I-77 center helps out Floridians fleeing Irma

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Virginia Welcome Center in Carroll County had water and extra restroom facilities to assist those evacuating from hurricane

LAMBSBURG — The Virginia Welcome Center at Lambsburg saw high traffic this past weekend as many people fleeing Hurricane Irma passed over the Virginia border.

For the weekend, several portable toilets and pallets of bottled water were brought in to help handle the extra people. The water was free for anyone who came through.

A welcome center employee said that the facility on Interstate 77 in Carroll County saw evacuees as early as Sept. 4, but the traffic picked up as the week went on.

Exact numbers are not available, because the center only counts the people who come inside the main building as visitors, and it is only open from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. As the facility offers external restrooms that are open 24/7, it’s possible for people to pull in at any hour, use them, and leave without ever being officially noted as a guest.

Nonetheless, the center stated that traffic was in excess of the norm for a weekend in September.

Gary Jeffrey, Virginia Welcome Centers Operations Manger of the West, said that the reinforcements came from the Virginia Department of Transportation, who also took similar measures in the northbound welcome centers across the state.

Jeffrey said that the I-95 welcome center in particular saw heavy traffic, as did one in Bristol.

“The evacuees were astonished and overwhelmed with the hospitality and kindness,” said a center employee. “They were just very grateful.”

Though the porta-johns and water pallets were still outside as of Monday morning, the center said that the traffic has slowed substantially.

The national forest service also made some accommodations to handle the influx of evacuees.

The Southern Region of the USDA Forest Service said Monday it was waiving fees and making all campgrounds available for individuals displaced by the hurricanes.

The forest service advised calling ahead or checking websites to determine what is open and available, or checking in with campgrounds. In our area, this includes the George Washington and Jefferson national forests. Call (540) 265-5100 for more information. For national forests in North Carolina, call (828) 257-4200.

The Blue Ridge Parkway issued a road advisory from Milepost 165 (at Virginia Route 8) all the way south to Milepost 469 — all areas south of the North Carolina/Virginia state line — from Monday through Wednesday morning.

“Park visitors are encouraged to use extreme caution and be aware of the potential for falling rocks and downed trees,” a parkway news release advised. “Be prepared to stop or turn around at closed gates or road debris during this storm.”

In Virginia, all visitor facilities were closed until Wednesday morning, including Rocky Knob Campground, Mabry Mill, Groundhog Mountain, Rock Castle Gorge and the Blue Ridge Music Center.

In addition, the parkway’s five North Carolina campgrounds, from Doughton Park at Milepost 239 to Mount Pisgah at Milepost 408.8, were closed.