LUMBERTON — As the snow finally ended late Thursday afternoon, some power crews were beginning to get ahead of widespread outages while others struggled to navigate wet, icy roads and get residents out of the dark.
About 7,800 homes and business were without power late Thursday afternoon, when blue sky finally began to peek through the clouds. Skies should remain clear, although a slight chance of rain could dampen the weekend, which will see temperatures in the high-40s.
Crews with Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation have restored power to about 800 customers, but there was concern those homes and business could be plunged back into the darkness by a fallen branch.
The three-day storm, which began with snow flurries on Tuesday morning, turned Robeson County into one big ice-skating rink. Although a winter storm warning has expired, county managers throughout Southeastern North Carolina, including Robeson, have put out a civil emergency message that is in effect until further notice. The message urges residents to remain cautious on roads still covered in slush and to look out for falling trees, ice and power lines.
The Public Schools of Robeson County will be closed on Friday for the fourth day in a row and the eighth in the last 17 days.
Robeson Community College and The University of North Carolina at Pembroke will open for students and staff at 11 a.m. on Friday. The community college’s board meeting tonight has been postponed.
Robeson County offices and courts, which were closed today, will also open at 11 a.m. on Friday. St. Pauls and Fairmont’s regular board meetings for tonight have both been postponed.
Elective surgeries at Southeastern Regional Medical Center were cancelled today and will resume Friday. Some Southeastern Health clinics and affiliates will operate on a delayed schedule Friday. Southeastern Medical Clinic Bladenboro and Southeastern Health Center Clarkton will remain closed due to power outages.
At about 4:30 p.m. today Duke Energy Progress reported 7,645 Robeson County customers — households and businesses — were without power, down from about 8,203 just a half hour earlier, but on par with this morning’s total of about 7,500.
Christine Pulley, a Duke Energy spokesperson, said the number of outages has been fluctuating throughout the day.
“Not everyone is on the same circuit or line … so what happens is when they’re restoring power to one house, power in another house may temporarily go out,” Pulley said.
Duke Energy has 3,400 field technicians working across the state and expects to bring in another 500 today.
The number of crews currently working in Robeson County was not available, but according to spokesperson Jennifer Jabone, the area is a priority. Estimated power restoration times by county will be released this afternoon, Pulley said.
“They are being deployed based on where those outages are and that eastern region is where our teams and resources are being placed,” Jabone said this morning.
Jabon suggests customers check on their friends and neighbors who may be without power, especially the elderly.
By 4 p.m. just 247 Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation customers in Robeson County were without power, a major decline from about 1,200 outages at about 2 p.m.
“We’re always subject to having a tree or a limb fall on a critical line,” said LREMC spokesman Walter White.
Some customers have been without power for 21 hours, but those without damage to their electrical systems should have power back by about 5 p.m. on Friday, White said.
White said crews will be working overnight to restore power, an effort that could progress slowly since they’ll be dealing with individual outages rather than lines that each serve scores of customers.
“This kind of event can get pretty frustrating because you can get the lights back on and then drive away and they’re out again,” he said. “… I’m feeling really confident that we may be getting the upper-hand on this now.”
Outages are mostly concentrated in the southeastern part of the county.
“That’s the area where we received the most freezing rain,” White said. “It’s what we had been anticipating. We have a lot of tree limbs breaking from the ice and falling down onto our lines.” That ice is also proving tricky for crews trying to restore power, White said.
About 100 Lumberton electric customers lost power at different times throughout the night, but their power has been restored, according to Director Lamar Brayboy.
“We are through the worst, but we still have personnel on call through the day and tonight in case we have any problems,” Brayboy said.
Red Springs’ utility customers had no issues, according to Mayor John McNeill.
As temperatures inched above freezing, more motorists are taking to Robeson County’s still slushy roads.
Sgt. Daniel Hilburn, with the state Highway Patrol, said roads are improving, but still require extra caution.
“Your secondary roads through the county are still ice and snow-covered and hazardous and they are going to remain that way … up until the weekend when temperatures change and things begin to melt,” he said. Hilburn said drivers should look out for tree limbs collapsing under the weight of ice.
Hilburn said Highway Patrol responded to about 40 wrecks in the county on Wednesday, none serious.
Lumberton police have reported only two accidents today and Wednesday night. They responded to 27 wrecks from Tuesday morning until Wednesday afternoon.
Crews with the state Department of Transportation are being moved from the eastern part of the state to help clear roads around the Triangle area.
“At this time, in the eastern portions of the state, the snow is thawing and the roads are clear, so conditions allow some crews and supplies to be transferred to the regions expected to be hardest hit without impacting the maintenance of the roads in some eastern divisions,” said spokesperson Marla Roth.
The weather has been the culprit behind 90 visits to Southeastern Regional Medical Center’s Emergency Department. According to a spokesperson, many visits were prompted by falls and traffic accidents while some patients came to the hospital in need of electricity to power their ventilators.
The hospital saw just six weather-related visits during the first two days of winter storm Leon.
Because of the weather, the Lumberton Christian Care Center has relaxed its admission requirements. Guests can check in at anytime tonight, rather than only after 7 p.m.
Red Cross emergency shelters have been opened in Bladen, Columbus, Brunswick and Pender counties but not in Robeson County.
According to County Manager Ricky Harris, a team of county officials and representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, the school system and the Red Cross made that decision.
“We didn’t open a shelter because we didn’t have the transportation to bring folks back and forth to the shelter,” Harris said, noting the county was helping to take emergency services and hospital employees to work throughout the storm.
Harris said the county didn’t have “an overflow of calls requesting shelters” and referred callers they did have to the local Red Cross branch or picked them up in an ambulance if needed.
“We have not had any calls to my knowledge,” said Carol Ann Lentz, the Red Cross disaster program’s manger in Robeson County. “We help with immediate emergency needs just the same way we would on a normal basis.” Lentz said the Red Cross would have tried to provide food for anyone who called during the storm, connect them with emergency services and alert the county to their situation.
Harris said the county considered opening temporary shelters at two local schools, but their generators would have only supported lighting systems, not heat.
Troopers, technicians and residents alike should see some respite Friday when skies begin to clear. Mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the high-40s this weekend should help melt the remnants of winter storm Pax faster than the frost left by winter storm Leon, which dumped as many as 5 inches of snow on Robeson County just two weeks ago.
After a slightly warmer weekend, temperatures next week are forecast to bump up against the 70-degree mark.