County dodges another tropical bullet

Although the monstrous Hurricane Irma avoided North Carolina, high winds and heavy rains are expected throughout Columbus County until tomorrow.

“Hopefully, we have dodged a bullet,” said Bill Clark, Columbus County Manager. Clark was the county’s spokesman during the buildup for the storm, which initial forecasts had aimed at a landfall that would have brought the bulk of the system across the area.

The massive hurricane has not left Southeastern North Carolina untouched – one to three inches of rain are likely through Tuesday morning, while a high wind warning went into effect early this morning (Monday) and continues through midnight.

The National Weather Service (NWS) issued the wind advisory Sunday. Wind speeds could reach 20-30 miles per hour, with 45 mph gusts. Higher winds are expected just below the border in South Carolina.

“We expect to see the strongest winds during the daylight hours Monday,” said Hal Lowder, Whiteville Fire Marshal. “Hopefully everyone was already secured for the hurricane. Anything loose in your yard could go flying in a higher gust.”

The NWS anticipates falling trees and power interruptions in some areas, due to saturated ground. The area is on average 12 inches above normal rainfall for the year. Softened soil and high winds lead to falling trees.

Lowder said high clearance vehicle drivers should also be aware of conditions throughout the day.

“Winds this strong can make driving dangerous,” he said.

As the largest evacuation in U.S. history took place Saturday and Sunday, Gov. Roy Cooper opened shelters in major metropolitan areas to receive refugees from Florida and Georgia. Approximately 315 National Guard troops were also mustered up at three state depots for deployment to the hurricane zone. Among those being deployed are Air National Guard crews, search teams, and other specialized Guardsmen.

Shelters were opened in Gaston, Guilford, Henderson, Johnston and Mecklenburg counties, both to serve evacuees from the south and residents of areas that are expected to receive heavier rains from the remnants of the storm.

While the worst of the storm missed North Carolina, the NWS and emergency officials warned of potential flooding in lowlying areas later this week as rivers and swamps rise. The path of Irma is not expected to seriously impact the Lumber River, but the NWS said South Carolinians could see some flooding along the Waccamaw. The river was expected to hit flood stage earlier last week at the Brunswick County line.

Meteorologists noted that while all eyes were on Irma last week, hurricane history was being made in the Atlantic.

Timothy Armstrong of the Wilmington NWS office noted that on Saturday, there were two storms (Irma and Jose) in the Atlantic at the same time with winds in excess of 150 mph. There were also three Category Two or higher storms in the Atlantic at the same time – Irma, Jose, and Katia, which eventually blew out over Mexico.

“This was the first time in Atlantic Ocean history that we had two 150-plus storms at the same time” Armstrong said. “It’s also the first time we have three Category Two or higher storms at the same time since 1893.”

“The three hurricanes combined to set a new record for the highest single-day Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) index,” he said. The index measures the amount of energy consumed by tropical storms.

“Hurricane Irma is already in fourth place on the all-time list for single-storm ACE,” he said, “behind Isabel (2003) and Ivan (2004).

Irma was expected to surpass Isabel on Sunday, Armstrong said, and could at least match Ivan by today. The most powerful hurricane in terms of the ACE was the 1899 San Ciriaco hurricane, which killed thousands of people from Leeward Islands to the continental United States. Better know as the “1899 hurricane”, that storm destroyed the fishing fleet at Southport, and caused massive flooding throughout eastern North Carolina.

Although the southeast didn’t see the full wrath of the San Ciriaco storm, the system wrought havoc throughout the area 118 years ago this week.

The Cape Fear River at Elizabethtown topped the bluffs on the west bank, and unknown number of people were reported missing in Columbus and Brunswick counties in flooded areas. Riverboats were used to retrieve refugees from the roofs of their homes in Columbus, Bladen and Pender counties. The storm dropped more than 18 inches of rain across the region before pulling off Cape Hatteras and going on to batter the Northeast.

That storm also holds the record as being the longest-lived, being recognized as a hurricane on Aug. 3 and not completely dissipating until Sept. 12, 1899.