The National Park Service’s own policy manual says: “the protection of human life is the highest priority,” and in recent weeks Ocracoke has been asking them to live up to that value and to continue full funding of lifeguards at the public beach. Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Barclay Trimble confirmed on March 27 that he is exploring contracting with an outside service to have lifeguards on duty “up to seven days a week.”
He said while estimates indicate “a ballpark figure of $10,000” for a possible funding partnership with Ocracoke for two of the seven days, he won’t know until bids are received. “It’s all subject to negotiation,” he said. “It’s not a done deal.”
For Ocracoke to partner, Occupancy Tax Board (OTB) funds would have to be approved by the Hyde County commissioners. The OTB is scheduled to ask for this at the April 7 meeting in Swan Quarter starting at 6 p.m., Wayne Clark, chairman of the OTB, confirmed. Ocracoke residents may attend the meetings via satellite hookup in the Commons Room of the Ocracoke School.
Hyde County manager Bill Rich said representatives from the offices of Rep. Walter Jones and Senators Richard Burr and Kay Hagan will attend this commissioners’ meeting.
The lifeguard debate began after Trimble announced in November that owing to reduced budgets, lifeguards would be eliminated on the three public beaches in the Seashore.
In his January letter to the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association (OCBA), Trimble said the cost of having lifeguards at Ocracoke, Bodie and Hatteras Islands is over $200,000 and the Seashore has lost $1 million in annual operating funds since 2010. Income from Off-Road Vehicle permits to drive on the beach is for “beach access” and cannot be used for lifeguards because of “legal requirements on how those funds can be spent,” he said.
Trimble further clarified on March 27 that of the two million visitors who come to the Seashore, “less than 10 percent use the lifeguard beaches.” As for the NPS mandates, “The water is not in our boundaries,” he said.
While this issue is up in the air, business owners are vocal that they do not want the beach to be unguarded.
“Business owners and residents are definitely concerned,” said Kari Styron, rental manager at Ocracoke Island Realty.
“Beach access is beach safety, which should mean lifeguards,” noted Rudy Austin, OCBA president.
Hyde County commissioner John Fletcher of Ocracoke says Ocracoke should not cave in to the Park Service and that the idea of Ocracoke donating $10,000 is “ridiculous.”
“We don’t have to capitulate,” he said in an interview. “They won’t take the risk. If something happens (on the days when there are no lifeguards) the fallout from publicity would be devastating to the Park Service.”
Everyone he runs into at the Ocracoke Post Office tells him not to give in, he said.
“They have the money,” Fletcher said. “If we ever start down that road, it’s hard to get off it,” he said about giving money to the NPS. “I’ve always been willing to take a risk with government because they always come through in the end.”
The OCBA began a petition to restore lifeguards. To sign it, Google: Ocracoke petition to save lifeguards.