NC spared by Irma, readies to help southern neighbors

As the remnants of Hurricane Irma rolled through North Carolina on Tuesday most of the storm's impact was felt in western part of the state.

First Responders from a Fire Department in Lower Key West Florida, carry a patient from the Lower Keys Medical Center in Florida to a North Carolina Air National Guard C-130 Hercules for evacuation prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irma, while at the Key West Naval Air Station, Key West Florida, Sept. 6, 2017. Hurricane Irma is a category five storm that is expected to cause catastrophic damage to the regions it makes landfall.

RALEIGH — Officials say that at the peak of Irma-related power outages approximately 77,000 N.C. homes and businesses were dark, and by noon on Tuesday 63,000 were still without power, mostly in the west and parts of Charlotte.

The Blue Ridge Parkway closed briefly due to high winds, recorded at 50 mph. Crews had to clear a rockslide on U.S. 221 in McDowell County, but overall officials say that statewide damage from Irma was minimal.

“I’ve talked to county sheriffs and local officials out there. They got a strong blow from the wind with a lot of trees down and some roads blocked,” said Gov. Roy Cooper in a press conference Tuesday.

“We have deployed the North Carolina Forestry Service and North Carolina National Guard chainsaw crews to help out,“ he said.

When it became apparent over the weekend that N.C. would not face the same wrath from Irma as Florida, the N.C. National Guard switched gears, preparing to aid Florida in recovery. Currently guard members are on standby the to deploy as needed to Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“We will be continuing to work closely with our National Guard partners in case they get requests to send mission packages down south to help out partners in Florida,” said Mike Sprayberry, director of N.C. Emergency Management.

Ahead of the storm, five shelters were opened across the state and operated by the Red Cross. An estimated 80 evacuees stayed there and approximately 400 meals were served over the past few days.

Also before Irma hit, a seven-member flight crew from the 156th Air Medical Evacuation Squadron (AMES), N.C. Air National Guard evacuated 13 patients from Lower Keys Medical Center in Florida, transporting them to Gadsden, Ala., for safety. On Monday N.C. Air National Guard crews flew supplies and personnel from the Midwest to Jacksonville, Fla.

Irma’s trek up the East Coast came even as Texas continues to marshal crews to handle Hurricane Harvey debris. While FEMA is designed to handle two national emergencies at a time, the back-to-back storms promise to stress recovery efforts and relief money. The combined bill is expected to near or top the $2-billion tab for 2005’s Katrina, the largest to date.

About $136 million in federal funds were released to Texas to help pay for initial efforts around Houston. The city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, had issued a call for heavy equipment operators to help, but a spokesman said the city has 64 crews at work or soon to arrive, “all the help we need.”

The Gulf Coast bill “is going to be worse,” estimated said Hugh Kaufman, a retired EPA solid waste and emergency response analyst. While Irma’s shift west and weakening winds on Monday helped reduce its impact and likely bill, “There are a lot of question marks to know what the exact cost will be,” he said, as the storm brings rain and wind to Georgia.

For N.C., officials say the hard-hit communities in the eastern part of the state don’t want Matthew funding to dry up in light of the newer storm damage. Matthew, which hit N.C. on Oct. 6, 2016, killed 31 people in the state and caused $4.8 billion in damages to more than 100,000 homes and businesses. Today, many of the hardest hit, particularly poor, areas have not recovered, even though state and federal funding has been coming in through set funding cycles. Now, with Irma and Harvey on the radar, eastern N.C. worries.

“Clearly the federal government needs to step up to help the people of Texas and Florida and Georgia,” said Cooper on Monday. “But we want to make sure the Matthew victims are not forgotten in this. We’ve been working with the bipartisan N.C. delegation in Washington. … Right now, FEMA is stretched thin and pouring resources into these other states. We hope money continues to flow to the places that need it, including North Carolina.”

The $15 billion aid package that passed the U.S. Senate this week was embroiled in political controversy because it was a deal Republican President Donald Trump agreed to with Senate Democrats. It contained money for Harvey recovery, but also more than $7 billion that is broadly earmarked for FEMA and the Small Business Administration to help with all hurricane recovery.

Even as Irma and Harvey recovery continue, the National Weather Service has its eye on Hurricane Jose. On Tuesday, the NWS said Jose reduced in intensity and could further weaken into a tropical storm by Wednesday. The hurricane is about 655 miles north-northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph.