As the first of the overcast skies began to show themselves Thursday morning, hundreds of residents were making their way from the southern tip of Sampson County to the center of Sampson, as county officials opened four more shelters amid a mandatory evacuation for some residents ahead of the beast that is Hurricane Florence.
County officials said that, even though Hurricane Florence dropped to a Category 2 storm, it was still “extremely dangerous.” This area will likely see “prolonged, life-threatening inland flooding, dangerous high winds, sustained at 40-50 mph, with gusts of 65-70 mph, widespread downed trees and prolonged power outages,” a statement from the county read.
Florence’s top sustained wind speeds dropped from a high of 140 mph to 110 mph early Thursday, reducing it from a Category 4 to a Category 2 hurricane, but forecasters warned that the widening storm — and its likelihood of lingering around the coast day after day after day — will bring surging ocean water and torrential rain.
It was expected that Florence’s eye would blow ashore as early as Friday morning around the North Carolina-South Carolina line. Then, it will likely hover along the coast Saturday, pushing up to 13 feet of storm surge and dumping water on both states. The forecast calls for as much as 40 inches of rain over seven days along the coast.
Sampson is expected to get 20-plus inches of rain, forcing local leaders to force the mandatory evacuation for some residents.
A mandatory evacuation order was issued late Wednesday night for the Franklin Township of Sampson, with officials citing “hazardous weather conditions that pose significant danger to life and property.” The area south of Highway 411 from Harrells to Clear Run and the areas south of Highway 41, were evacuated Thursday morning. Evacuees needing shelter were directed to Clinton High School.
For those without personal transportation, buses departed from Harrells Fire Department at 9 a.m., traveling house to house to pick up other residents. Assistant county manager Susan Holder said the head count at local shelters as of 8 a.m. Thursday was already close to 1,200 — and that number was expected to swell.
Kevin King, assistant Harrells fire chief, said the department wants to keep residents out of harm’s way before Florence hits Sampson County. They also want to prevent dangerous situations that occurred during the last hurricane.
“We’re trying to prevent some of the water rescues we had during Matthew,” King said. “The decision to evacuate was made by county officials and our fire chief. We’re just relaying the message again. There was a crew that went out last night and notified everybody that it was a mandatory evacuation. We’re just reinforcing that notification.”
Veronica Devane was one of the bus drivers taking residents to Clinton High School. With the assistance of the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office, buses traveled through the area.
“If there’s anyway that I can help someone be safe, I’m all for it,” Devane said.
Shelters across Sampson were already seeing an influx of people shortly after the doors opened Wednesday afternoon, with residents seeking refuge from the impending hurricane. The five shelters opened Wednesday quickly grew to nine shelters, due in large part to the mandatory evacuation for southern Sampson.
The list of shelters opened as of Thursday morning were:
• Clinton High School, 340 Indian Town Road, Clinton
• Hobbton Elementary School, 12361 Hobbton Hwy., Newton Grove
• Hobbton High School, 12201 Hobbton Hwy., Newton Grove
• Hobbton Middle School, 12081 Hobbton Hwy., Newton Grove
• Lakewood High School, 245 Lakewood School Road, Salemburg
• Midway High School, 15274 Spivey’s Corner Hwy., Dunn
• Plainview Elementary School, 4140 Plain View Hwy., Dunn
• Roseboro Elementary School, 180 Butler Island Road, Roseboro
• Sampson Middle School, 1201 West Elizabeth St., Clinton
People initially sheltered at Union Elementary School were being transferred to Clinton High School.
No other evacuations were forthcoming as of press time, but officials were continuing to monitor the situation from the Emergency Operations Center. By late Wednesday, States of Emergency were in effect for the county and all its municipalities and a countywide curfew was set to take effect at 7 p.m. Thursday for unincorporated areas of the county, extending daily from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. until rescinded. Towns followed suit with the same curfew.
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.
All persons coming to a shelter are asked to bring bedding, medicines, foods (especially baby foods and baby supplies), personal hygiene items and flashlights. Firearms and alcoholic beverages are forbidden; law enforcement will retain the right to search bags brought into the shelter as a safety precaution. Certain electronic devices, such as televisions, will not be allowed inside shelters.
Transportation to the shelters, particularly for the elderly and disabled, is expected to be available through 1 p.m. Thursday through Sampson Area Transportation, unless worsening weather conditions necessitate that such services cease.
Even under sunny skies Wednesday, it didn’t take with the looming storm for residents to take refuge.
By 3 p.m. Wednesday at Clinton High School, shelter manager Lynn Fields said approximately 55 residents had checked in, many of them bringing handfulls of belongings needed through the storm.
Fields, who admitted the county employees and shelter workers weren’t expecting many people to check in immediately after opening, said there was a like of people waiting at the 1 p.m. opening time.
Before nightfall, Fields said the Clinton shelter was expecting two large groups from neighboring counties to check in.
While at the shelter, residents are provided with meals, but asked to bring only necessities when coming in. Some bedding, snacks and medicine are a few items Fields suggested bringing.
Clinton High School’s gym is prepared to hold 500 people, with Sampson Middle School’s gym to be used as a backup if necessary.
County employees work throughout the county in the five shelters on a three-shift rotation.
At Union Elementary School — now closed and being consolidated with Clinton High — about 40 people checked in Wednesday afternoon. It was one of several facilities available from Sampson County Schools (SCS).
Mark Hammond, executive director of auxiliary services, said the staff is working to make sure controls and a backup plan are in place just in case primary plans go sideways. Some of that includes making sure wastewater disposal systems are ready and other preparations.
“We’ve been trying to do some last minute repairs that may make it a little bit easier when you have an influx of people coming in,” Hammond said. “We’ve been meeting around the clock with the emergency management folks and the sheriff’s office in getting plans laid out for staffing the shelters and making sure we got safety and security covered with deputies working in shifts at schools.”
Administrators will be at each school to help residents. Custodians will also be around for maintenance as influxes of people are expected at each building.
“We’ve been hard at it, trying to make sure we got all of our bases covered, so if we have a disaster, we can make it go smooth as possible and be prepared for the aftermath of it,” he said.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew resulted in about $150,000 in damage across the district.
“Some schools got a little more damage than others, but the biggest thing with Matthew was just being without power for so long and having so many down trees and impassible roads,” he said. “We’re kind of expecting the same thing here.”
Each school shelter has a backup generator in place if the power goes out. It’s an unfortunate situation that will more than likely occur.
“Those generators by no means will operate the entire school,” he said. “However they will help keep lights on the building and keep electrical outlets up so people inside the facilities can charge phones and devices. Our staff can monitor the Internet, the weather to keep our lines of communication open.”
Many emergency officials are expecting tremendous amounts of rainfall, which is worrying many.
“So that’s always a concern,” Hammond said. “The ground gets wet and it gets saturated and the weight of the trees can’t handle it and fall over. Of course, it tears down what’s in its path like power lines.”
Hammond showed appreciation for emergency management officials who he said worked tirelessly preparing.
“Hopefully, if we’re faced with the worst, we can still make the best out of it,” Hammond said.
The Sampson County Animal Shelter is also helping residents by having a place for pets to stay safe. Director Anna Ellis assisted owners at the Livestock facility, next to the Cooperative Extension Office. First responders and volunteers at shelters across the county are having their pets looked after too. As of Wednesday afternoon, about 70 animals, a mixture of dogs and cats, were at the shelter. Officials are asking if anyone come with an animal, it would help if a crate is provided and that rabies vaccines are given. If not, the fee will be $5.
“Please be safe and keep your animals safe,” Ellis said.
Areli Borja, of Clinton, dropped off her cat Kenji and two dogs Coby and Sugar.
“I’m pretty upset and nervous,” Borja said while standing next to her siblings Javin and Arlene. “I still feel uneasy.”
She’s one of many bracing for Hurricane Florence.
“I think this hurricane is very strong and I think everyone should evacuate,” Borja said. “I haven’t been in a hurricane before, so I’m pretty nervous about it. We’re prepared to take refuge and keep our family safe.”
In Duplin County, a voluntary evacuation order turned into a mandatory evacuation order effective at 12 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, for flood-prone areas in unincorporated areas of Duplin, notably those areas south of N.C. 24, between Interstate 40 and N.C. 41 and N.C. 111 at Chinquapin; and all flood-prone areas, including those that flooded during Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew.
That included, but was not limited to, B.F. Grady, Chinquapin, Hallsville, Harrells, Kornegay, Mill Swamp, Northeast, Pin Hook, River Landing, Rockfish, Safe and Sarecta.
“Flooding is projected to possibly exceed the current record set by Hurricane Floyd Floyd in 1999,” Duplin officials stated in the announcement. “Record-breaking flood stages are forecasted on the Northeast Cape Fear River and its tributaries. Do not delay evacuating until the flooding becomes severe, as escape routes will likely be impassable due to flood waters and debris.”
Emergency response in areas under a mandatory evacuation will be limited. There will be a period of time during this storm that first responders will be limited and/or unable to respond to emergency calls.
“Heeding this evacuation order will ensure the personal safety of all citizens and first responders,” Duplin officials said.
Reach Chris Berendt, Chase Jordan or Kristy D. Carter at 910-592-8137. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and see clintonnc.com for all Hurricane Florence related updates.