Powerful Hurricane Irma appears likely to veer away from most of North Carolina, but destruction in the mountains and traffic from people fleeing northward will pose significant challenges in the days to come.
Gov. Roy Cooper in a news conference on Friday said the predicted hurricane track is a relief but warned the state should still brace for dangerous conditions.
“Things are looking better for much of North Carolina with Hurricane Irma,” Cooper said. “But we are not yet in the clear and we can’t let our guard down.”
The governor said Irma is still a large and powerful hurricane that, even with North Carolina dodging a direct hit, could produce flash floods, tornadoes, power outages and landslides in the mountains, as well as rip currents along the coast starting this weekend.
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“Even though the current forecast no longer shows us directly in the cross-hairs, that could shift and we still need to be prepared,” Cooper said. “Even a glancing blow can cause damage from such a powerful storm.”
As a result, Cooper’s declaration of a state of emergency will remain in effect until the threat has passed. The state Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh will be staffed all weekend and into next week.
State emergency management officials are now shifting resources to the west, setting up staging areas in Asheville and Greensboro. Mass shelters and meals are being prepared with help from the Red Cross and county officials, state Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said.
Cooper said he didn’t anticipate mass evacuations from mountain communities. Sprayberry said the state is leaving that call to local agencies.
North Carolina is also bracing for the mass evacuation of motorists fleeing northward ahead of the storm. Transportation officials say they have already seen a significant increase in traffic, and they are coordinating plans with South Carolina and Georgia.
All state Department of Transportation road work will be suspended as of 7 p.m. Friday, to help keep roads clear.
Vehicles left unattended along I-26, I-77, I-85 and I-95 will be towed so they don’t impede traffic. Traffic will be monitored from the Raleigh headquarters, which can post overhead warning signs and dispatch incident assistance teams.
A DOT official said that traffic could be diverted onto Highway 301 if I-95 couldn’t handle the exodus.
Cooper said North Carolina will offer its help to neighboring states affected by Irma.