LUMBERTON — While Robeson County residents went about enjoying the three-day weekend that Labor Day provided to mark the end of summer, in the back of their minds was Hurricane Irma — and would she dare?
Dare to visit the same kind of devastation that Hurricane Matthew did on Oct. 8, 2016, delivering damage that the county is still recovering from.
City Manager Wayne Horne and County Manager Ricky Harris said Monday they would spend today and Wednesday meeting with their emergency personnel and keeping an eye on forecast models to make sure if the worst happens, the city and county are as prepared as possible.
The news on Monday night was mixed for Robeson County and the East Coast.
Irma was growing in strength and was a Category 4 storm, but it was tracking more westward, and forecast models were increasingly predicting that it would make landfall in Florida, and perhaps weaken before making its way up the coast — if it came toward the Carolinas at all.
Horne and Harris have said that lessons learned from Matthew would be helpful during the next hurricane, whenever that is. But also working in favor of Robeson County is the Lumber River is at about 7 feet, and it was already at 13 feet, flood stage, when Matthew hit following a September visit by Tropical Storm Hermine. So the river would be able to handle a lot more rain before repeating the problems of Matthew, when it reached a record 23 feet
Additionally, Horne has said many of the ditches and the canals that meander around the city were flushed out by Matthew and have been cleaned since, so they would be better able to handle heavy rains.
Local officials are advising residents to keep an eye out in case Irma does come toward Robeson County. But should that happen, it would probably be early next week before any of its effects would be felt locally
On Monday, Irma was spinning its way toward the northeastern Caribbean and was forecast to begin buffeting the region today.
The storm had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph late Monday afternoon, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said additional strengthening was expected. Irma was centered 490 miles east of the Leeward Islands and moving west at 13 mph.
Emergency officials warned that the storm could dump up to 10 inches of rain, unleash landslides and dangerous flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet as the storm drew closer.
“We’re looking at Irma as a very significant event,” Ronald Jackson, executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, said by phone. “I can’t recall a tropical cone developing that rapidly into a major hurricane prior to arriving in the central Caribbean.”
The storm’s center was forecast to move near or over the northern Leeward Islands late today and early Wednesday, the hurricane center said.
U.S. residents were urged to monitor the storm’s progress in case it should turn northward toward Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.
“This hurricane has the potential to be a major event for the East Coast. It also has the potential to significantly strain FEMA and other governmental resources occurring so quickly on the heels of (Hurricane) Harvey,” Evan Myers, chief operating officer of AccuWeather, said in a statement.
In the Caribbean, the director of Puerto Rico’s power company predicted that storm damage could leave some areas of the U.S. territory without electricity for four to six months.
But “some areas will have power (back) in less than a week,” Ricardo Ramos told radio station Notiuno 630 AM.
The power company’s system has deteriorated greatly amid Puerto Rico’s decade-long recession, and the territory experienced an islandwide outage last year.
Meanwhile, the governor of the British Virgin Islands urged people on Anegada island to leave if they could, noting that Irma’s eye was expected to pass 35 miles from the capital of Road Town.
Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands expected 4 inches to 8 inches of rain and winds of 40 to 50 mph with gusts of up to 60 mph.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned of flooding and power outages. “It’s no secret that the infrastructure of the Puerto Rico Power Authority is deteriorated,” Rossello said.
Meteorologist Roberto Garcia warned that Puerto Rico could experience hurricane-like conditions in the next 48 hours should the storm’s path shift.
“Any deviation, which is still possible, could bring even more severe conditions to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Garcia said.