By Connie Leinbach
Hurricane Arthur, which went over Ocracoke Island in the early morning hours of Friday, July 4, canceled holiday festivities except the flag-raising ceremony the next day.
The Hyde County commissioners had declared a state of emergency and voluntary evacuation Wednesday afternoon while Dare County declared a mandatory evacuation to begin the next day.
The Ocracoke Deputy Control Group, an advisory group made up of emergency officials and some business persons, met for the first time Thursday morning and scrambled to prepare for Arthur, which, according to the National Weather Service, was classified as a tropical storm on Tuesday, July 1, but had intensified to a Category 2 hurricane and was headed for the island.
Among the concerns of the Control Group were loss of electric power, over wash at the north end and the streets flooding as with Hurricane Alex in 2004.
In anticipation, Justin Gibbs, Hyde County Emergency Services Director, via conference call, agreed to order pallets of bottled water and meals-ready-to-eat (MREs), and alert a cadre of medical professionals—just in case.
Hurricane-force winds hit around midnight. Soon after that, the power went out.
By morning, islanders were amazed to see the streets relatively clear of water although the highway north of the Pony Pens was closed due sand and water over wash.
According to Heidi Smith, Tideland EMC spokesperson, 41 electric poles were broken on Ocracoke—in the village and along Highway 12, and five were broken on Hatteras.
Tideland was on the job immediately, including bringing in a special worker to fire up their generator on the island. But since it can handle only a limited load, the Control Group asked everyone on the island to turn off everything but fans and refrigerators. Power rolled around the island grids until power was fully restored Saturday evening.
Many locals were concerned that a mandatory evacuation had not been ordered and suggested that any time there’s a named storm, evacuation should be mandatory.
“When you’re dealing with the public, safety is the primary concern,” noted Jim Kelley, an island property owner. “Especially on this island, a mandatory evacuation is paramount.”
Bob Oakes, owner of Ocracoke Island Realty (OIR), encouraged the Hyde County commissioners at their July 7 meeting, to make all evacuations mandatory.
“If you’re going to evacuate people, make it mandatory,” Oaks said. “Ocracoke in a hurricane is not for visitors. Storms are unpredictable.” Visitors don’t know the effects of tropical storms, he said, and mandatory evacuation allows travelers to get their money back from insurance companies.
Voluntary evacuation is too ambiguous, said Jack Whitehead, Ocracoke Island Realty general manager. “People don’t know what to do,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback that it was very confusing.”
John Fletcher, the Hyde County commissioner who represents Ocracoke, explained in an interview that “things were in a rush on Wednesday morning” when the commissioners met with Gibbs and Bill Rich, Hyde County manager. “No one had time to mess with the (Ocracoke) Control Group. They’re just advisory and (Gibbs) met with them.”
Although the notice of this meeting and the minutes of it are on the Hyde County website, this meeting was not publicized on Ocracoke. Fletcher said notices of it were posted in three places on the mainland, but since Hyde County does not have a daily or weekly newspaper, the rules of public notification differ. Sarah Johnson, Hyde County information officer, said the notice had been put on Hyde County’s website, but not posted in the Ocracoke post office or on http://www.ocracokecurrent.com.
While Dare County had ordered the mandatory evacuation at 5 a.m. Thursday the same for Ocracoke would have been too late, Fletcher said.
“If it’s a short time to evacuate, you have to consider where they’re getting off,” Fletcher said. “The ferries were already full carrying lots of people off.”
More visitors also left Thursday after rental companies talked further with them and about 70 percent of visitors left by Thursday night, Rich said in a recap meeting July 25 of the Control Group.
Gibbs explained that after Wednesday’s decision, the forecast changed throwing a monkey wrench into things.
“It’s tough being out there by ourselves,” he said. “We have to make a decision before anyone else.”
Both Tommy Hutcherson, owner of the Variety Store, and Darlene Styron, owner of the Sweet Tooth, stressed that the group needs to meet earlier—at least three or four days out. Since Ocracoke is on the leading edge of storms headed toward the Outer Banks, “we need to set the precedent as to what Dare does,” Styron said.
Hutcherson noted that information was the hardest thing to get and that visitors have look in or call different places for information about the island. He suggested the county get an 800 number as a central source for all information—ferries, road closures, storm situations.
Visitors would do best to call the local ferry offices for current information: 252-928-1165, Ocracoke; 252-986-2353, Hatteras.
Re-entry after a mandatory evacuation is always problematic, Fletcher noted. He said he’s looking into allowing people who own businesses to be able to sign a waiver to come back to the island to tend to their businesses after evacuations.
Because of the state-of-emergency called, the rental insurance company Ocracoke Island Realty uses is honoring the policies and refunding the money of those who left, said Jack Whitehead, general manager.
Jennifer Esham, owner of Blue Heron Realty, said the company they use is making decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Fortunately Ocracoke did not get the flooding Arthur was supposed to bring, and infrastructure personnel were on the clean-up job early July 4.
“When the island is at risk for severe weather including ice storms or hurricanes, we try to evaluate if ferry service will be interrupted and for how long,” said Tideland CEO Paul Spruill in a prepared statement.
Rich is working on better preparation for the next storm as well as timely removal of the tree debris and getting the Ocracoke Convenience Site (the dump) back to pre-storm conditions.
Bob Chestnut, owner of Ride the Wind Surf Shop, noted that this is the second time the island has been hit with major storms early in the season with the first one on Easter weekend.
“It’s happened twice when nobody had any cash,” he said.
Whitehead expressed sentiments of many islanders.
“We’re lucky it worked out and the island got back into business so quickly,” he said. “After the storm, everybody did a terrific job.”