LUMBERTON — In a turn of events, Robeson County is now looking at less wind but more rain from Hurricane Florence, which is now projected to take a southward bend afrer making landfall near Wilmington on Saturday.
Lumberton city officials, with Hurricane Matthew still fresh in their minds, were scrambling Wednesday to fortify the water plant, which was swamped in October 2016, causing a water crisis in the aftermath of that storm.
Robeson residents continue to prepare for the worst, with people stocking up on supplies, some leaving under a voluntary evacuation, business owners closing up shop — and emergency responders, law enforcement and utility companies preparing for the possibility of flooding and power outages.
At 2 p.m. Wednesday, the storm was centered 435 miles southeast of Wilmington and moving at 16 mph. It was a Category 3 storm with 125 mph maximum sustained winds.
The National Hurricane Center’s 5 p.m. update Wednesday had Florence making landfall at Wilmington as a diminished hurricane and then moving to Columbia and Greenville as a tropical storm. The center’s track earlier that day had landfall below Myrtle Beach, demontrating the difficulty in predicting its path.
The latest track would put Robeson County on the right-hand side of the storm, where rains are heaviest, but would also move the storm farther from the county, which could mean winds not as strong as originally projected. Robeson County is expected to begin feeling tropical-storm force winds about early Thursday.
County and city officials met about noon Wednesday to prepare.
“The good news is the storm appears to be turning south and the wind may be less intense,” said Raymond Cummings, chairman of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners. “However, that means we will have more rain than previously expected — anywhere from 10 to 30 inches.”
The governor and state emergency personnel are monitoring the storm and are poised to give short- and long-term aid, according to Cummings.
“I spoke with the governor this morning, and he assures us that all available resources are on standby,” Cummings said.
The several dozen chairs and phones at the Emergency Operations Center on Legion Road were empty Wednesday afternoon, but the large room will buzz with activity Thursday as the county’s emergency plan kicks into high gear.
All county department heads and many emergency and law enforcement personnel will be in the center. The emergency communication plan also will kick in.
“We are encouraging residents to sign up to our CodeRed alert system,” said Emily Jones, county public information officer. “We will also use social media and all other media to spread the word.”
CodeRed is a high-speed communications system for sending mass messages via phone, text message and email. Go to https://www.co.robeson.nc.us/ to sign up.
County offices and courts will be closed Thursday and Friday, although essential personnel will be on duty.
The Lumberton Airport will be closed to the public but open for any emergency operations and personnel.
Patrick Cummings, director of Emergency Medical Services for Robeson County, said there were many lessons learned from Hurricane Matthew.
“There will be a delay in the 911 response once the storm does make landfall and during the storm,” Cummings said.
Many of the calls come from the sick and many of those calls are about oxygen supplies or critical prescription medication.
“We advise people to contact their vendor for backup oxygen and don’t forget to fill prescription before the storm,” Cummings said.
The EMS director advised people to remain in place even after the storm passes and not to travel unnecessarily.
“We ask that you stay in because that just increases the call volume for us,” Cummings said. “It limits our ability to respond and strains the hospitals.”
Officials with Duke Energy and Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation were preparing for outages that could extend into weeks.
“While the path has shifted farther south, we are continuing with our plans here at Lumbee River EMC,” said Walter White, a spokesman for the utility. “Currently we are still expecting significant rain and some winds for a sustained period of time.”
Duke Energy warned that Florence could cut off power to anywhere from 1 million to 3 million customers in North Carolina and South Carolina, potentially leaving them without electricity for several weeks, spokeswoman Grace Rountree said.
Local officials continue to say they think the Lumber River, which is 6 feet shy of the level it was at for Hurricane Matthew, will be able to absorb rain without massive flooding. Flash floods, however, are expected. Swiftwater rescue units are on standby, and the Lumberton Rescue Squad has a trained team that got experience during Matthew.
County officials say they will open four shelters on Thursday, at Lumberton High, St. Pauls High, Purnell Swett and Fairmont Middle schools. The shelters will open at 8 a.m. Thursday, not at noon as previously announced. Pets cannot be taken to the shelter, but can be taken to the Robeson County Animal Shelter and housed there for free, but that must be done before 2 p.m. Thursday.
The county provided a list of items for those who go to a shelter: 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.
The county announced a curfew from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. beginning Thursday until further notice, and the towns of Lumberton, Maxton, Red Springs and Pembroke followed suit. St. Pauls began a 8 p.m. to sunrise curfew on Wednesday. Fairmont had not implemented one as of Wednesday afternoon.
The public schools, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Robeson Community College have suspended classes for Thursday and Friday.
About 2 million people have fled the coasts of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina, and almost 6 million people live in areas under a hurricane watch or warning.
President Donald Trump declared states of emergency in North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina on Tuesday, opening the way for federal aid. Georgia was added later to that declaration.
At the White House, he urged people to “get out of its way.”
“Don’t play games with it. It’s a big one,” he said.
Editor Donnie Douglas can be reached at 910-416-5649 or [email protected] Staff writers Scott Bigelow and Annick Joseph contributed to this story.