WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Robeson County Schools Planetarium damaged by Matthew's flooding

Posted October 25

Flood waters rose at the Robeson County Planetarium during Hurricane Matthew.

Robeson County Schools were hit hard by Hurricane Matthew. Three schools were extensively damaged by flood waters reaching three feet while others served as emergency shelters for residents. School officials still cannot offer a reopening date.

Getting students back in the classroom is the top priority for school officials of course, but one unique classroom shared by the school system, and the community, suffered extensive damage as well.

The Robeson Planetarium and Science Center opened its doors in Lumberton in January 1969 as a part of the Robeson County Public Schools. Since then hundreds of thousands visitors have gained a deeper understanding of the universe under its dome.

Ken Brandt has been the Planetarium Director and its only presenter since 2003. Ken is also is a NASA Master Teacher and a friend of mine. Visitors to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh might know him from talks he’s presented during Astronomy Days.  Educators from across the state may know him from workshops he’s led on teaching techniques using Mars exploration in the classroom.

Lumberton residents may know him as that unusual fellow who brought a telescope to lines outside a local movie theater on opening night of the Harry Potter movies. Views of Saturn and other objects were shared and certificates awarded to those who could put some basic celestial navigation to work and identify the North Star. This earned him a spot in the book "Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College" by Valerie Estelle Frankel.

Walking through the beaten and broken planetarium is tough for Ken, but the toughest thing he says is “not seeing the kids. Oohs and ahh as lights go down and stars come out are gone. Replaced with the “din of a fan sucking soaked air out of a soggy room.” He adds.

“You can taste the mold in the air.” Ken adds.

Mold grows on furniture at Robeson County Planetarium

The path to recovery for the building and its furniture is not that different for others in the schools system. What to do next for the fragile item at the center of the 65 seat domed theater required Ken to reach out for expert help.

Flood waters toppled the top-heavy Spitz model A3P star projector dating back to the 60’s as its base floated off the floor. The cage connecting the two spheres which project the stars and planets onto the planetarium ceiling was bent, severely damaging this precision instrument.

Toppled Star Projector

Fortunately the planetarium was insured, but for now Ken must play waiting game as the county’s attention focuses on higher priorities . It will be back though.

“We are fine and dry, not everyone can say that down here now. So I am grateful for the opportunity to work this problem.” Ken tells friends on Facebook.

When the time is right, he will have a line out his front door of friends from NASA, educators like himself and folks from the community ready to help him work this problem.

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