By Connie Leinbach
The Hyde County board of Commissioners Wednesday night voted to open Ocracoke Island to visitors at 5 a.m. Dec. 2.
The meeting was a continuation of Monday’s monthly board meeting where the board tabled a vote in order to determine the status of the repair of N.C. 12 at the north end of Ocracoke. The road was further compromised by the weekend nor’easter which punched two more dune breaches in addition to the two created when Hurricane Dorian lashed the island Sept. 6, inundating the village from which recovery is continuing.
Wednesday night’s vote was not unanimous as Commissioner James Topping voted against the action, arguing that the island was not ready to take visitors.
Ocracoke’s County Commissioner Tom Pahl noted that the Dec. 2 date is a compromise between those who want the island opened now and those who do not, which he said was about even from all of the calls and text messages he’s gotten since Monday.
“Quite honestly, it cuts right down the middle,” he said about island sentiments. “There’s no way that this decision can be made and make everybody happy.”
Hyde County Manager Kris Cahoon Noble explained that one of the milestones (as stated in the Nov. 4 meeting) needed in order to open the island on Friday was for the repairs to N.C. 12 at the north end to be completed.
Friday was the expected completion date, but the weekend nor’easter washed that away by opening up two new dune breaches.
“(The nor’easter) has also helped us to realize that the milestone is reliable transportation,” Noble said. “Highway 12 and all the Hatteras and Ocracoke ferry routes are very fragile, and they’re going to remain fragile all winter.”
Not having N.C. 12 access has put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries, she said.
“Every ferry moving out of Swan Quarter this week has been at capacity, using every boat, using every crew, using every viable housing option for ferry personnel,” she said.
Then there’s the constant daily coordination to get all the supply and trash removal trucks onto the ferries without leaving anyone behind.
“Without that reliable 12 route that ferry is our transportation back and forth,” she said.
The extra time between now and Dec. 2 will allow Hyde County ask the Ferry Division what kind of tweaks can be done to the schedule to make it as responsive as possible to the new scenario, Pahl said.
“And Ferry Division has agreed to have those conversations,” he said.
Commissioner Shannon Swindell advocated for opening the island immediately, as did Benjamin Simmons III.
The other milestone to opening the island was debris removal, both along the side of the road and the growing mountain of debris on the Lifeguard Beach parking lot.
“At last count we estimated that debris pile as it stood when we last counted a month ago, would take 240-plus hauls to get that off of the island,” Noble said.
Some of the approximately 30 islanders who attended were puzzled afterwards that they didn’t get a chance to speak.
But Pahl said that they were able to speak at Monday night’s meeting. He also said earlier that there had been no lack of input with himself and the other commissioners.
“I think the idea of trying to have some kind of a vote, in some respects, it has already taken place,” he said. “Everybody’s felt very free to express themselves on this issue and I appreciate that.”
Kari Styron, the rental manager at Ocracoke Island Realty, said in an interview that every island family that’s in a rental house will be allowed to stay when the island reopens.
“Homeowners and guests have been very understanding and kind about this situation,” she said.