In NC, concern over Irma shifts west – but we’ll still feel plenty of its effects

A resident watches as waves crash onto a seawall in Key West, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. Hurricane Irma has reached the Florida Keys, where many residents refused to be evacuated.
A resident watches as waves crash onto a seawall in Key West, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. Hurricane Irma has reached the Florida Keys, where many residents refused to be evacuated. TNS

With each new forecast from the National Hurricane Center, it appears more likely that the worst of the remnants of Hurricane Irma will pass well west of the Triangle.

Forecasters expect the center of the storm to cross the Florida Panhandle near the Georgia-Alabama line on Monday afternoon and weaken as it moves north over Alabama and Tennessee on Tuesday into Wednesday.

But the storm is so large that local forecasters expect the Triangle will get some heavy rain and gusty winds overnight Monday through most of Tuesday. Brief, isolated, weak tornadoes are also possible on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

The National Weather Service in Wilmington issued a coastal flood watch between Pender County, N.C., to Georgetown County, S.C., starting Monday morning through Monday afternoon.

As of 5 p.m., the center of Hurricane Irma was near Naples, with sustained winds of up to 120 mph, making it a Category 3 hurricane. Irma was moving north at about 12 mph, and the center of the storm is expected to move up the west coast of Florida over the next 24 hours, with life-threatening wind and storm surge and torrential rain.

State officials in North Carolina say they remain vigilant, especially in the western part of the state, where forecasters say 3 to 8 inches of rain are expected, with as much as 12 inches possible in some spots. In the mountains, that could produce dangerous flash flooding; the N.C. National Guard is staging about 315 soldiers and airmen in Charlotte, Greensboro and Asheville on Sunday in case they’re needed in the coming days with debris removal, shelter operations and delivering and distributing supplies, according to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office.

With the change in forecast in recent days, state emergency management officials are shifting staff from the eastern part of the state to the west and are working with hydrologists to identify possible trouble spots for flash flooding and landslides in the mountains.

“We’re continuing to take preparing for this storm seriously, and we’re tracking forecasts closely,” Cooper said in a statement late Saturday. “I’m asking families and businesses across the state to do the same: Make sure you’re ready for whatever Irma brings, and stay tuned to your local weather and news.”

Even with the westerly track, state officials warn of dangerous surf and rip currents along the coast during the next several days.

The state and the American Red Cross opened four shelters Saturday, including one at Johnston County Industries on Bright Leaf Boulevard in Smithfield, in case they’re needed to house people who fled Florida and other states in advance of the storm. A fifth shelter opened in Greensboro on Sunday.

“We have seen significant numbers of evacuees stopping at our interstate visitor centers and rest areas seeking lodging, and there are few hotel rooms remaining available,” said Mike Sprayberry, director of N.C. Emergency Management. “These shelters will provide a temporary safe place for people and their pets to rest as they wait for Hurricane Irma to pass.”

Overnight Saturday, three of the shelters were empty, and nine people stayed in the one at a high school near Hendersonville, said Red Cross spokeswoman Brittany Jennings.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling