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'This is our Super Bowl': Greensboro firefighters and other aid providers leave for coast as Dorian approaches

GREENSBORO — Where Hurricane Dorian ends up this week is still anybody’s guess, but some of the city’s first responders are heading to the North Carolina coast — just in case.

On Tuesday afternoon, 42 members of the Greensboro Fire Department deployed to Kinston, a city in Lenoir County that is within reach of a number of coastal areas that may be affected by Dorian.

“This is our Super Bowl,” Deputy Fire Chief Dwayne Church said. “This is what we train for.”

The firefighters were joined by Guilford County paramedics. Personnel from the Guilford County Animal Services Department also headed to care for any pets displaced by the storm.

Also, the National Guard has been mobilized.

Duke Energy has crews on standby.

And relief organizations are gearing up to help. God’s Pit Crew, a nonprofit Christian organization based in Danville, Va., loaded portable generators onto a tractor-trailer at Canter Power Systems in Greensboro on Tuesday before heading east.

It’s all in preparation for a storm whose impact is still uncertain. Forecasters have warned since the weekend that Dorian’s movement is very difficult to predict, making it hard to know if it will hit the U.S. like it did the Bahamas.

Practically parking over a portion of the Bahamas for a day and a half, Dorian pounded the northern islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama with winds up to 185 mph and torrential rain before moving into open water Tuesday on a course for Florida. Its winds were down to a still-dangerous 110 mph as it drifted north at 6 mph.

On Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered a mandatory evacuation of all the barrier islands along North Carolina’s coast, as of 8 a.m. today.

Over 2 million people along the coast in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida have been told to evacuate. While a direct hit on Florida was unlikely, Dorian was expected to pass dangerously close to Georgia and South Carolina — and perhaps strike North Carolina — on Thursday or Friday.

Even if the Dorian doesn’t make landfall, its presence will be felt in much of the state.

Don Campbell, Guilford County’s emergency management director, said the area should experience high winds to go along with a dose of rain.

“The biggest thing here is making sure all our agencies are aware of the higher winds later this week,” Campbell said. “We’re getting our plans in place should we see power outages or trees down.”

Local residents are advised to have three days of food and water on hand and to keep generators at least 15 feet away from their houses.

While area grocery and hardware stores usually get cleaned out of water, bread, batteries and other staples, that hadn’t happed as of Tuesday afternoon.

For area residents, a lot will depend on how the next 24 hours plays out.

State officials, though, don’t have the luxury of waiting.

On Tuesday afternoon, 42 firefighters were at Station 63 on Burlington Road loading up food, water, boats and other supplies. And while the firefighters were excited about their deployment, Church said it’s hard for the families they leave behind.

“Their kids and wives, I won’t say they’re happy, but they do understand,” Church said.

Weather-tested residents brace for Dorian on Southeast coast

FOLLY BEACH, S.C. — Weather-tested residents along the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas were using their experience with past storms to guide them Tuesday as they readied their homes for Hurricane Dorian and decided whether to heed evacuation orders.

“Here we are,” said Ed Bandarovich as he strolled along sunlit Folly Beach outside of Charleston. “It’s a beautiful beach day, but who knows what tomorrow’s going to bring.”

Bandarovich, 70, recently moved to Johns Island from Woodstock, N.Y., where he experienced the devastating inland effects of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Bandarovich said he had been ready for Sandy’s power and its heavy rains but was caught off-guard by the 75 mph wind gusts that swept through the area in the storm’s wake. The winds scattered debris throughout his neighborhood, turned fallen boards and branches into projectiles, and knocked out his power for days, he said.

“It’s all in the preparation, in being aware of what’s going to happen, or could happen,” Bandarovich said, noting that he had boarded up his Johns Island house just in case.

Dorian weakened to a Category 2 hurricane Tuesday after slamming into the Bahamas as a terrifying Category 5 storm with 185 mph winds.

Practically parking over the Bahamas for about 36 hours, the storm pounded away at the islands Tuesday, devastating thousands of houses. At least five deaths were reported, with the full extent of the damage far from clear.

The weakened storm pushed northwest at 6 mph with hurricane-force winds extending up to 60 miles from its center. While weaker, the storm was continuing to grow in size, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The threat of a direct hit on Florida had all but evaporated, but Dorian was expected to pass dangerously close to Georgia and South Carolina as it moved north — and perhaps strike North Carolina — on Thursday or Friday.

Wind gusts of 50-plus mph will whip eastern North Carolina today, Wednesday, and Thursday, along with power outages and “a tornado or two,” experts said.

Multiple counties along the coast of North Carolina have declared a state of emergency, with evacuations either suggested or mandated, as in the case of Dare County. School systems in those areas have canceled classes for the week, and UNC Wilmington ordered an evacuation of its campus near the coast.

On Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered a mandatory evacuation of North Carolina’s barrier islands, effective at 8 a.m. today.

“I urge you to closely follow the forecast and listen to your local officials,” Cooper said in a news release. “If they order an evacuation please follow their instructions.”

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster ordered mandatory evacuations along the state’s 190-mile coast and turned all lanes of Interstate 26 into a one-way evacuation route heading west.

Georgia officials did the same with Interstate 16 after Gov. Brian Kemp ordered coastal evacuations.

Lawyer Henry Grimball, 71, said he and his wife would likely ride out Dorian in their narrow four-story home in Charleston’s downtown historic district.

“These houses have been here since 1770,” Grimball said, gesturing to the white and pastel houses dotting his neighborhood. “They’ve been through a lot.”

He said he would reconsider, however, if the storm became a Category 3 or stronger hurricane: He remembers the devastation from Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Hugo slammed into South Carolina’s coast with winds gusting as high as 108 mph in Charleston, killing several dozen people, causing nearly $6 billion in damage and toppling a massive magnolia in Grimball’s backyard.

“It gets to be really dangerous,” he said.

Forecasters and public officials were concerned that regardless of the storm’s strength, it could dump a dangerous amount of water on the Carolinas.

In September 2018, slow-moving Hurricane Florence was only a Category 1 storm as it gradually came ashore near the border of the two states. But it dumped nearly 3 feet of rain in some areas, unleashing widespread flooding that left dozens dead and causing $600 million in damage. Thousands of coastal residents were evacuated before the storm.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew dumped up to 16 inches of rain in North Carolina.

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Cotswold Terrace, Old Battleground Road intersection closed for roundabout construction

GREENSBORO — Contractors temporarily closed a controversial intersection in northwest Greensboro on Tuesday to build a roundabout aimed at lessening the traffic woes of nearby residents.

City officials said the intersection at Old Battleground Road and Cotswold Terrace likely would be closed through Oct. 15 while a Greensboro company, Atlantic Contracting, completes the $735,000 project.

“Motorists should find alternate routes to avoid this area,” the city said in a news release.

When it reopens, the intersection will be a roundabout.

The project includes road improvements, about 1,000 feet of new sidewalk and stormwater drainage construction.

Residents of the Battle Forest neighborhood have complained for years about the amount of “cut-through” traffic that enters and leaves the neighborhood via the Old Battleground-Cotswold Terrace intersection.

The city Department of Transportation selected the roundabout earlier this year as a way to smooth out the traffic flow and, hopefully, lessen its effects on the neighborhood.

The decision followed public meetings and a survey in which respondents favored the roundabout.

The area’s traffic problems escalated about two years ago when state highway officials began building the next-to-last leg of the Greensboro Urban Loop, which extends from Battleground Avenue to Lawndale Drive along the neighborhood’s perimeter.

As part of the larger interstate project, highway contractors removed a section of another nearby street — Cotswold Avenue — that previously had lessened the pressure on neighborhood streets by providing a more direct link between Lawndale and six-lane Battleground Avenue.

To make way for the Urban Loop, Old Battleground Road also was cut in two, with the southern segment extending from Old Battleground’s three-street intersection with Battleground Avenue and Westridge Road to the future Cotswold Terrace roundabout.

NC judges reject legislative district maps, saying state legislators took extreme advantage to help elect GOP candidates

RALEIGH — A North Carolina judicial panel rejected state legislative district maps Tuesday, saying legislators took extreme advantage in drawing voting districts to help elect a maximum number of Republican legislators. The judges gave legislators two weeks to try again.

The three-judge panel of state trial judges unanimously ruled that courts can step in to decide when partisan advantage goes so far it diminishes democracy. Their ruling comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June in a separate case involving North Carolina’s congressional district map that it’s not the job of federal courts to decide if boundaries are politically unfair — though state courts could consider whether gerrymandering stands up under state laws and constitutions.

The state judges found that the way the majority-Republican General Assembly redrew legislative district maps in 2017 violated the rights of Democratic voters under the state constitution’s equal protection and freedom of assembly clauses.

“Partisan intent predominated over all other redistricting criteria resulting in extreme partisan gerrymandered legislative maps,” the judges wrote. “The effect of these carefully crafted partisan maps is that, in all but the most unusual election scenarios, the Republican Party will control a majority of both chambers of the General Assembly. In other words, the court finds that in many election environments, it is the carefully crafted maps, and not the will of the voters, that dictate the election outcomes in a significant number of legislative districts and, ultimately, the majority control of the General Assembly.”

State Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett a chief defendant in the case, declined to comment. N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham said senators would follow the court’s instructions and adopt “a nonpartisan map,” but his prepared statement didn’t explicitly rule out a possible appeal.

The court gave legislators until Sept. 18 to again redraw maps to be used in next year’s elections. The judges said they would appoint an outside referee to advise them in next steps, including drawing maps if legislators miss the deadline.

The judges also raised the possibility they would postpone the state’s March primary election for legislative seats or other offices if they feel it’s necessary.

Redistricting is the process of redrawing voting districts for state legislatures and Congress after every decennial census. Gerrymandering describes when the redistricting is slanted to give one political party a majority in as many districts as possible. North Carolina’s legislative districts were redrawn in 2017 after a federal court determined they were an illegal gerrymander that sought to weaken the voting strength of minority voters.

But the group Common Cause and more than 30 registered Democratic voters sued, saying the 2017 districts were still so gerrymandered they unconstitutionally insulated Republicans from changes in voting behavior.

Attorneys for Republican state legislators argued that there is no clear way for judges to know what kinds of map-making are unacceptable, since “redistricting is political because of what it is, not because of who does it.” Any complaints about how districts were drawn would vanish if Democrats could lead some GOP voters to change their minds and voted with them, the Republicans’ attorneys said.

If state courts ultimately rule in favor of Democrats, they could order new district maps for next year’s legislative elections. The winners of those elections will draw up maps after the 2020 census to last for the following decade, again influencing political power in the country’s ninth-largest state.

The lawsuit contended that most of the 170 N.C. House and N.C. Senate districts drawn in 2017 violated the plaintiffs’ free speech and association protections under the state constitution. It also said the boundaries violated a constitutional provision stating “all elections shall be free,” because the maps are rigged to predetermine electoral outcomes and virtually ensure Republican control of the legislature.

That part of the state constitution was violated, the three-judge panel agreed Tuesday.

The ruling appears to meet the request of plaintiffs by ordering that nearly half of state House districts and 21 of 50 state Senate maps be redrawn quickly, said Bryan Warner, spokesman for Common Cause NC.

The judges also imposed rules on a new round of redistricting. The new mapmaking must start from scratch, all map-drawing must occur at public hearings with computer screens visible to everyone and any consultants hired by lawmakers must be approved by the court.

Evidence introduced during the two-week trial in July included computer records created by Tom Hofeller, a now-dead GOP redistricting guru who helped draw the 2017 legislative maps. Those files, collected by Hofeller’s estranged daughter after his death and shared with Common Cause, showed that Republican advantage was the overall objective of the latest redistricting.

Some of Hofeller’s files were also used in separate litigation in New York challenging a plan by President Donald Trump’s administration to include a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. census.

The North Carolina lawsuit marks at least the eighth legal action challenging state election district maps since the current round of redistricting began in 2011. The lawsuits resulted in redrawing congressional lines in 2016 and legislative districts in 2017 — both to deal with racial bias.