LUMBERTON — The reopening of Interstate 95 on Sunday was greeted with relief all around, not only by those who depend on the major highway, but by those who maintain it.
With warnings that it may be early October before the nation’s busiest highway was back on line, N.C. Department of Transportation engineers found very little damage to the bridge over the Lumber River in Lumberton, according to Phil Pittman, an engineering technician.
“It was not the massive damage that it could have been,” Pittman said. “We had only minor pavement issues, which seems to have worked itself out.”
With the river running over I-95 between exits 17 and 19 and water raging underneath the bridge, DOT engineers were not sure what to expect. Major repairs were required to the bridge after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, when the highway was closed for nine days. This time the interstate was closed for only seven.
The interstate’s reopening was announced in a statement The Robesonian received early Monday from the Governor’s Office. The statement said floodwaters from Hurricane Florence receded more quickly than expected, allowing for repairs and required bridge inspections.
“I-95 is a major artery for North Carolina and the entire East Coast that’s essential for commerce,” Gov. Roy Cooper said. “Our state DOT crews and engineers have worked around the clock to get this critical interstate open ahead of schedule and reduce traffic in areas still needed for critical life-saving missions.”
According to the statement, engineers began inspecting the road as soon as the floodwaters started to recede, and identified areas that needed to be repaired and a contractor was sent immediately to the site to begin work. Portions of I-95 had been closed since Sept. 15.
“I want to thank our construction partners, the state Highway Patrol, the Division of Motor Vehicles License and Theft Bureau, and local officials,” said Jim Trogdon, secretary of the Department of Transportation. “They were integral to us successfully managing traffic during the closure and quickly reopening the highway.”
Late this past week, DOT spokesman Andrew Barksdale, in answer to a query from The Robesonian, said that it was uncertain how long I-95 could be closed. He said it might be as late as Oct. 10.
The news is particularly welcome in Robeson County, which is dissected by the interstate, making travel from west side of the county to the east, and east to west, through makeshift routes difficult, dangerous and time-consuming.
Cooper cautioned that travel remains treacherous in portions of Southeastern North Carolina.
“Hundreds of roads across our state remain closed, and flooded and damaged roads remain a danger in many areas. Never drive on flooded roads or around road closure barricades,” Cooper said. “The barricades are there for a reason. The roads may be unsafe, underwater or in some areas missing.”
There have been multiple rescues of motorists in Robeson County who Cooper’s advice. A man was pulled Thursday from a vehicle on N.C. 72 east of Lumberton who was neck deep in water. An elderly Maxton man whose car plunged into a sinkhole is the only known storm casualty in Robeson County.
Forty Robeson County roads remain closed as a result of Hurricane Florence, Pittman said. The most important of those are sections of N.C. 41, 211 and 904.
As of 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, 455 road closures remained statewide. For the latest information on road conditions, visit DriveNC.gov or dial 511.