We bought water bottles, added D batteries to flashlights and clicked on Internet tracking maps.Then we waited.
By Friday night as Hurricane Irene passed 160 miles off Charleston’s shores, the cyclone offered little more than a censored event for storm spectators.
Irene did land a few clean shots. Gusts of winds toppled power lines onto a car in downtown Charleston, and thousands lost power. A tree fell on an SUV in Summerville. A few flights were canceled at Charleston International Airport.
But as the Category 2 storm trekked up the East Coast, beaches disappeared under waves and onlookers flocked. People lined the dunes and rock revetments, shooting video and snapping photographs.
They crowded the pier on Isle of Palms, where the surf broke so hard and high the pilings shimmied beneath them. A few surfers jumped off the pier with their boards, a short cut so they wouldn’t have to paddle through the fierce current.
“Brave or stupid, I’m not sure,” one onlooker was overheard saying under her breath.
Another man’s sense of adventure was nearly his own demise.
Sullivan’s Island firefighters used power skis to rescue a swimmer who waded in chest deep beyond a sand bar to experience the 8-foot breakers.
Assistant Fire Chief Chris McDaniel explained the man’s decision as “curiosity of the cat.”
Forecasters had predicted a thorough dousing. But rain was sporadic.
McClellanville was drenched the most, receiving about 3 inches Friday evening. After the morning feeder bands of Irene arrived, most other towns didn’t get much more rain.
Irene tossed out a few healthy wind gusts. A 55-mph gust ripped through Folly Beach in the morning. A downed powerline in the morning caused outages in the area for several hours.
A buoy off Edisto Beach recorded another wind gust at 62 mph.
But for hundreds of amateur storm chasers who gathered on area beaches, the surf itself was the main attraction.
Off Folly Beach, surfers and lumber bobbed in the turbulent ocean. The wood was the remnants of stairs to the beach chewed by the storm.
Photographer Melanie Rapp was so drawn to the surf that she risked getting too close. Waves crashed over the rocks where she stood and water rose waist deep around her.
“It scared me. I thought I was going to get taken out,” she said.
Like Rapp, crowds gathered at the east end of Folly Beach at “the washout”to watch the surfers challenge Irene’s far-flung fury. Applause and cheers rang out when a surfer prevailed and stole a good ride. There were groans when a wave won.
Natalie Deitch recorded the moment on her phone. “I’ve never seen waves like that in real life. I’m pretty sad that my stairs got washed away,” she said.
There were reports of beach erosion, but just how severe won’t be clear until today.
With high tide arriving in the early evening, Charleston residents braced for possible flooding. But the rains that were expected never arrived.
At 5 p.m., supposedly the worst of the storm, folks gathered along The Battery, watching the rising water and the choppy waves.
There were whitecaps in the Cooper and Ashley rivers. Murky brown water lapped against the seawall. Off to the east, the sky was dark.
Otherwise, it was calm.
The usually bustling City Market was already deserted. Many of the stores were closed. Some on Market Street had sandbags propped against their doors, just in case.
Nick Daily, a taxicab driver who lives on James Island, was sitting on a bench in Waterfront Park, taking a break between customers. He said he visits the park frequently and thought the water was much higher than normal. “It usually doesn’t come up over the sidewalk,” he said.
Ted Spicer, of Seattle said he is a Boeing employee who was in town working construction at the Boeing plant in North Charleston. He was enjoying the view.
“It’s a perfect place to watch the storm, yet not be in the middle of it,”he said as he pointed to the dark clouds spiralling in a counter-clockwise direction in the evening sky.