LUMBERTON — Robeson County residents watched helplessly on Saturday afternoon as Tropical Storm Florence continued its torrential assault, and a realization began sinking in that the storm would be a 2018 edition of Hurricane Matthew.
As many as 20 more inches of rain was expected, the Lumber River was at flood level, and projections were it could rise beyond the record level that followed Matthew, up to 24 feet.
About 1,000 people were in four shelters, and they might have to make room for more as city and county officials were advising residents who were flooded by Matthew that floodwater was on the way. City officials were going door to door in the Mayfair subdivision telling residents to find higher ground.
National guardsmen were preparing for water rescues.
City officials were hoping that the placement of 5,000 sandbags and two berms near the Interstate 95 bridge through which Matthew’s waters rushed would protect South and West Lumberton, which suffered the worst under Matthew.
“We don’t think those areas will flood, except for localized flooding,” City Manager Wayne Horne said.
City workers also fortified the water plant this past week with the hope it would not be swamped again. During Matthew, the plant could not function correctly for about a month.
“We think we will be all right there,” Horne said.
Floodwaters, as they did in 2016, were sneaking into The Robesonian building on Roberts Avenue, and Commissioner Tom Taylor and Allenton firefighters were on their way to stack sandbags to try to minimize the damage.
More than 40,000 customers of Duke Energy and Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation were without power, and might be for days or even weeks. The news was better in Lumberton, which seemed less affected by power outages, and The Robesonian had no information on outages in Red Springs as of mid-afternoon Saturday.
Utility companies were saying that the weather remains too dangerous for crews to be dispatched to make repairs. As many as 40,000 linemen have been sent to North Carolina to help power companies because millions across the state are in the dark.
On Friday, Robeson County issued a boil-water advisory, which means any water from the system should be boiled for at least one minute before consumption. That extends to drinking the water, using it to make tea, washing dishes, or even brushing your teeth. The advisory is in effect until further notice.
City water, so far at least, had been unaffected.
On Friday, about 200 people took about four hours to place 5,000 sandbags and two berms at the CXS tracks under the Interstate 95 bridge near West Lumberton Baptist Church.
Sen. Danny Britt said about 130 civilians, 40 members of the National Guard and 25 city employees worked together to fill the sandbags and then place them. The church served as a staging area.
“It is truly amazing to see the best of people come out,” Britt said. “Every time I would look over my shoulder I would see someone else walking up with a shovel wanting to help. And they were willing to help not to protect their own neighborhood, but that of their friends and neighbors.”
Britt said some sandbags were kept in reserve for use later if needed.
One berm that was built is one about 6 to 7 feet high, Britt said. The other is about half as tall and on higher ground. Each was built between the bridge and West Fifth Street, one on each side of the track.
The Public Schools of Robeson County on Saturday wasted no time and announced schools were out until further notice.
“Experts advise that the full impact of Hurricane Florence in Robeson County will be most severe on Sunday, Sept. 16, into Monday, Sept. 17, and may include severe flooding, widespread power outages, downed trees, road closures and limited access to school buildings and facilities,” Superintendent Shanita Wooten said in a statement.
Robeson County officials said early Saturday there were 34 roads closed in the county because of flooding.
North Carolina residents can get real-time updates on road closures at this website: drivenc.gov, which redirects the user to the Department of Transportation’s TIMS website, which is updated all day, every day, and not just for storms. It provides information only for state-maintained roads.
The northbound lane of I-95 was reportedly flooded at Exit 61, which is at Fayetteville, because of the Cape Fear River.