By Kelley Shinn
Under Carolina blue skies on Aug. 25, hundreds gathered for the grand opening of the Ocracoke School, nearly four years to the day that Hurricane Dorian devastated the community, leaving the old school so damaged that it had to be razed to the ground.
“It’s as if the final puzzle piece of our healing is being fit into place today,” said school guidance counselor, Mary McKnight.
Hurricane Dorian, which barreled in early on the morning of Sept. 6, 2019, ravaged the island with historical storm surge levels of 7 to 9 feet throughout the village, leaving silt and sorrow in over 400 homes and other structures.
The aftermath was a grueling slog for villagers, who like most survivors of natural disasters, found themselves not only with uninhabitable homes, but also struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the heat and chaos of deconstruction and slow reconstruction, the school—the heart of our community—has carried on in various makeshift classrooms since that time.
The teachers, many of whose homes were also rendered uninhabitable, were tasked with the behemoth duty of being steadfast beacons for their students in a time of great havoc.
During her speech, Principal Leslie Cole praised her crew of 30-plus staff members for “armoring up” and making “whatever space they had a place of learning and fun, even in a stairwell converted to a classroom.”
Veteran teacher Gwen Austin wept as she welcomed visitors into her new classroom, recalling the day she watched her old classroom be bulldozed to the ground.
“You never forget that feeling of utter sorrow,” she said. “It’s what makes this new day feel all the more special.”
The crowd was filled with dignitaries, including state senators Norman Sanderson and Bobby Hanig.
Inside the new commons area, Gov. Roy Cooper, who visited the island immediately after the storm and also a few weeks later, broadcast a personal video of congratulations to islanders.
The mayor of Nags Head, Ben Cahoon, who was the architect for the new school, said, “Some things we build are about design and legacy, but this is about service to the community.”
As she opened the ceremony, new Hyde County Schools Superintendent Dr. Melanie Shaver said, “This building is dedicated to your hopes, dreams, work and resiliency.”
The Wayne County Board of Education and its Superintendent Marc Whichnard, who were already on island for a business retreat, attended and said they were “proud to stand in solidarity with Hyde County.”
Dare County Schools Superintendent Stephen Basnight, who was the Hyde County superintendent when Dorian hit, said that he and his wife arrived late the evening before, and though it was eleven at night, he couldn’t help peeking in the windows and walking the grounds, even though his wife told him he would probably get arrested.
“That’s what’s going to have to happen then,” Basnight said, as if the man who championed the rebuilding of the school and worked tirelessly to secure funds would be anything but a hero on these grounds.
But what had the crowd buzzing the most was the presence of Ernest Cutler, Ocracoke’s beloved principal from 1976 to 1992. He was joyously flanked by many of his former staff, one of whom was island native Kay Riddick.
“It’s all just marvelous,” she said. “I never thought I’d see a school like this here.”
Principal Cole noted in her speech how “people who love the island from all over the world came out in full force,” donating furniture and funds. “It was unbelievable, and we continue to be amazed by and grateful for the stunning generosity of so many.”
Finally, senior Christian Stevens and eighth-grader Jenny Ricardez Garcia cut the ceremonial ribbon and with it turned the tide from four years of struggle to a brighter day.
Afterward, a beaming Senator Hanig joined the crowds in touring the new facility.
“This is a great day for Ocracoke and a great day for the state of North Carolina,” he said.
In a world teeming with disasters, it was a great day for hope, and, as Teacher of the Year and native islander Katie O’Neal said, “to commemorate the resilience and spirit that define us.”
Kelley Shinn is an island writer whose new memoir, “The Wounds That Bind Us,” is available at Books to Be Red.