By Peter Vankevich
Despite urging from some Ocracoke islanders, the Hyde County commissioners delayed action Monday night to reopen Ocracoke and will take up the question again on Nov. 18.
Ocracoke was shut down on Sept. 4 when the commissioners declared a mandatory evacuation ahead of Hurricane Dorian, which struck the island Sept. 6 causing massive flooding that has damaged or destroyed a majority of homes and businesses.
Ocracoke’s Commissioner Tom Pahl explained at the meeting that in order to open the island to visitors two benchmarks were established and approved by the county commissioners and the Ocracoke Control Group: debris removal and opening NC 12 for all vehicles.
Pahl said the first phase for debris removal was completed Nov. 1, the second phase will resume around Nov. 16 after the debris-removal phase on the mainland.
But N.C. 12 at the north end of Ocracoke is still under repair and NCDOT personnel recently expressed optimism that the road would be opened on the target date of Nov. 22.
When to open the island to visitors has been a divisive issue within the community. At the beginning of the meeting, Pahl requested that the October minutes reflect that two petitions he mentioned then were circulating. The one for immediate opening had 28 to 30 signatures and the one opposing immediate opening had 168, and he wanted them in the record.
“The recovery is going well, but we have a long way to go,” he said “I’m just coming to grips with the length of time this whole process is going to take. And we still have a lot of medium-term housing issues to work out.”
During the public comment period, islanders Marissa Gross, owner of Down Creek Gallery, and Steve Wilson, owner of Dream Girl Fishing Charters, urged the commissioners to open the island.
At the second comment period, Leslie Lanier, owner of Books to Be Red, also urged the commissioners to reopen the island.
“It takes time to get ready to open,” she said. “I don’t care what people say on Facebook. If I have to sell books from a table in my yard, it’s time to make a decision.”
Commissioner Shannon Swindell said he had received a lot of calls and emails from Ocracoke from small business owners.
“They feel like they’ve had a stranglehold put on and I can certainly empathize with them,” he said. “The calls have been 100% to let’s get the island open as soon as we can. These are business owners that are ready to do business in one form or another, whether it’s a table in the yard, whether it’s someone else’s shop or cooking in someone else’s restaurant. They’re ready and willing to serve. And so, I’m just bringing their voice to this table tonight so that they can open as soon as we can.”
“I’m very well aware of the pressure to open and that there are a good number of people who feel we should open today,” Pahl said in response. “There are also a good number of people, and I’ve heard from them as well, who feel very strongly that even opening in two weeks or three weeks is too early. So, we’re hearing from people on both sides of this issue.”
He then recommended the special Nov. 18 meeting.
“At that time, I think it’s going to be much clearer as to whether or not Highway 12 will in fact be repaired and able to be opened on the Nov. 22, which is the date that the Department of Transportation is using,” he said.
Pahl expressed concern that when the island opens to visitors, there will be a displacement of people who are currently living in rental homes that are potentially or in fact may be under contract. And those people will have to be moved out so the contracts can be honored.
“I’d like to have a little bit more information on that,” he said, noting that he hopes the rental companies are working on that issue. “I don’t want to be in a position of saying that we won’t open up to visitors, because it’s going to displace people who are in those homes. That’s not fair to the homeowners who need that income. They need to pay their mortgages.
“We need the people on the island in order to generate revenue to our businesses so that we can have employment. And we need to get back to a private sector economy. And I understand that completely. The question isn’t ‘if’ but ‘when.'”
County manager Kris Noble in her manager’s report supported Pahl’s views but suggested a Dec. 1 opening.
Since Dorian struck, Ocracoke has been open only to residents, non-resident property owners and personnel approved by Hyde County emergency management.
Richard Taylor contributed to this story.