LUMBERTON — Robeson County emergency officials and residents on Tuesday watched Hurricane Florence closely as the powerful storm continued its trek westward, but gave forecasters few clues on where it would slam the United States.
North Carolina remained the most likely landfall, and North Carolina and South Carolina were placed under a hurricane warning. Parts of North Carolina and Virginia were under tropical storm watches.
At 8 p.m. Tuesday, the storm was centered 725 miles (1,165 km) southeast of Cape Fear and moving west-northwest at 17 mph. It was a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm but was expected to keep drawing energy from the warm water and intensify to near Category 5, which means winds of 157 mph or higher. If it continues its course, it would hit North Carolina either very late Thursday or early Friday. Robeson County is expected to start feeling tropical-storm force winds at about 8 a.m. Thursday.
“This storm is a monster. It’s big and it’s vicious. It is an extremely, dangerous, life-threatening, historic hurricane,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said.
President Donald Trump declared states of emergency in all three states, opening the way for federal aid.
About 1.7 million people have fled the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, and cars were bumper to bumper, many pulling boats, on N.C. 211 going through Lumberton all day.
Forecasters seem to agree that once the storm makes landfall it will lose power but turn into a massive tropical storm that will drop double-digit amounts of rain in certain areas of the state. Robeson County, which suffered massive flooding when Hurricane Matthew hit on Oct. 8, 2016, is much better positioned for a lot of rain this time because the Lumber River is about 6 feet below flood level. When Matthew hit the river was already at flood level.
Current models show Robeson County getting 5 to 7 inches of rain.
The larger problem locally is the potential for high winds that will drop trees and power lines, causing widespread outages. A tracking map released Tuesday morning by the National Hurricane Center showed Robeson County experiencing top winds in the 80- to 90-mph range.
“This storm is going to knock out power days into weeks. It’s going to destroy infrastructure. It’s going to destroy homes,” said Jeff Byard, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official.
People who want timely updates are encouraged to use CodeRed, a free app that can be downloaded at the App Store and Google Play.
County officials met Tuesday morning and decided there would be shelters at Lumberton High, Purnell Swett High, St Pauls High and Fairmont Middle schools and they will open at noon on Thursday. Officials had hinted earlier at two shelters, but decided on four.
Cats and dogs will not be allowed at the shelters, and should be boarded somewhere. The Robeson County Animal Shelter in St. Pauls is prepared to accept pets for free, so long as the animal is reclaimed shortly after the storm.
“We want to reassure our citizens that we are doing all we can to minimize the effects of this hurricane,” said Raymond Cummings, chairman of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners. “We are receiving hourly updates from the Weather Service, the changing patterns, and we are in constant contact with emergency responders.
“We are currently inventorying all of our assets and are requesting any additional assets needed in advance of this storm. The state is cooperative and responsive in terms of the needs of Robeson County.”
Melissa Packard, assistant Health Department director, said anyone who needs home care should bring their caregiver to the shelter and any needed equipment, such as oxygen or nebulizers.
She gave a list of items to bring: identification, personal documents and supplies, medical supplies, medications, bottled water, ready-to-use baby formula, snacks, treats, canned food, can opener, personal and feminine hygiene items, flashlights and batteries, paper towels, diapers, wipes, tissue, paper towels, liquid soap, flashlights, batteries, reading material and games.
Officials with Duke Energy and Lumber River Electric Membership Corporation were preparing for outages that could extend beyond days and into weeks.
Duke Energy on Monday issued the following statement: “The company expects widespread damage and power outages as Hurricane Florence is forecasted to be a large and extremely dangerous storm system, packing fierce winds and torrential rainfall. Historical data and company experience indicate that total power restoration from a storm of this magnitude could take multiple days to several weeks — depending on the extent of damage and post-storm conditions, such as ongoing high winds and severe flooding, after the storm passes though the region.”
Classes have been canceled at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and the Public Schools of Robeson County. At UNCP, students are being advised to leave campus and return home.
Shanita Wooten, superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County, said classes for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday have been canceled. Southside-Ashpole Elementary School, which is in the Innovative School District, also will be closed Wednesday through Friday.
Tuesday night’s school board meeting was canceled.
Robeson Community College will suspend classes for the rest of the week beginning at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
At Southeastern Regional Medical Center, limitations were placed on visitors. There is a story with details inside today’s The Robesonian.
One town has announced a curfew, although others were considering it. St. Pauls is asking residents to stay off the street beginning at 8 p.m. Wednesday and continuing until sunrise the next day. Those curfew hours will continue until further notice.
Local grocery stores are reporting shortages of such items as water, bread and milk and were working to restock their shelves. There also, reportedly, were runs on gasoline, but it is available.
In downtown Lumberton, Amanda Hammonds, manager of the House of Quality Pawn Shop, watched as plywood was placed to protect windows fortified by bars inside.
“It may not withstand if wind gets too strong,” she said. “Looters too; it would be tough to get through the bars.”
Up the street, Jimmy McKee, owner of McKee Firestone, said what everyone was thinking.
“‘Fraid it’s goin’ to be ugly. I hope it turns north, heads east,” he said. “Wouldn’t wish this on anyone. It may dump 20 inches of water.”