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With Hurricane Florence bearing down on the state, National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Sharp didn’t mince words.
“The first thing is to protect your life,” Sharp said Tuesday morning.“This is a big storm. This is going to be catastrophic in parts of eastern North Carolina.”
Wilson County is under a tropical storm watch and could receive anywhere from 8 to 12 inches of rain, Sharp said, with 15 to 16 inches possible in some areas. He emphasized these numbers are conservative estimates; totals could be higher depending on the storm’s path and its speed.
“We’re going to get a lot of rainfall in a relatively short time,” he said, adding flooding could be “life-changing” for many.
The expected rainfall here over three days could equal almost four months of average rainfall. Sharp added that some areas could see flooding where it hasn’t flooded before.
Sharp said anyone living or traveling along regional rivers, including the Tar and Neuse, as well as Contentnea Creek should take extra precautions. Don’t wait for emergency responders to rescue you.
“Get to a safe place now or by Thursday morning,” he said.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Sharp said it appears Florence might slow down as she approaches the coast. Weather conditions will deteriorate during the day Thursday with rain, a little wind and the chance of tornadoes. By late Thursday and through most of Friday, the area will see the worst of the conditions, he said.
The rain threat remains through Saturday, and flooding can last several days.
Strong, sustained winds could reach 30 to 50 mph with hurricane-force gusts, he said. Tropical storm-force winds are rated at 39 to 73 mph. Hurricane force winds start at 74 mph.
High winds will bring down trees and power lines, so residents are urged to be prepared to go without electricity for several days.
Sharp doesn’t like to compare hurricanes because each one is different, but he did note that Florence is a stronger storm than Matthew, which hit the state in 2016. He said there will be more of a wind issue with Florence compared to Matthew, but rainfall could be around the same if not more. Matthew’s floods were devastating for many areas of eastern North Carolina.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Florence was a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds at 130 mph
WILSON COUNTY DECLARATION
County commissioners declared a state of emergency for Hurricane Florence during a Monday meeting. The declaration took effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
That distinction enables the county to enact its emergency operation plan and request resources from the state and federal governments.
From that point on, if a federal disaster is declared, any costs incurred locally will potentially be reimbursable, Wilson County Emergency Management Director Gordon Deno told commissioners.
Assistant County Manager Ron Hunt said staff began preparations last week.
“Emergency management has been leading the effort of keeping county management informed of storm updates and directly communicating with the state,” Hunt said. “Our departments are in communication with all our municipalities and the city of Wilson for smooth coordination before, during and after the storm. We have a lot of experience with storms, but each one is completely different. We have worked to learn from each one and apply that to the next event.”
Wilson County Emergency Medical Services employees have been checking trucks for supplies and coordinating staff procedures for coverage.
The county’s 911 call center employees have also been checking all systems and backup systems in addition to communicating with other emergency departments, Hunt said. Other county departments have also been working ahead.
TONS OF SAND
City crews were busy Tuesday, clearing storm drains and debris. Tim Eaton, the city of Wilson’s street division manager, said crews were working to fill at least 1,000 sandbags Tuesday. The city has 18 tons of sand.
“We are going to get a good stockpile of them and will continue to make more as we go along,” Eaton said.
City workers will be placing those sandbags around pump stations, generators and in downtown areas. Eaton said those sandbags will create a wall to keep the water back.
“All sewer pump stations were inspected over the past few days,” said city spokeswoman Rebecca Agner. “Sandbags have been positioned at Wiggins Mill and other pump stations prone to flooding.”
Agner said public works staff are blanketing the city to prepare for the storm as well. Catch basin cleanup was a major priority for Tuesday and Wednesday, officials said.
Gates have been opened at Lake Wilson and Buckhorn Reservoir to lower lake levels ahead of the storm, Agner said.
WHAT RESIDENTS CAN DO NOW
Eaton said if you have patio furniture or any items outside, now is the time to secure them.
“It needs to be put in storage, tied down or brought in the house,” he said. “Any kind of loose items that could possibly be a kite in the wind.”
The city has implemented several new digital tools to report and monitor electric outages, including its outage reporting map and new text message outage system. Residents can go online now at wilsonnc.org/outage and sign up for the text message system, where officials will notify you when the power is out at your home and when it’s restored. You can also report a power outage online on the same website. Others can call 252-399-2200.
“We are encouraging customers to become familiar with digital tools such as ‘Fix It Wilson’ and online electric outage reporting to minimize calls to the Unified Communication Center,” Agner said. “The UCC will be staffed and ready to respond to increased call volume.”
The app is designed to inform residents on multiple fronts. You can also report an outage on the app.
The county also has the CodeRed phone message system for emergency notifications to notify residents and businesses within minutes of an emergency or a potential hazard. Residents can also opt in for weather warnings. Register online at wilson-co.com under the “CodeRed” section.
FARMERS WORKING FEVERISHLY
Wilson County growers are caught with many of their crops still in the field as Hurricane Florence approaches.
“We’re just trying to get as much corn picked as we can and get the sweet potatoes dug,” said Scott Sullivan.
Sullivan, like many other Wilson growers, is still harvesting an already late crop of tobacco.
“If it comes like they are saying, I’m not expecting much tobacco to be left,” Sullivan said.
Many tobacco growers are curing tobacco at this time. Any loss of power at this stage could be critical to completing the curing process properly. Farmers may have to purchase or rent electric generators if electric power is lost during the storm.
Gov. Roy Cooper has temporarily suspended motor vehicle regulations because the hurricane threatens severe economic loss of livestock, poultry and some crops that have already been harvested. The N.C. Department of Public Safety is suspending operation of weigh stations to allow farmers to move crops and livestock.