Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Need a lift? Hit the hurricane ride board.
Kimberly Godwin wanted to get out of Wilmington, North Carolina, ahead of Hurricane Florence. The 48-year old server has family to the northwest, in Charlotte, but she does not have her own car. So on Wednesday, she turned to the internet’s ad-hoc emergency services marketplace: Craigslist.
“If anyone is heading to Charlotte out of Wilmington here shortly and have extra space including a carrier with my two cats I would greatly appreciate a ride,” she wrote. Then Godwin crossed her fingers.
It didn’t work. One responder first wanted to see a photo of her, which she didn’t feel comfortable sending. Another person replied by saying she could tag along on his RV road trip, but that sounded too vague. “I just kind of felt like there would be no telling where I ended up,” Godwin told me, via text. Plus, there were no buses or trains left, either, she said.
So, despite the county’s evacuation order, she has decided to shelter in place in her downtown Wilmington apartment with her roommate, a friend, and her friend’s son. “I didn’t get many credible responses, so I guess I’m gonna just have to ride it out,” she told me. “Just praying it doesn’t turn out to be as monstrous as they’ve been saying.”
More than 1.5 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia have been ordered to evacuate as Hurricane Florence, predicted to be the region’s most dangerous storm in decades. In support of the mobilization, the region’s Craigslist boards became a platform for those seeking and offering shelter, rides, and all manner of other services, including boat delivery, sandbagging, and window boarding.
Some of it is advertised for free, some for payment. Welcome to the pre-hurricane gig economy.
Transportation offerings are especially abundant, though as Godwin found, they’re scattered, and hardly a sure thing. “Are you in the path and need to get away?” reads one post listed in the Raleigh, North Carolina ride-share board, offering lifts for 85 cents a mile. “Don’t rely on either of the two main rides share companies, rates will get sky high.” (The poster, named David, told me via email that he had not had takers yet.)
“Don’t try to be a hero,” read another post tagged to Wilmington, advertising rides to Winston, North Carolina. “$500 will cover up to two people back and forth.”
Another guy in a Mazda 6 was charging $150 a seat from Myrtle Beach to Atlanta. Someone else seemed to be heading to the Charlotte area in a “nice clean 2011 Honda Pilot,” with eight seats. The apparent owner of a Dodge Caravan with a DVD player was willing to go in and out of state.
The great escape from the coastal Carolinas has largely been borne by its highways. Few counties in the Carolinas have much public transit to speak of, despite the relatively high rates of carless households in the region. On Tuesday, traffic backups were reported on area interstates as residents heeded mandatory evacuation orders. In cities, many transit options stopped running as of Wednesday. The good news: Throughout Wednesday and today, major routes away from the coast have appeared to be largely free of major congestion.
It’s not clear how many families are now trying to evacuate without transportation options, as the storm slowly hones in. But Craigslist posts by those seeking shelter gives a sense of the remaining need.
“We are a family of four,” read one post tagged to Wilmington, North Carolina, by someone who said his family had lost their home in a fire. “My son Nicholas is autistic which makes shelters impossible. We only need a place to ride out the storm until next weekend we have our own food and water.”
The poster, who said his name was Andrew Young, said via text that they’d made it to a Red Cross shelter, after considerable effort and expense.
“We only got one response on Craigslist but never received any contact information,” he told me. “So we put everything we had left in gas and got almost half a mile away from the shelter then pushed the car the rest of the way.”
Other posts fall on different points on the panic spectrum.
“Help!! Seeking shelter from hurricane FLORENCE,” stated one ad out of Durham.
From Hookerton, North Carolina came this request: “Temporary housing needed for hurricane for 2 horses and a pig. Would need trailer to transport as well. Please help!”
Reads another: “My partner and I are looking for a ride from Durham to somewhere out of the path of Hurricane Florence.”
And this apparent catastrophe insurance adjuster is heading into Wilmington, looking for a place to live after the storm casts its wrath. “Willing to live in partially damaged home,” he wrote.
Outside of the hurricane impact area, some homeowners are responding. Hank (not his real name) shares a seven-bedroom home with his wife in Knoxville, Tennessee. On Wednesday night, he decided to put the extra space to work. “Negotiable terms and pricing, we can accommodate individuals or families,” his post read. “My wife and I are empty nesters in a big beautiful house, so have lots of room.”
By Thursday, a family of four from Wilmington had arrived and moved in. They’ll stay as long as it makes sense for them, for an agreed rate of $100 a night, Hank said via email. (He said he preferred to remain anonymous.) “Nice family,” he told me. “We’re giving them space to let them settle in.”
Many posters, like the New Hampshire RV owner above, are offering space and services for free. Contacted via email, that person explained the gesture as a way to pay forward an extraordinary childhood experience. “When I was fleeing the war in Vietnam, a stranger put us up in a cow pen but eventually invited us to stay with them in a nice house,” they wrote. “This is the type of burden that I carry on so as to return the favor.”
There are other moving shows of Samaritan instinct. “Nothing asked in return, just trying to bank some good karma!” stated another ad offering free rides around Myrtle Beach by a poster who claimed to be a registered nurse. One guy in Nashville appears to be rallying fellow volunteers for a disaster relief trip in the wake of the hurricane. “Are you going to sit at home and watch a tragedy… [o]r take a risk and volunteer,” it reads. “This is Tennessee! The Volunteer state!”
Craigslist is making some helpful connections. But it seems strange that, in the era of Uber, Lyft, and on-demand everything, there doesn’t appear to be a more intentional online portal for emergency services than the original online white pages. Could there be an app that vets users navigating these scary situations? This is a question I asked last year, and there still seems to be no good answer.
One platform, Crowdsource Rescue, comes closest. It is a map-based website that draws in emergency requests from individuals in peril as disaster is unfurling, and matches them with first responders and volunteer groups after running a background check. Matt Marchetti, the Houston-based programmer who co-created the platform during Hurricane Harvey, coordinated an estimated 30,0000 rescues during that storm last year. Marchetti told me earlier this week that the platform, and the team behind it, is prepared for its first Florence request. “We’re ready to go, if we’re needed,” he said.
It seems likely that they will be. Across the Carolinas and Virginia, plenty of people have not heeded evacuation orders. When I followed up to ask Marchetti if there could be an option for connecting evacuees and drivers—or evacuees and shelter—before the storm, I got this auto-reply: “We are deployed to Hurricane Florence.”
And so they were. As of midnight on Friday, Crowdsource Rescue had about 34 cases in New Bern, North Carolina, “representing 120 people needing help,” according to their Twitter page. “Working with local EMAs to coordinate spontaneous volunteers w/ boats,” they wrote. About an hour later, the first volunteer rescue boat was in the water.