Traveling at 16 miles per hour and ranked as a Category 5 storm with 175 mph winds, Hurricane Irma is the center of attention as forecasters still don’t have a definitive idea of where she will make landfall and the track that will follow. But emergency services crews locally, statewide and nationally aren’t waiting, they already are getting prepared for the worst and are encouraging residents to do the same.
“The state has really got everything on standby and are already pulling up resources that can be ready at a central staging area in Butner,” said John Shelton, director of Surry County Emergency Services, Thursday following a daily conference call for state emergency services coordinators.
Keith Vestal, director of Yadkin County Emergency Services, also said Thursday that his office is coordinating with the state and has been involved with the daily conference calls that include updated from National Weather Service meteorologists and state leaders.
“Our emergency operation center is the county is already open in the monitoring phase, and we are making preparations with local fire, rescue and emergency agencies to get prepared,” Vestal said, adding that they are ensuring departments have chainsaws sharpened and equipment fueled up so they can clear roadways and ensure emergency access as needed.
Even with emergency crews operational and prepared, Vestal encouraged local residents to be prepared to for “the first 72 is on you.”
“We need each family and household to be self-sufficient for the first 72 hours, with water, food and supplies,” he said. “If you live in an area where your power could be affected and you are on well water, fill up containers like bathtubs and things that could be used to flush toilets. If you have food safe containers, you can store up your own personal well water.”
Already stores are selling out and seeing shortages of items like bottled water, Vestal said, noting he’d been to the Yadkinville Food Lion Thursday morning to get sodas for a meeting and was told they were out of water already. “Save that water for drinking, and use the other water stored up now for bathing and flushing toilets.”
In Surry County, Shelton said resources have been committed if deployed to assist statewide, with what he called a prime mover truck fueled and ready to go wherever its needed. The truck is equipped with chainsaws and winches. “We have a couple of people ready on standby to work in Butner with disaster software if our folks get deployed,” he said.
“Locally, we’ve talked will all of our agencies that we normally do to get prepared,” Shelton said, adding that Friday morning, a meeting will be held at the county’s emergency operation center to coordinate with school staff, forestry, health service, Department of Transportation, Red Cross officials and many others, “in the event it happens like Hugo did.”
Hurricane Hugo, which came through the Carolinas in 1989 leaving a path of destruction, downed trees and power outages in its wake, also was a mid-September hurricane, making landfall just north of Charleston, South Carolina, on Sept. 22 of that year as a Category 4. It tracked up through South Carolina and skirted the western Piedmont as the center traveled over the foothills and mountains of North Carolina.
“As powerful as it is, if it takes the path of Hugo, we could be hit harder, and emergency services will be taxed to the limit,” Vestal said. “As needed, we’ll open shelters, but we don’t know what areas will be affected. When and if the need arises, we’ll do that, but we need to see where it will be needed first.”
“We are just watching the storm to see what path it takes and hoping and praying it doesn’t come through us,” said Shelton, adding the county has gotten pricing from private contractors in case more resources are needed for clearing debris. He said he’d been told generators were being bought quickly countywide as well.
For those without power, Vestal cautioned if people are cooking with charcoal or gas grills or camp stoves, to be sure to do that outside where there is good ventilation. “The biggest concern there is carbon monoxide poisoning, so anything that burns should be outside and well ventilated,” he said. “If you are running generators to run power to keep food from going bad, get the generators outside where it is in well-ventilated air. Don’t risk carbon monoxide, the silent killer.
“We just need to pray for the best, because this is a really bad storm and it has already taken a toll on some people,” he said.
In a press conference at lunchtime Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper said, “It’s too soon to know how North Carolina is going to be impacted, but it is not too soon to get ready for it.”
While he ensured everyone that the state is doing everything it can to prepare for the storm as well as the recovery that may follow, Cooper encouraged residents to spend the good weather over the weekend to prepare their emergency preparedness kits with water, food, batteries and working flashlights and any other items they may need.
Nick Petro, warning coordination meteorologist with the Raleigh office of the National Weather Service, said, “The forecast is becoming clearer that North Carolina will see significant impact Monday into Tuesday. Be ready for heavy rain and inland wind damage with downed trees and flash flooding.”
He didn’t expect flooding to be as significant as it was when Hurricane Harvey stalled over Texas last week, because Petro said Irma is a fast moving storm. “Across the mountains, the rain could lead to flash flooding and mud slides. The track is more inland and further west, but the coastal area will see heavy dangerous surf, rip currents and overwash. The flooding like with Matthew is not expected at this time.”
A state of emergency was declared by Cooper Wednesday, taking effect at 7 a.m. Thursday. Cooper and State Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry explained the purpose for that declaration was three-fold.
The state of emergency declaration allows for activation of the North Carolina National Guard under active duty orders, use of state emergency funds to provide for adequate response and waiving of time and weight restrictions for trucks so that power companies can come in and get set up.
State officials noted that be the time Irma reaches North Carolina it will likely be downgraded to tropical storm status, but they cautioned that doesn’t mean the storm system shouldn’t be taken seriously. “Just because it is tropical storm strength doesn’t mean it won’t be very dangerous, because of tropical force winds and flash flooding,” said Cooper. “We still don’t know for sure, but we are planning for everything.”
By Wednesday, the storm system should be out of North Carolina, Petro added.
A resource suggested by local and state authorities to be able to watch traffic and weather conditions, where shelters may be opened, tips on emergency preparedness and more is by visiting readync.org or download the ReadyNC app.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.