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As the year closes, we look at some of the top newsworthy events that impacted Ocracoke and take a peek at 2018.
The big story of the year began early on July 27. Ocracoke got sucker punched in the middle of its high season when PCL Construction crews rebuilding the Bonner Bridge drove a piling through the underground cable at the bridge’s southern end causing a blackout to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. Officials ordered visitors to leave both islands. Tideland EMC, Ocracoke’s electric company, brought in temporary generators until full power was restored Aug 3.
PCL set up an online system for compensation. Some have received reimbursements for lost wages and business; others are still waiting. Several lawsuits against PCL are in court while construction of the bridge continues–to be completed in late 2018.
Hurricanes: Island brushed, not battered
Three major hurricanes, Irma, Jose and Maria, all threatened to strike the Outer Banks. Unlike the Caribbean and Texas, Ocracoke was spared the brunt of these storms, although Maria caused a second mandatory visitor evacuation further hurting business.
A new county commissioner
Islander Tom Pahl defeated incumbent John Fletcher in the November 2016 election. Pahl got right to work. He set up a new Ocracoke Waterways Commission to deal with ferry access and other important water-related issues. He helped improve and stabilize several important committees and held open meetings to discuss contentious issues, such as passenger ferry tram service funding and the 2 percent increase of the Occupancy Tax. While not all agree with Pahl’s views and votes, he has reached out to the community and has listened to islanders, sometimes modifying his positions. Not many politicians at any level are like that these days.
Third best-beach award
In 2007, Ocracoke Island gained international fame by being named No. 1 on “Dr. Beach’s Annual America’s Best Beaches.” This was the first time a beach outside Florida or Hawaii had been named to the top position on this celebrated top-10 list. Ocracoke returned to the list as the third best beach in 2017.
Compiled yearly by “Dr. Beach,” who is Florida International University Professor Stephen Leatherman, he wrote: “It is my favorite getaway beach, but don’t expect to play golf or stay at the Ritz; the main pursuits are swimming and beachcombing.”
Occupancy tax boost with new Tourism Development Authority
After initial vocal opposition, the Hyde County commissioners voted to raise the lodging occupancy tax rate by 2 percent. The new rate 5 percent is still below neighboring Dare County’s 6 percent rate. Monies generated from this additional tax will be managed by a new Tourism Development Authority, which is working with the Occupancy Tax Board as to how both funds will be allocated.
Ocracoke Child Care closes
After several years of challenges and setbacks, Ocracoke Child Care closed in May. The final blow came when not enough qualified classroom teachers could be found. Child care workers are required to have background checks, a physical, inoculations, CPR and other training. The center had struggled with finances for several years and it closed temporarily in August 2015 after a continuing problem with scabies. On the good side, its mortgage was recently paid off. Reopening remains uncertain.
Ocracoke fire department contains two village structure fires
Ocracoke, fortunately, has not had a lot of structure fires, but there were two this year–one in April in a home behind the Variety Store and, most recently, a fire at the Pirates Chest in November. While severely damaging to the building, the Pirates Chest is in the midst of rebuilding, but the home behind the Variety Store was destroyed. No one was injured in either fire.
Rare as they may be, structure fires can be highly dangerous. The island is no stranger to high winds like those in the west that fuel flames and cause the destruction of countless homes, creating the potential of a worst-case scenario. The Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department responded in a timely and professional manner containing both fires within a half-hour. Without the OVFD’s quick response, these fires could have been far worse. Our firefighters are all volunteers, dedicated to serving the community and deserve to be thanked for their service. Oh yes, they can always use a few more.
Passing of elder islanders
Ocracoke lost several esteemed and beloved residents this year, including Preston “Jule” Garrish, Thomas Midgett, Vivian “Vickie” H. Cobb, James Barrie Gaskill, Russell Newell, Earl O’Neal Jr., Clyde Sherrill Austin, William “Billy” Potter Garrish, Jr., James Kenneth Gordon, Sr. and Merle Davis. They will be greatly missed. For obituaries, click here
Looking forward to 2018
Passenger ferry service
After years of discussion, a passenger-only ferry is under construction and service is expected to begin next summer. With Ocracoke visitors leaving their vehicles on Hatteras Island, the N.C. Ferry Division hopes that the long lines and wait times for car ferry service will improve substantially. Passengers will pay a fee while vehicle ferries will remain free. Making reservations in advance will be one of the big advantages as well as being able to bring bicycles. The plans include a tram service to shuttle visitor around the village. Whether this will be implemented next summer remains to be seen as this service is still under discussion.
Blackbeard’s 300th anniversary
Brace yourself. Nov. 22, 2018, will mark the tricentennial of Blackbeard’s demise off Springer’s Point at the hands of British Lt. Robert Maynard and crew on Nov. 22, 1718. Curious visitors may be asking a lot of questions. Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree Oct. 25 to 28 (with an additional day added) and plans by the Ocracoke Preservation Society’s to honor Lt. Maynard will draw much attention. Expect lots of media and first-time visitors.