By Thomas Goldsmith and Rose Hoban
Special to the Ocracoke Observer
Hurricane Dorian remained a dangerous storm Friday morning although North Carolina’s southeastern counties have apparently escaped widespread destruction on the scale seen after last year’s Hurricane Florence, state officials said. But when Dorian passes, it may be some of the state’s barrier islands that were hardest hit.
As rain and wind from Dorian were still thrashing the northern barrier islands and northeastern counties, the assessment of damages was just getting underway in places such as Wilmington which remained accessible, in contrast to after Florence, when the city was cut off for days.
Roads were not as badly affected as compared to Florence, said Department of Transportation Sec. James Trogden. He said that as of Friday morning, there were about 75 road closures in the southeast portion of the state.
“Compared to Florence, I think it was already at 750 by the same time period, and it grew by the next day to 1,600. So we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he told reporters during a briefing at the state emergency operations center in Raleigh.
A major uncertainty remained Friday morning about the situation of Ocracoke Island, part of the state’s Outer Banks, Gov. Roy Cooper said during the same press conference.
“There is significant concern about hundreds of people trapped on Ocracoke Island,” Cooper said. “There are rescue teams ready as soon as they can get in.”
Noting that estimates were unofficial, Cooper said as many as 800 people could be remaining on the historic island, a favorite destination for tourists.
“Ocracoke Island obviously is surrounded by water,” Cooper said. “There is significant storm surge and flash flooding. And we understand that the waters are rising quickly there.”
Flash flood inundates Ocracoke, Hatteras
“I actually had a pretty good night’s sleep,” said Peter Vankevich, co-publisher of the Ocracoke Observer. “I have a photo of my yard at 7:30, you could still see grass. Probably a little after 8, I looked out and the water had just poured in.”
Tide gauges placed at the ferry terminal in Ocracoke village show that at 6:30 a.m. the water height was at about 0.5 feet. But by 8:30 a.m., the same gauge showed water at 7.4 feet high. At that time, the tide was high, and the storm had passed by to the east, meaning winds had shifted around to blowing out of the northwest. Water in the Pamlico Sound ended up pushed away from the mainland and up against the barrier islands over topping both Ocracoke and large swaths of Hatteras.
Cheryl Ballance, who runs the Ocracoke Health Center, evacuated to friends in Washington, N.C. and had been keeping tabs through staff members who were still on the island. She said that her satellite clinic on the mainland in Hyde County was dry, but she was worried about the fate of her main clinic in Ocracoke village.
“I don’t know if it got into the health center,” she said Friday morning. “There’s a little ridge up there with the giant oaks. But from what I hear, the ocean and the sound just kind of met.”
On Labor Day weekend, Ballance threw a fundraiser that had raised $95,000 to benefit the clinic.
“We may need it for some storm, disaster funding,” she said. “The building is insured and stuff, but we’ll see what happens.”
Air relief as needed
State officials said an “air bridge” will be established if necessary, using helicopters to take supplies to the island and bring back people who need to leave. Mike Sprayberry, director of the NC Division of Emergency Management, detailed conditions in areas that were being hit by Dorian on Friday.
“Northeastern North Carolina continues to feel the impacts of Hurricane Dorian with heavy rainfall, strong winds and strong storm surge,” Sprayberry said during Friday morning’s briefing. “Particularly in the sounds and rivers, they’re feeling it, as well as on the barrier islands.”
According to Vankevich, Coast Guard helicopters arrived about midday Friday to evacuate some of the more vulnerable residents.
Ocracoke Observer editor and co-publisher Connie Leinbach said that a number of people were rescued by boat Friday morning when their houses were inundated. They’ve been given the option of being evacuated to shelters in Manteo, via the Coast Guard. Hyde County Sheriff Guire Cahoon arrived on the island by helicopter Friday afternoon, along with three more deputies and Kris Noble, Hyde County manager, and with them came ready-to-eat meals for people on the island who need them.
Leinbach said the lights went out late Thursday evening, but had come back on in the middle of the night. But as the hurricane-force winds arrived in the hours before sunrise, the lights went out again.
“I saw the light around 7, 7:30, and I saw the rain and I saw the floodwaters come and they came in really fast,” she said.
Ballance said her husband is an Ocracoke native who recalls growing up and everyone referring to the “Storm of ‘44.”
“They’ll be calling this the storm of ’19,” she said. “I believe the water is higher than people can remember.”