LUMBERTON — The shadow cast by Hurricane Irma over Robeson County appears to be dissipating, which is allowing local governmental leaders and emergency management officials to relax — a little.
“Every time a briefing comes out it looks a little better for us,” said Bill French, Lumberton Emergency Management director.
Information he received at 6 p.m. Friday indicated the county could receive 2 to 3 inches of rain through late Tuesday, French said. There is only a 5 to 10 percent chance that tropical storm winds will hit the county, down from 40 percent just a couple days ago.
The National Hurricane center reports that as of 5 p.m. Friday Irma was roaring toward the Florida Keys at 12 mph with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph. Irma was downgraded to a Category 4 storm early Friday morning, but is predicted to hit Florida as a Category 5 and is expected to be a tropical storm as it enters Georgia and a tropical depression as it crosses into Tennessee.
Robeson County will experience a sunny and mild weekend, according to the National Weather Service. There is a chance of rain and thunderstorms Sunday night through Tuesday, with high temperatures in the mid-70s to 80.
People are starting to breathe a little easier at her department, said Stephanie Chavis, county Emergency Management director.
“I think everybody is,” she said. “But at the same time we’re not letting our guard down.”
Emergency services personnel are remaining vigilant, and residents are urged to do the same, Chavis said. A teleconference is planned Sunday during which officials will determine if Robeson County remains in any danger. At that time emergency plans will be adjusted accordingly, to include deciding if emergency shelters will be opened.
“If nothing happens that’s good,” Chavis said.
Gov. Roy Cooper acknowledged at a media briefing Friday the forecast looks better for the state but warned it can change, and Irma’s sheer size still likely will bring heavy rains, gusty winds and some flooding statewide early next week, according to an Associated Press report.
The N.C. Department of Transportation also is keeping close watch for mudslides and rockslides on roads in the mountains, which have the greatest storm risks. Roadwork also was to be suspended Friday night to help move northbound traffic fleeing the hurricane.
More than 300 National Guard soldiers have been called out as storm preparations increase this weekend.
“Everybody’s ready and prepared,” said Ricky Harris, Robeson County manager.
A countywide meeting was held Friday to discuss preparation for Hurricane Irma and how they will respond to whatever the storm brings to the county, he said.
“We think it’s going to pass us by,” Harris said.
A brighter weather forecast hasn’t stopped county residents from stocking up on storm supplies.
“We are completely sold out of generators,” said Dennis Dicks, of Lewis-Brady Builders Supply in Fairmont.
“We sold out of four pallets of water and then some,” said Monica Palmer, co-manager of Fresh Foods IGA on North Pine Street in Lumberton.
Area utility companies reported Friday that they are continuing with storm preparations.
“We remain in a monitoring mode,” said Walter White, Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation vice president and director of Marketing. “The latest weather updates show little change or a slightly western shift to the storm. It is looking less and less like we will have a direct impact from Hurricane Irma.
“However, we are going forward with the planning process for a storm that could impact our 50,000-plus customers.”
“We are getting ready,” said Tim Mauldin, director of Public Works in Red Springs. “Matthew made believers out of us. It’s better to have everything on hand than have to find it later.”
The town has stockpiled 2,000 gallons of diesel and 500 gallons of gas for trucks, police vehicles and anyone who comes in to provided needed aid, Mauldin said. All vehicles are prepped. Generators are ready to power water and sewer and other community buildings.
Red Springs is a member of ElectriCities, an organization that includes public power communities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
“We have mutual aid agreement with other ElectriCities, including some in the mountains,” he said. “We are ready to go to their aid.”
Duke Energy leaders report line technicians and others are checking equipment, supplies and inventories to ensure there are adequate materials to make repairs and restore power outages.
Things may be looking sunnier in North Carolina, but Florida and Georgia remain solidly in Hurricane Irma’s sights. People fleeing the storm have flooded Interstate 95 and created near bumper-to-bumper traffic from Florida to the Virginia line.
Hotels and motels around Lumberton appear to be benefiting from the increased traffic.
“Last night we sold 98 rooms,” Andrea Gutierrez, a front desk associate at Fairfield Inn Suites, said Friday. “They’ve been calling every 30 minutes.”
Felton Clark, general manager of SpringHill Suites Marriott, said they have seen an increase in occupancy. They still have quite a few rooms to sell but all indications are the hotel soon will be sold out until Monday.
“We’ve been sold out every night this week,” said Shauna Mitchell, at Country Inn & Suites. “Everyone is calling and booking rooms because of the hurricane.”
Reach T.C. Hunter at 910-816-1974. Staff writers Reid Beaman, Scott Bigelow and Tomeka Sinclair contributed to this report.