by BJ Oelschlegel
As a resident of Ocracoke, I have often felt like “The Lone Ranger,” living in a small category of communities that have their livelihoods, homes and property totally at the mercy of the weather. When you are in the middle of it, you think that you are the only one. I’ve had to pull my blinders back to include the effects of Hurricane Sandy (2012) on the entire east coast, the droughts in the Midwest and the increase in the tornadoes in the South. For us lately, the fight is harder.
Hurricanes have always been accepted and integrated into the cost of living on the island and/or the cost of doing business. There was a point in our history when cleanup after a storm was the most pressing task and getting the word out to the public, that we were “up and running again” was the gravest business concern. More recently, within the past 10 years, we would have to include overwash or a new inlet being cut. We’ve lost direct access via N.C. Route 12 for a month or so at a time. Recovery was taking longer, but there always appeared to be an endpoint.
Now, winds of 35 mph are the kiss of death for the life line we call Route 12. We’re back to needing sharper and more centralized lines of communication because the road conditions are changing so rapidly. “Opened, closed, passable but through salt water, four-wheel drive only, closed after dark.” These are the words we hear when inquiring about passage to a doctor’s appointment or any other purposes off the island. One might be able to get off but should always have a backup plan for being stranded on the return.
It’s crazy to have to check the tide charts to determine if there is enough water for the ferry to move through the channel. The same high tide that would get you from one island to the next, might be too much water for the “S” Curves in Rodanthe. Ultimately this winter, we were without a Hatteras ferry option. The channel had filled in and the boats would run aground.
This frustration has everything to do with Mother Nature and absolutely nothing to do with the NC DOT. The crews, on The Outer Banks and the Ferry Division have worked tirelessly to keep up with her. I heard that one “blow” could wash away 350 dump trucks full of sand in a night. The Swan Quarter Ferry put on extra runs to be able to guarantee the residents, vendors and guests access to the island. The Army Corps of Engineers flew over the inlet between Hatteras and Ocracoke and found a new channel to use while the old one is dredged. It takes longer but that is minor in the bigger scheme of things. Thankfully, this has all occurred during the down time of the winter.
BUT, if we thought we could weather yet another storm, our fears and disappointments are acerbated by a few “person-made” problems. That dang recession has gotten its dirty fingers into everything. The discretionary income, of our guests, has had a bite taken out of it. They desperately want to come but maybe have less to spend on the extras like gifts, beach clothes, services or dinners out. I am going to venture that the recession also has had its effect on the dollars available to maintain the dredging of the channel. A dredge in the Pamlico Sound used to be such a common occurrence that we all took it for granted.
Take the recession and add uninterrupted access to the island as an additional worry. Heaven forbid, too many people start listening to the negative press and make the choice not to visit the island, as a result. Hand ringing abounds. The faucet of day tripper traffic must stay open for the business community to stay alive all along Route 12.
Ah, but there is more. Our new North Carolina legislators have decided that our ferry traffic must foot more of the bill for the service of being transported to the island. That might sound rational until you think of that ferry as the road to the door of your house. It sounds to me that the state is shooting themselves in the foot when you think about the amount of revenue generated for the state coffers, from The Outer Banks.
This is ferry toll question is a much bigger conversation and not the point of my article. Another shop owner and I were discussing this very set of topics when we both simultaneously came out with the same phrase: “How much more can we take?” Outer Bankers have always been a resilient people; they have to be. But if life on the island were a prize fight, you might have fear that you would be able to stay on your feet for the next round.
When these fears begin to circle, I feel that I can count on the power of the voice of Dare County. The governor and his Department of Transportation head flew into Manteo for a NC DOT hearing within the last two weeks. These guys were immediately put into a 4 x 4 and driven down to the “S” curve in Rodanthe. They spoke with Dare County officials and residents for two hours.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed. In an effort to maintain the faith, I also try and remember the passion for the island exhibited by our guests. People fall in love with Ocracoke and I’m banking on this being a resource which will not be affected by tolls, long lines or longer ferry rides. They will come–hopefully in numbers enough to weather one more storm.