ELIZABETHTOWN — For some, there wasn’t even a need to think twice.
“I have a mobile home in Wilmington, so there’s no way I was staying around,” Natasha Pigford said during a quick stop at Burger King on Tuesday. “I don’t know what I’ll come back to, but at least I’ll be able to come back in one piece.”
Pigford was among millions leaving the coastline of North and South Carolina on Tuesday ahead of Hurricane Florence. The Category 4 storm is bearing down on the Wilmington area, and earlier forecasts for it to plow through North Carolina have now shifted to predict it going more due west toward what is known as the upstate of South Carolina.
The storm was forecast, in several computer models consistently, to enter land late Thursday to early Friday near Wilmington. The path forecast would put Bladen County on the northern and eastern sides of the eyewall. The track had the storm near Clemson, South Carolina, early Monday morning, meaning lots of rain for the Carolinas throughout the weekend.
Hurricane watches and warnings covered more than 5.4 million people on the East Coast. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, opening the way for federal aid.
Florence’s potential destruction is being compared to Hurricane Hazel, the 1954 monster that is the only storm to make landfall in the state as a Category 4 and generally considered the benchmark for measurement.
“I think this is going to be something our generation hasn’t seen,” said Sheriff Jim McVicker.
Hazel’s winds were 130 mph when it came ashore; Florence was expected to be near the 157 mph standard for Cat 5 storms before diminishing slightly as it nears the coastline.
“If there has ever been a time for people to be resilient and take care of theirselves, now is the time,” said Bradley Kinlaw, the director of Emergency Management for Bladen County. “Stay off the roadways until we say it is OK.”
And perhaps his best advice, “Just be patient.”
Extended periods of time without power are anticipated. Tuesday’s classes were the last this week for schools; Bladen Community College closed for the week Wednesday afternoon. Shelters opened Wednesday at Bladen Lakes Primary School, East Arcadia School, East Bladen High School and West Bladen High School. The West Bladen shelter is pet friendly.
Saturday’s 26th annual Dublin Peanut Festival will not happen as scheduled.
Life-threatening storm surge from the storm was 300 miles ahead of its eye. Sustained winds Wednesday at 8 a.m. were 130 mph. The hurricane-force winds stretched 70 miles from the eye, and tropical-storm force winds were 175 miles outward — meaning outdoor preparations would be difficult as early as Thursday.
“My mom lived through Hazel, and she’s told me horror stories about it,” said Mark Dixon, who made a stop here Tuesday while evacuating from New Hanover County. “I hate to leave my house, and I’ll be worried about it the whole time, but I have to think about my kids and keeping them safe. They think it’s an adventure.”
Bladen County residents had enough adventure with Hurricane Matthew two years ago in October. That storm did $4.8 billion in damage in the state, killing 31.
Rain and flooding are high concerns with Florence. The storm’s rainfall potential for Bladen County is being forecast at about a foot to 20 inches.
“Our people will respond to help all citizens of this county until it gets so rough nobody can respond,” McVicker said.
Kinlaw and McVicker said residents should evacuate the area, go to a shelter or stay put — being out on the roads was among the worst things that anyone could do.
“Don’t compromise the first responders,” McVicker said.
Kinlaw said help that normally comes from the western part of the state would be mostly absent. The storm is so large and expected to move so slow that an area from South Carolina to Ohio and Pennsylvania is expected to be deluged with rainfall.
Guesses on the impact were hard to come by in several areas important to the county.
“Rain, wind and flooding are our biggest concerns — how much and how long,” said Becky Spearman, Bladen County’s director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension. “It will have a negative impact, but right now we really don’t know how much. Farmers are preparing as best they can.”
Schools, said spokeswoman Valerie Newton, are making fluid decisions. Leadership staff met internally and with Kinlaw’s team for hours on Monday and Tuesday. Daily meetings will be held as frequently as needed, she said.
“A lot of decisions, as far as having shelters open, is really predicated on what emergency management operations need to have,” Newton said. “With the intensity of this storm, they quickly recognized we needed to open shelters sooner rather than later.
“Post-storm assessment will look at conditions of the roads, schools and try to make a determination and where we would even be if we can open the next day or two or three days down the road. We can’t operate schools with a shelter at the same time.”
One possible new shelter to be added to the mix, when the number at the shelters decreases, is the Bladen County Law Enforcement Training Center.
Newton said Bladen County Schools built into the year-long schedule two days that would not have to be made up if missed, meaning instructional time is measured by minutes and the amount of time students stay at school each day sets up that option.
County Manager Greg Martin said loss of power was among his chief concerns.
“We’re accustomed to a lot of comforts, and power is a big factor in that,” Martin said. “Without electricity, it’ll be a lifestyle change. With Matthew, my electricity was restored in three or four days. An extended period would be challenging.”
McVicker said two deputies would be at each school and all would be working. Kinlaw said the county had prepared with personnel, logistics and equipment.
“Every event is unique and different,” Martin said, “and this one appears to be very threatening and serious.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached at 910-862-4163 or email@example.com. Alan Wooten can be reached at 910-247-9132 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @alanwooten19.