State officials are saying North Carolina will almost certainly feel some impact from Hurricane Irma, the strongest Atlantic storm in recorded history. They just aren’t sure what that impact might be.
“We’re seeing swells now coming into the beaches and causing strong rip currents,” said Steve Pfaff, warning coordinator meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington. “We’re saying with some certainty that there will be impact, but the magnitude is what’s in question.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Hurricane Irma was a Category 5 storm located approximately 140 miles east of San Juan. Maximum sustained winds of 185 mph make it more intense than even catastrophic storms like Andrew and Katrina, and the pressure remains at 918 mb. The storm is moving west northwest at 16 mph and is expected to pass just north of Haiti and Cuba on Saturday morning.
Currently, a high pressure in the Atlantic is holding the storm on a westerly course, but as the high pressure system dissolves, Irma will turn north. That’s where the question of impact comes in for North Carolina.
“Currently, we’re unsure whether it will be a coastal event, a western event, or whether it will go right through the middle of the state,” said North Carolina Emergency Management Director Mike Spayberry on Wednesday afternoon.
A dissolution of the high pressure earlier in the week means a more northern course for the storm and greater impact along North Carolina’s coast. A late disappearance would mean the storm would travel up the state of Florida and possibly impact the mountains of North Carolina.
“It’s beyond the limits of science and models to predict that far out, which is why there’s so much error in the track,” Pfaff explained. “All models show a trend of moving north, but beyond that, we’re basically in no-man’s land.”
At the press conference, Spayberry said the state has recalled its swift water rescue teams from Texas and is working up multiple plans for impact, which is expected to be felt in North Carolina on Monday or Tuesday.
With Hurricane Matthew fresh in the minds of Bladen County residents, Pfaff offered some suggestions.
“Don’t go two or three days without paying attention,” he said, “and when it comes time to act, make sure you’re relying on credible information. There’s a lot of misinformation out there on social media, and we’re afraid people are taking the wrong action.”
“We learned the hard way hurricanes aren’t just coastal storms, and they can have significant inland impacts, like with Hugo making landfall north of Charleston and inland territories experiencing the impact as far west as Charlotte, and then last year with Matthew — a Category 1 storm that brought catastrophic rainfall.”
Spayberry suggested all North Carolina residents prepare evacuation routes, follow the advice of local officials, and begin making preparations now. Emergency food, water, and medical prescriptions, he said, should be at the top of all residents’ lists.
Spayberry and Pfaff both said Wednesday storms along the coast were unrelated to the hurricane, and weather should remain clear until Irma makes her presence known sometime during the weekend.
As of 8 a.m. Thursday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper had declared a state of emergency in preparation for the approaching storm.
More details will follow as they become available.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing email@example.com.