Commentary

Whither (not wither) Ocracoke?

A full rainbow over Ocracoke on Sept. 13, a week after Hurricane Dorian let go its wrath, captured by Trisha Davis

The seven-foot storm surge that accompanied Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 6 impacted all facets of Ocracoke. Just after its strike, for variable times, the island had no electric power, no open grocery store, bank, operating health center; the school shut down and tap water needed to be boiled before consumption.

To pile on, an alcohol ban and curfew were imposed. Approaching almost two months out, the island remains closed to visitors and the late fall/early winter popular events have been canceled.

Thanks to the efforts and generosity of many from both on and off island, Ocracoke has started the long, slow process of getting back on its feet.

We can’t thank enough those many individuals, organizations and government agencies that have made much-needed donations of food, supplies, money and skills to help the islanders. It gives one hope that catastrophic events can bring out the best in people.

This is a new Ocracoke.

Many folks cannot return to their homes and businesses cannot reopen until major repairs are made. Others have lost all. Already some homes have been bulldozed and more will follow. Additionally, many houses will need to be raised.

It’s not only structure damage. Many have lost sentimental and treasured personal items such as photos, letters and books.

One life-long islander in his 70s remarked that you can combine all of the damage from the previous storms in his lifetime and that would not equal that which Dorian wrought.

The old, well-worn playbook on how to get the island back on its feet and welcome visitors after a major storm had to be tossed onto the heap with the other stuff piled along the roads to be carried off the island.

In its place, both short and long-term disaster recovery plans are under way. Input for these plans should include those most affected.

Each day we have learned to expect the unexpected. This editorial is different from one we wrote a month ago and, no doubt, would be different in two months.

Here are some examples.

In the first few weeks, some business owners who said they would not reopen due to the severe building damage are now doing major repairs and are striving to reopen by spring. Others with homes who initially believed the damage was not that bad have, sadly, learned otherwise.

Ferry service, the island’s lifeline, has changed its schedules several times to accommodate the needs of both people and large vehicles and equipment.

Historically, when N.C. 12 on Ocracoke was impassable, the Hatteras/Ocracoke ferry runs would cease until the road reopened.

For the first time, and with a few caveats, these river class ferries are running from Hatteras all the way to Silver Lake harbor and back, permitting islanders to make their medical appointments and to head up the Outer Banks for other reasons. The drawback is that these boats were not built for traversing the Pamlico Sound and it takes twice as long, a little more than two hours.

N.C. 12 on Ocracoke was expected to be closed until around Thanksgiving, but on Oct.3, NCDOT announced there would be a limited reopening for four-wheel drive vehicles only.

Some businesses that are able to be open are seeking to get the island opened now, but others are saying it’s too soon to let visitors back. A number of businesses are promoting themselves and doing business online.

Many were understandably disappointed when FEMA denied the Individual Assistance request from Gov. Roy Cooper.

But the Public Assistance request approved on Oct. 4 is substantial. It reimburses the costly expenses of cleaning up the massive hurricane-related debris, repairing the road and more.

Public Assistance under FEMA is a cost-sharing program that reimburses applicants at least 75 percent of eligible costs with the remaining 25 percent is covered by the state.

Additionally, soon after the federal Individual Assistance was denied, the governor signed a state disaster declaration for counties that suffered damages from Hurricane Dorian, making additional assistance available to residents through SBA loans and, possibly, state grants.

Justin Gibbs, Hyde County Emergency Services Director, said at the OCBA meeting Oct. 30 that state help should arrive faster than federal help.

Many islanders lost their jobs two months earlier than when the island businesses typically close for the season causing major financial hardship. Some have found temporary work with the cleanup crews.

To get the island back up, housing is critical not only for permanent residents but also for the many seasonal workers that will start arriving next spring. Without adequate lodging, businesses that hire seasonal help could face insurmountable hardships.

The sounds of the large cleanup trucks still permeate the village air as tons of materials are picked up to be hauled off the island. Most of the many disaster recovery volunteers have left after doing a super job of helping the many in need.

Some, such as the United Methodists Committee On Relief (UMCOR) will remain, not only to repair the UMC church and parsonage, but also to help rebuild the community.

We could go on.

The number of challenges facing the island is daunting.

“Should I Stay or Should I Go,” the title of the 1982 hit song by the Clash (a fitting band name for our circumstances), is on the minds of many, and some have already gone.

As the above plays out, one thing is certain. Ocracoke islanders are resourceful and look out for each other.

Many have been helping their neighbors in need and will continue to do so.

 

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