As people were spilling in and out of Walmart in Clinton on Tuesday, a crew was boarding up the glass windows and doors in preparation for a storm expected to bring 80 mph winds and torrential rains to Sampson and utter devastation to a coast little more than an hour away.
On Tuesday afternoon, Hurricane Florence was centered 845 miles southeast of Cape Fear, moving 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.
Florence could slam the Carolinas harder than any hurricane since Hazel, which was hit in 1954 with 130 mph winds. The Category 4 storm destroyed 15,000 buildings and killed 19 people in North Carolina. In the six decades since then, many thousands of people have moved to the coast.
In Sampson, the Emergency Operations Center will be fully activated as of Wednesday morning and shelters will open at 1 p.m. Wednesday at five locations.
Sampson County Emergency Management director Ronald Bass had a one-on-one conversation with the National Weather Service late Monday to get a specific Sampson County outlook. Those discussions were ongoing Tuesday and state updates have occurred regularly several times a day since the beginning of the week.
While the storm’s track has wobbled and the projected wind gust and rainfall numbers have fluctuated, Bass was somber in delivering local officials a bleak picture for Sampson.
“The weather in Sampson County should start deteriorating late Wednesday afternoon,” Bass said. “The Weather Service suggested everyone traveling be off the road by 6 or 7 o’clock Wednesday night. Sampson County can expect winds 80 mph. Those will be gusts, but there will be high sustained winds as well, which will result in downed trees, downed power lines and will mean a long recovery in getting power restored. We’re looking at structural damage and there could be isolated tornadoes — that possibility is real.”
Florence was expected to blow ashore late Thursday or early Friday, then slow down and wring itself out for days, unloading 1 to 2½ feet of rain that could cause flooding well inland.
There will likely be 7-10 inches of rain in Sampson, possibly as much as 15 inches of rain, Bass said. Forecasters said parts of North Carolina could get 20 inches of rain, if not more, with as much as 10 inches elsewhere in the state and in Virginia, parts of Maryland and Washington, D.C.
“This storm is a monster. It’s big and it’s vicious. It is an extremely, dangerous, life-threatening, historic hurricane,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. “The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you’ve ever seen. Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don’t bet your life on riding out a monster.”
Florence is so wide that a life-threatening storm surge was being pushed 300 miles ahead of its eye, and so rainy that a swath of states from South Carolina to Ohio and Pennsylvania could get deluged.
The further north the storm goes, the better for Sampson, said Bass.
But it really doesn’t matter where landfall takes place, many said. The impact will be felt.
Weather officials stressed that the areas flooded during 2016’s Hurricane Matthew would “certainly flood again, plus additional floods,” the Emergency Management director remarked. “Matthew really didn’t have a lot of high winds. We’re going to have the flooding issue and the high winds.”
“The National Weather Service told me that a lot of times when a storm gets to the coast, it will weaken prior to it getting there,” he said. “He didn’t really see this one doing that. It’s probably not too late for it to turn a little bit, but it probably won’t do a lot of turning now that we’re in the short rows.”
“We’re working and getting things ready,” said Bass, “we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Sampson County Board of Commissioners chairman Clark Wooten lauded local response for Matthew, and said he was confident that Florence would bring similar response and recovery efforts.
“I know you all are prepared, trained and outfitted to do the very same for this, so I take comfort in that,” Clark Wooten. “We’re behind you and your team 100 percent.”
The board officially declared a State of Emergency for Sampson and adopted a budget amendment that allocated $100,000 in contingency funds for disaster relief, specifically costs related to preparing for Florence and its aftermath. Federal funds will be forthcoming in the recovery effort, but the contingency allows the county to tend to the most pressing issues.
The City of Clinton followed suit on Tuesday, issuing its own State of Emergency proclamation, effective at noon Wednesday.
“The city has been preparing for the last several days and we are ready for a sustained recovery operation from the storms impacts,” said City manager Tom Hart, who noted city offices would remain open Wednesday. “I will be activating the City’s Emergency Operation Center as soon as the operational need for centralized monitoring and control of the city’s resources is apparent.”
As residents and businesses were doing all they could to batten down the hatches, motorists were lumbering up and down an under-construction N.C. 24, negotating the path around the hundreds of orange barrels that make up the traffic pattern.
While motorists are being warned to stay off roads, with high winds expected, those barrels could easily prove dangerous projectiles for vehicles or nearby structures. DOT district engineer Keith Eason said that will be monitored.
“At this time, the barrels will remain in place for the safety of the traveling public. Immediately following the storm event or as soon as deemed safe, we will gather any traffic control devices that have been displaced and place back in designated locations,” said Eason, who noted ongoing measures taken by transportation officials as the storm approaches. “We have been in preparation since (Monday) morning, including preparing necessary signs and barricades, ensuring equipment is in good working order, staging equipment and making contact with designated contractors to aid in clearing roads.
“We are still watching the storm and adjusting as necessary,” Eason said.
Cooper issued what he called a first-of-its-kind mandatory evacuation order for North Carolina’s fragile barrier islands from one end of the coast to the other. Typically local governments in North Carolina make the call on evacuations.
“We’ve seen nor’easters and we’ve seen hurricanes before,” Cooper said, “but this one is different.”
The Sampson County Emergency Operations Center will be fully activated as of 7 a.m. Wednesday and shelters will open at 1 p.m. Wednesday. Those locations will be:
• Clinton High School, 340 Indian Town Road, Clinton
• Union Elementary School, 10400 Taylors Bridge Hwy., Clinton
• Hobbton Middle School, 12081 Hobbton Hwy., Newton Grove
• Midway High School, 15274 Spivey’s Corner Hwy., Dunn
• Lakewood High School, 245 Lakewood School Road, Salemburg
Officials with the Sampson County Department of Social Services and the Sampson County Health Department will man the Red Cross shelters, along with other county agencies. County and municipal law enforcement will provide security. Visit The Sampson Independent online at clintonnc.com, and the Sampson County website, sampsonnc.com, for Hurricane Florence updates.
Clinton City Schools interim superintendent Dr. Stewart Hobbs said that Sampson Middle School will open if a second shelter is needed in the city.
”This is setting up to have the potential to be a catastrophic event,” Hobbs stated. “The only good news that we have heard is that it is projected to make landfall in North Carolina a little further north than previously projected, but still have having major impact to Clinton and Sampson County.”
The following closures were announced Tuesday:
• Clinton City Schools will be dismissing at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday and remain closed Thursday and Friday.
• Sampson County Schools will have a 3-hour early release on Wednesday and remain closed Thursday and Friday.
• Sampson County offices will close at 3 p.m. Wednesday and remain closed Thursday and Friday.
• Harrells Christian Academy will dismiss at noon Wednesday and remain closed Thursday and Friday.
• Sampson County solid waste collection/recycling sites closed from Wednesday-Sunday.
• Duplin County Schools will be closed Wednesday-Friday.
• James Sprunt Community College will be closed Wednesday-Sunday.
Managing Editor Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587.