cleaned out. Plenty of bottled iced tea in jugs, plenty of club soda, no flat water at all. Will we wash our faces with cranberry-flavored seltzer?

“You got one of the big peanut butters!” marvels a woman in the pet food aisle, looking at the jar in my cart. “Any left?”

“There were a couple.”

“No water, though!”

“Yeah, no water. Do you happen to know where the batteries are?”

When I get there, the store associates have helpfully distributed packages of AAA batteries across the empty racks where the Cs and Ds used to be. I wheel left into the bread aisle and am immediately glad of my La Brea stash. All the bread is gone except the rye, the existence of which the shoppers have, in true North Carolina fashion, refused to acknowledge. Who says immigrants to a new land can’t assimilate?

I’m shopping for hurricane supplies at this particular Harris Teeter because I was already here in Meadowmont, being evaluated at a clinic for an autoimmune condition I was diagnosed with four months ago that causes almost everything I eat to make me sick. Autoimmune disorders generally develop when a pre-existing genetic susceptibility is set off by an environmental exposure: a virus, a bacterium, some other toxin. I raised hell with the county health department about the hapless restaurant I visited about eight hours before I got sick for the first time, back in March, certain they’d given me food poisoning—not just salmonella, but one of the really bad ones, like botulism. The investigation revealed nothing. It was all in me already.

I’m not entirely myself here in the store, not having been allowed to eat solid food for the past 36 hours in preparation for the testing, a fast I broke only a few minutes ago in the parking lot outside a nearby gas station, where I consumed a king-size Rice Krispies Treat while pouring two quarts of oil into my car’s engine. I wore gloves to keep the trace oil off my hands. I held the Rice Krispies Treat by its plastic packaging. My mother, who was not a hippie in any other way, shape, or form, sometimes reminisces about the Volkswagen Beetle she drove in the 1970s. Since 2011, when I found out the morphology of my sperm was poor enough to render me infertile, I’ve thought a lot about my mother, back in the 1970s, me in utero, standing outside at gas stations where the fumes of gas containing lead and benzene and God knows what else lingered, filling up her Beetle with its flower stickers or some other 1970s car.

A stroke of luck: There are still plenty of disposable diapers (we’ll go back to cloth after we’re done fleeing the hurricane). People aren’t having babies over in this part of town yet, or anymore. I have the baby who requires the diapers and her older sister despite the infertility because in 2012, my wife and I were able to spend nearly our entire life savings on infertility treatments at this very hospital. It’s a very good medical system, which is why wealthy retirees keep moving here from New Jersey and Maryland to condos adjacent to the concierge medicine program at Meadowmont.

I’ve been in the store so long that the doctor who performed an eye-poppingly invasive test on me two hours ago is now in here shopping after work. I recognize her by the white silicone band of her Apple Watch. I don’t say hello. She’s seen enough of me today.

While I’m waiting in the checkout line, my regular specialist, who wasn’t available to do the tests on me today, calls my cellphone to discuss my exam findings, which I already know from the Apple Watch doctor are bad. He wants me to start a treatment next week that costs thousands of dollars per dose if you don’t have insurance. I do have insurance, through my wife’s job. I am beginning to think of my body as a beach house that has begun to be hit every five years or so by storms of increasing severity. One of the more severe potential immune overreactions, in which white blood cells dump inflammatory cytokines into the bloodstream, is even called a cytokine storm. Not that I’ve experienced one. I’ve been lucky: The two or three times my body’s been hit so far my wife and I have had the resources to patch it up or work around the damage.

“I can’t do anything until next week at the earliest. I’m leaving town tomorrow,” I say.

“Oh? Why?”

“Because of the hurricane … ?” One of our neighbors hadn’t known Florence was coming until my wife told her earlier in the day.

“Oh, right. Well, when will you be back?”

“I don’t know.” Our house sits directly under a half-dozen large old trees. With two little kids, we figured better safe than sorry: Put the peanut butter and diapers and children in the car and go.

There are nonzero odds my infertility has some causal connection with environmental pollution. There are nonzero odds my new autoimmune disorder was likewise somehow caused by environmental pollution. Odds are extremely high that Florence has been supercharged by global climate change caused by environmental pollution, as will her successor storms, storms to which those of us with money will continue to respond by filling up exhaust-spewing SUVs with as many plastic bottles of purified water as we can grab before someone else gets them. The bigger the gas tanks and the cargo space in our SUVs, the more gasoline and bottled water and batteries and diapers those of us with the money to buy them will be able to squirrel away, away from the grasping hands of those who don’t. Making hotel reservations inland if we don’t trust the trees to stand in the sodden ground or the roofs to stay in place atop the condos. Driving in frazzled luxury convoys to relative safety, our hypertension and bad knees and autoimmune disorders kept in check by the doctors of Meadowmont, who may catch up later in their Carreras. We will wish we could have spent the money on something else rather than saving ourselves, something fun.

And if the environmental impact of the flooding of poverty-stricken eastern North Carolina’s thousands of acres of fetid hog waste lagoons and coal ash ponds by this season’s hurricanes isn’t too devastating, if the beach towns of the Outer Banks and points south can be rebuilt—along with North Carolina Highway 12, the congested two-lane sand-spit road connecting them that probably shouldn’t exist—then next Memorial Day, or perhaps the one after that, convoys of trucks like these, packed carefully with boogie boards and cornhole sets, will return just like usual to the beaches of the North Carolina coast, where scientists estimate a sea level rise of 39 to 55 inches by 2100, an estimate that in 2012 members of the North Carolina Legislature’s Republican majority attempted to block state and local agencies from using for planning purposes, for fear of inhibiting future development.