Despite the worldwide pandemic, Ocracoke has shown its resiliency, though not without some controversy as it struggled to handle adversities never encountered.
Ocracoke businesses and residents continued to rebuild from Hurricane Dorian flood damage and the biggest visual reminder of this pivot to resilience is the many houses getting raised up.
In the first quarter, just as Ocracoke was preparing for a new tourist season, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut down the world. The island streets were quiet as event after event was canceled. And the virus continues to rage across the land.
The shutdown prompted visitors and non-resident property owners (NRPOs) to flock to the island. Although the Hyde commissioners enacted a state of emergency prohibiting visitors but allowing NRPOs, island residents worried that outside folks would bring the virus to the island and strain the island’s limited resources.
In late March, the Hyde County commissioners further restricted non-resident property owners who were not actively working on critical repairs of their homes or businesses.
Tom Pahl, Ocracoke’s county commissioner at that time, said that NRPOs were incredibly generous allowing many island families to use their homes after Hurricane Dorian hit Sept. 6, 2019.
“The intent is that both resident and non-resident property owners should be allowed to continue with hurricane repair to their homes and businesses through the COVID-19 crisis, as Ocracoke is responding to two disasters at the same time,” he wrote on a Facebook post.
This further restriction prompted an NRPOs protest.
In letters to the commissioners, they said that they pay equal taxes, support island businesses and nonprofits, and should be allowed to come to their houses.
“After the storm we offered our home to a local family for six weeks before we arrived in mid-October,” wrote Vinnie Ciancio, who lives here about seven months of the year. “After arrival and seeing the devastation, we donated over $12,000 to local families, businesses, food kitchens and other good causes. We asked for nothing in return. This is our community for the better part of the year, and we help lift it up.”
Dr. Brenda Peacock, a New Bern physician, asked the commissioners to consider priority passes for NRPOs–the “same as a resident of the island.” She also asked for NRPO representation on the Ocracoke Control Group.
Randal Mathews, who on Dec. 7 became Ocracoke’s new county commissioner, said in a recent interview that he has gotten calls from NRPOs.
“We have every right to keep people from coming that aren’t permanent residents and for obvious reasons until that state of emergency is lifted,” he said.
NRPOs have somewhere else to go after a storm, he said. Islanders do not. That makes islanders’ situations “completely different than any NRPO,” he said. “So, I don’t see where I could even go to the state and say please give these people priority (ferry passes).”
As for NRPO representation on Ocracoke’s Deputy Control Group, he said Nathan Spencer, who owns Coastal Gas, a propane gas service out of Powell’s Point, has a house here and is on this group.
The Control Group is composed of local business owners (food, health, lodging, utilities), government officials (the NPS, sheriff deputies, county and state officials, etc.).
They meet ahead of hurricanes or other emergencies to discuss evacuation plans. The group is advisory only and makes recommendations to the Hyde County Commissioners who ultimately declare emergencies.
But Mathews says NRPOs should be able to come to their homes during a pandemic.
“When we first went into (lockdown) in the spring there were a lot of unknowns,” he said. “People were scared, and I think it’s reasonable to think that NRPOs could come to Ocracoke and isolate (here).”
To date, the commissioners have not acted on Peacock’s requests.
Of note, vacation destinations nationwide have grappled with the same situation.
Visitor surge, real estate boom
As the pandemic wore on, Ocracoke saw a visitor surge which continued until Thanksgiving weekend, and business owners are, for the most part, happy.
Take Jason Wells, co-owner with Jimmy Bowen of Jason’s Restaurant. After Dorian flooding, their building was taken down to the joists. They reopened June 3 and went flat out.
“We had our busiest year ever in the history of Jason’s and also this is our 20th anniversary,” Wells said in an interview.
Then there was the real estate boom.
“From May to mid-August was the busiest I’ve ever seen it,” said Martha Garrish, a broker with Ocracoke Island Realty. “I took three contracts in one day.”
Many of the new buyers are people from the northeast wanting to escape COVID-19, she said, adding that her colleagues up the beach are concurring.
Many of the buyers have shifted from those in retirement mode to families.
“Now people are moving down here because of remote work and learning,” she said.
B.J. Oelschlegel of Ocracoke Lightship Realty characterized this year’s real estate activity as “stunning.”
Now, however, the buying frenzy has slowed, Garrish said.
“We’re not complaining,” she said.
Indeed, most of Ocracoke is not complaining about this year. We hope that next year will be better for all throughout the world and on our little island where we live on the edge – in so many ways.