LUMBERTON — Hurricane Dorian is expected to be off the coast of North Carolina as a Category 2 storm early Thursday morning, bringing tropical-storm force winds to Robeson County and as many as 2 to 8 inches of rain.
Local officials are hoping that there will not be the flooding seen during hurricanes Matthew and Florence, and are optimistic because Dorian will be moving quickly when it reaches North Carolina, reducing the amount of time that the county will feel its effects.
Dorian will be a Category 2 storm as it makes its closest approach to Robeson County, said Matt Scalara, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Wilmington. On Wednesday at 8 p.m, it was a very strong Cat 2, almost Cat 3 strength.
“This thing will make pace and move out quickly,” he said late Wednesday afternoon.
Because of its strength and speed of movement, Robeson County will experience a few hours of tropical-storm force winds and heavy rain starting Thursday evening, he said.
Dorian is expected to pass 40 to 50 miles off the coast of Wilmington, Scalara said. Local rainfall and wind could vary is the track shifts dramatically, but those odds appear to be decreasing.
“Confidence is growing in this track,” Scalara said.
As Dorian moves northward, Robeson County could experience light rain beginning Wednesday evening, he said. This rain will come from the storm’s outer bands.
“Friday should look good,” Scalara said.
During Matthew, the Lumber River was already at about flood stage when the storm hit, dropping as much as 18 inches of rain in a single day. The river was low for Florence, but that storm battered the county for parts of three days, dropping as much as 2 feet of rain in some areas.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the river was at 7.61 feet as of 6 p.m. Wednesday and could reach 12.5 by 8 p.m. Friday. Water levels are expected to begin declining after Friday evening.
The Lumber River’s water levels will allow more room for rainwater, which could mean a decrease in flood risks, City Manager Wayne Horne said. The city has spent $1.5 million in recent months cleaning up canals and ditches that carry water to the Lumber River in a bid to reduce the risk of catastrophic flooding.
“The city is taking all the precautions it can,” he said.
City workers on Wednesday morning working on a makeshift berm designed to prevent floodwaters from Hurricane Dorian from entering West Lumberton and South Lumberton over the CSX railroad tracks that pass under Interstate 95.
That spot, which is off West Fifth Street and near West Lumberton Baptist Church, was where floodwaters swamped both communities, first during Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 and then Hurricane Florence in September 2018. During 2018, a last-minute attempt to block the opening was made using sandbags, which held out for a while but eventually gave way.
About two dozen city workers were using heavy equipment to stack as many as 750 Hesco containers filled with sand to make a berm that would stretch about 120 yards to block the opening. According to city officials, Hesco makes the containers for military use in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing barriers to protect American soldiers from the enemy.
The containers were being stacked about 20 feet high with the use of two front-end loaders. Officials also used a 150-foot-long tarp weighed down with sandbags to seal the railroad and prevent water from passing through the tracks.
The berm built around the city’s water plant is 90% complete and the total flood-mitigation project itself is 60% complete, Horne said.
Crews will be on standby at the electrical department on Thursday through Friday morning, the city manager said.
County officials held a press conference Wednesday at the Robeson County Emergency Operations Center where Robeson County Fire Marshal/Emergency Management Director Stephanie Chavis outlined what Dorian might deliver.
“Hurricane Dorian continues to be a Category 2 with wind speeds of 105 mph,” Chavis said. “A tropical storm warning is in effect for Robeson County.”
She said the hurricane will move northward Wednesday and turn northeast by Thursday.
“High wind impacts will cause some structural damage. Some buildings may receive roof damage as well as window, door and garage door failures,” Chavis said.
“We are expecting large limbs and trees to fall as well as trees to snap or uproot, along with fences and roadway signs.”
Chavis said people who live in low-lying areas or in mobile homes should seek shelter early before weather conditions worsen. She said the effects of the hurricane should subside by Saturday.
“Once we reach 35 mph sustained winds, all first responders are asked to stand down, for their safety,” she said. “During that time, units will only answer life-threatening calls.”
The following are four emergency hotlines open for use by the public: 910-272-5864, 910-272-5866, 910-272-5871 and 910-272-5867.
“We have the National Guard and will request additional manpower if needed,” she said.
“As of Tuesday, Sept. 3, at 10 a.m., I have issued an official State of Emergency and as of 1 p.m. today, the Emergency Operation Center is in full activation,” said Kellie Blue, Robeson County manager.
Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins advises residents to stay put as Hurricane Dorian approaches.
“We’re just asking people to just stay home, it just lessens danger for first responders,” he said.
Wilkins said as the weather worsens, it will become “a burden” for law enforcement and first responders to provide service. He also said there will be times during the storm where law enforcement and first responders will not be able to respond.
The administrative offices located inside the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office will be closed Thursday.
According to Emily Jones, a Public Information officer for Robeson County, Purnell Swett and Lumberton high schools will be used for shelters. They were to open at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
Anyone with a family member who is confined and needs transportation to shelters can call MED 1 Plus at 910-536-1026. Public transportation to the shelters through SEATS is available by calling 910-272-5873.
The Robeson County Animal Shelter will be accepting pets, dogs, cats and ferrets, from evacuees.
The Public Schools of Robeson County sent students home at 1 p.m. on Wednesday and school is cancelled for Thursday and Friday.
District leaders decided to close the schools to students out of “an abundance of caution for the safety of our students and staff,” Superintendent Shanita Wooten said.
All school campuses closed at 2 p.m. Wednesday and all after-school events were canceled. On Thursday, schools also will be closed to staff. The central office will be closed on Thursday, except for essential personnel who may be called to the office as needed.
Friday is an optional workday for teachers. But, schools will open to teachers on a three-hour delay. The central office will open on a three-hour delay on Friday.
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke canceled classes for after noon on Wednesday and all day Thursday and Friday. Robeson Community College closed Wednesday at 5 p.m. and will re-open Monday.
Robeson County Solid Waste collection sites will be closed on Thursday at 3 p.m. and remain closed until further notice.
Duke Energy also is making preparations.
The utility company is moving an extra 4,000 field personnel from 23 states and Canada to the Carolinas, according to Jason Hollifield, Duke Energy’s incident commander for the Carolinas.
“We will have a total field workforce of about 9,000 ready to restore outages when the storm moves out of the Carolinas,” Hollifield said. “Our customers should know that once we begin work, we will not stop until restoration is complete.”
Lumbee River EMC also has crews en route to help serve those affected by Hurricane Dorian.
The company has 12 construction crews and four bucket trucks with linemen from Arkansas, Illinois and Indiana, according to Walter White, vice president of LREMC Corporate Services.
The utility company will be equipped to serve the community with 66 linemen and 22 additional right-of-way crews that focus on clearing limbs and debris caused by the storm, he said.
“I want people to be careful if they see crews out working,” he said. “Our employees’ safety and public safety is first and foremost in our minds.”
City workers this morning were constructing a makeshift berm at the CSX railroad opening under Interstate 95 in advance of Hurricane Dorian. Floodwaters came through the opening during hurricanes Matthew and Florence to swamp West Lumberton and South Lumberton.
Robeson County Fire Marshal/Director of Emergency Management Stephanie Chavis, left, and Josee Hupp-Croteau, a sign language interpreter, give updates on Wednesday at the Robeson County Emergency Operations Center on Hurricane Dorian and preparations for it.
This employees adds to the boarding at AutoZone on West Fifth Street. West Fifth Street was one of the hardest hit areas during hurricanes Matthew and Florence.