APTOPIX Hurricane Irma

A car rides in the shoulder to pass other cars in evacuation traffic on I-75 N, near Brooksville, Fla., in advance of Hurricane Irma, Saturday, Sept, 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

It can be maddening to bet your life on a squiggly line.

As forecast models show an ever-changing path for Hurricane Florence, and the governor issues a mandatory evacuation order, newcomers to the South Carolina coast no doubt feel trapped on a bizarre emotional roller coaster.

Which plays The Clash on a continuous loop: Should I stay or should I go?

Longtime Lowcountry residents know this is completely normal. It’s all part of the six stages of hurricane grief.

The cycle begins with Unbridled cynicism. When a tropical storm first earns a name, there is widespread disinterest. It’ll never come here, people say. Even if it does, they reason, it will be like those last few — basically an annoying thunderstorm.

If it floods a bit, well, how is that any different than a normal day?

Everyone swears that, this time, they aren’t leaving.

Those attitudes turn to Growing alarm about six days out, when Charleston appears in the “cone of uncertainty.” Please note the “un” is silent for many people, who are overcome with fear. Symptoms include an irrational craving for 25 gallons of milk, Vienna sausages and enough bottled water to fill Colonial Lake.

As the stock of food in local stores dwindles, some people even reconsider their aversion to pork rinds.

Of course, this lowering of culinary standards inevitably leads to Panic.

Five days from landfall, with the city still firmly in the cone of uncertainty, many people decide this is the big one. They know this because there is corroborating evidence: Jim Cantore has arrived on the noon flight and every Motel 6 in Columbia, Greenville and Augusta is booked solid or charging $400 a night.

The attorney general invokes the price-gouging laws, which are apparently nearly impossible to enforce. There are no members of the Hilton family currently in the South Carolina penal system.

Still, people pay small fortunes for a Days Inn single in Spartanburg, spurred by an uncontrollable urge to run for their lives.

For many, this is when Indecision sets in. Four days from landfall, the governor orders an evacuation of coastal counties. He knows it’s too early, but realizes there is no way to move 1 million people in a single day … especially off Johns Island.

There’s no way to win here.

The herd mentality will prompt many to flee, but with normal congestion it’s barely noticeable at first. By the time gridlock sets in, some newcomers have heard the stories of storm veterans, how it once took them 24 hours to make Columbia during 1999's Hurricane Floyd.

Suddenly, life comes down to a single choice: Gamble on Mother Nature, or the odds of finding a port-o-toilet in the median somewhere outside of Orangeburg.

Whatever a person decides, Misery soon sets in. For those who stay behind, there’s little left to eat but those pork rinds and an errant Slim Jim that dropped behind the latest issue of the People magazine at the Sunoco.

When the McDonald’s closes, people fall into a funk, realizing they’re actually going to have to live on rapidly spoiling milk and peanut butter for a few days.

The only locals who enjoy this period are the poor souls who still have to work. For once, commuting is a breeze — so long as they don’t accidentally pull onto Interstate 26 and wind up as extras in a remake of "The Grapes of Wrath."

This trail, of course, leads to Regret — which usually sets in 12-36 hours before landfall, while watching the Weather Channel in an Augusta Holiday Inn room with two double beds, two kids and an incontinent dog.

Satellite imagery shows scattered showers and a light breeze in Charleston, and the governor lifts the mandatory evacuation order for many counties. At this point, most people suspect they’ve made a terrible mistake.

By the time the storm decimates poor North Carolina, the cycle returns to Unbridled cynicism — which is reinforced when Cantore relocates to Morehead City and the masses return home, storing all their unused hurricane supplies in the garage … next to the unused rations from the last storm.

All of this is completely normal, and totally annoying. Just accept this as the price of living along the coast. Trying to reason with the hurricane season is one big pain in the cone of uncertainty.

But as bad as an evacuation is, the alternative — riding out a Cat 4 hurricane — is worse.

Stay safe.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.