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Hanna makes beeline for NC

Watching and waiting…that’s about all local emergency management personnel can do at the current time in regards to Tropical Storm Hanna.

That finicky weather system, which did gain hurricane status for a brief time on Monday, has been downgraded to a tropical storm. Its winds were in the 60 mph range late Wednesday afternoon.

Despite Hanna’s reluctance to get its act together and remain on one track, local officials do expect the storm to gain strength and make a beeline for the mid-Atlantic coast.

As of 5 p.m. on Wednesday, the storm was located in the southeastern Bahamas and had made its expected turn to the north-northwest. The National Weather Service (NWS) expects Hanna to make landfall, as a hurricane, Friday night or early Saturday morning somewhere along the southeastern North Carolina coast. From there it is expected to track north-northeast. That projected path would bring Hanna directly over the Roanoke-Chowan area later Saturday into Sunday.

“They (NWS) have a very low level of confidence right now on that track,” Hertford County Emergency Management Director Charles Jones said. “However, they are very confident that when and if the storm does make landfall, its forward motion will sharply increase to 30-to-40 mph, meaning it will move over us at a pretty good clip.”

Jones said all he could do right now was “watch and wait.”

“We’re keeping in touch with the state emergency management office and updating our local folks,” Jones said. “Hopefully we’ll know more about Hanna’s actual track and if she’s able to gain strength by Thursday.”

He warned local residents to be prepared for wind, rain and a possible risk of tornadoes.

If needed, Hertford County storm shelters will be open at Hertford County High School and Middle School.

Bertie County Emergency Management Director Rickey Freeman is hoping Hanna will take more of an easterly track and miss land all together.

“This storm has already shown that it can change direction, it has done that a few times already,” Freeman said. “That doesn’t mean we should let our guard down, but if it will track more to the east, that will keep the heavier rain and the stronger winds out over the ocean.”

Freeman said if the NWS forecast track doesn’t change, he expects Hanna to arrive in northeastern North Carolina sometimes on Saturday.

“I’m already in contact with those here in our county responsible for helping to keep the citizens safe at times like these,” Freeman said. “I’ve been in touch with DSS (Department of Social Services) about the possibility of opening up storm shelters, but we don’t know when or if those shelters will open right now. We’re just waiting to see exactly what Hanna is going to do.”

If needed, Bertie County storm shelters are located at Southwestern School, Colerain Elementary School and West Bertie Elementary School.

Northampton County Emergency Management Coordinator Tim Byers briefed the Northampton County Board of Commissioners regarding Tropical Storm Hanna at their Wednesday morning meeting. Byers, who had just attended a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) meeting, told the commissioners if the storm continued on its projected path, the county would be affected.

Byers said when the storm hits, citizens could expect strong winds and less than five inches of rain.

According to the LEPC meeting minutes, the county’s agencies are preparing for Hanna.

During the meeting officials discussed buildings that would be able to be used as shelters, including Conway Middle School and Northampton County High School-West. Byers stated in the LEPC meeting that the Northampton County Cultural Arts and Wellness Center would be opened to coastal evacuees.

Leta Coleman with the Northampton Department of Social Services said teams are lined up if shelters have to be opened.

The department will be taking emergency food stamp applications if the power goes out and food spoils.

These applications will be taken at different sites in the community.

Byers also noted to the committee that Northampton County now has a Red Cross Chapter as well as a Red Cross trailer, which is equipped with cots, blankets and toys and there is room to store the 80 cots and 120 blankets the county has.

Meanwhile, all local officials have their eyes trained even further down the road as two more tropical systems are currently developing behind Hanna.

As of 5 p.m. on Wednesday, both Hurricane Ike (winds of 80 mph) and Tropical Storm Josephine (60 mph winds) are churning in the Atlantic Ocean. While both are far enough out in the ocean not to cause any immediate threat to the USA mainland at the current time, their possible tracks could pose problems next week.

“We’re watching those two storms as well,” Freeman concluded, “but right now Hanna is our main focus. We’ll take it one storm at the time.”

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley has activated SERT (State Emergency Response Team). Those teams include 25 Swift Water Rescue Teams, 11 Urban Search and Rescue Teams, 36 Wilderness Search and Rescue Teams, 34 State Medical Assistance Teams, seven Public Health Regional Surveillance Teams and seven Regional Response Teams for hazardous materials.

The state emergency warehouse already has food on hand to feed 50,000 people for a day-and-a-half and water for 50,000 people for one day.

The state has pre-arranged contracts in place for additional resources, including food, water, ice, generators and other emergency needs.

Easley urged every citizen to have an emergency plan and emergency kit ready, stressing that those who have plans and supplies will fare better during any emergency than those who do not.

“Emergencies disrupt the systems we depend on, electricity, clean water, grocery stores, gas stations, transportation, commerce and education,” said Easley.

“If people can be prepared for those disruptions, then emergency responders can focus on helping those who are in life-threatening situations.”

(Staff Writer Amanda VanDerBroek contributed to this story.)