LUMBERTON — Robeson “has the greatest challenge we have regarding Hurricane Matthew of any county in North Carolina,” Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday.
Flanked by locally elected officials, McCrory tried to reassure residents, saying, “We are doing everything we can to respond to their needs, this is a natural disaster that we have never seen in this area.”
McCrory spoke at the Robeson County Emergency Operations Center after being briefed by local and state officials on recovery efforts in the county. Prior to visiting the Operations Center, he met with volunteers and occupants at Purnell Swett High School, the most populated of the county’s five emergency shelters.
“The people being impacted most are the people who can least afford it, and these are the people I have been visiting throughout the day,” McCrory said. “In a short 72 hours they have lost it all. Lost it all.”
McCrory spoke highly of the efforts of local, state and federal officials responding to the natural disaster and of the spirit of the people of Robeson.
“These are the most resilient citizens I’ve ever met,” McCrory said. “I mean, I was expecting a different reception. The reception we got was one of hugging, and grace, and thankfulness.”
McCrory, a Republican in a tight race for re-election, stood in front of Sheriff Kenneth Sealey, beside Sen. Jane Smith and state Reps. Charles Graham and Garland Pierce.
“I want to thank the leaders of this county for their teamwork under dire circumstances,” McCrory said.
He went on to detail the challenges to be faced, including roads and Interstate 95, schools, temporary housing for those in shelters, drinking water and utility repairs.
He noted that the central office of the Public Schools of Robeson County has significant water damage and is uninhabitable because of an “environmental issue.” Classes have been cancelled for all week. Two county middle schools are still flooded, he said.
He also spoke of the difficultly of reopening Interstate 95, and said when that happens is uncertain.
Mike Sprayberry, director of North Carolina Emergency Management, was with McCrory and outlined top priorities of getting the water supply restored and housing.
Speaking of the problems with Lumberton’s water system, McCrory and Sprayberry echoed comments from Lumberton officials since Monday. The city’s water plant is under water and inaccessible to crews.
“I got to let you know a lot of the things, we haven’t been able to do an engineering evaluation because a lot of the stuff is still under water,” McCrory said.
“We are going to have a good technical look at it and see if the water can be pumped away or what can be done,” Sprayberry said.
Lumberton and Red Springs have most of their power restored,but about 14,000 of Duke Energy’s 24,000 Robeson customers are still without power. About 6,800 Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation customers are without power, down from 17,000 on Tuesday.
County water has been restored for about 95 percent of the 26,000 customers, but all 10,000 Lumberton users are without, and the wait might be a long one.
Lumberton officials are still assessing the damage.
“The best possible scenario would be to get this plant operational as soon as possible,” McCrory said.
On Monday, Lumberton firefighters did not have water to fight fires. When pressed on what he would say to the department, McCrory had a candid response.
“Right now, I don’t know what to say to them,” McCrory said. “I don’t have an answer for you; if I did, I would give you one. I’m not going to make up an answer. We don’t have water right now. We are just praying. I suppose if a fire does occur we will bring in the National Guard and other facilities to try and put out those fires.”