Outer Banks beach towns need their va­ca­tion­ers back

Con­struc­tion ac­ci­dent shuts down tourism.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By Sarah Ka­plan Wash­ing­ton Post

It’s high sum­mer on Hat­teras Is­land, an ex­panse of sandy beaches and cutesy towns on the Outer Banks. The skies are a bril­liant blue, the ocean im­mac­u­lately clear. A north­east­erly breeze cuts the hu­mid­ity and gen­tly ruf­fles the sea grass on the dunes.

Th­ese are the days that can make an is­lan­der’s year. Lo­cal busi­ness own­ers com­pare the first week of Au­gust to Christ­mas — a sea­son of good cheer, fam­ily to­geth­er­ness and healthy bottom lines. It’s the time for tourists punch drunk on sun­shine and salt­wa­ter taffy, for full ho­tel reg­is­ters and lines at restau­rants and im­pulse pur­chases at ev­ery seashell trin­ket shop in town.

But the ho­tel rooms are va­cant, the restau­rants closed. The only soul on the is­land’s south­ern­most beach is an el­derly fish­er­man who looks like he has no need for a conch pa­per­weight.

“Christ­mas came ... and we got a big old lump of coal,” said Ed­die Skakle, who runs a beach equip­ment rental com­pany here.

It has been nearly a week since a con­struc­tion crew work­ing to up­grade the Bon­ner Bridge, which con­nects Hat­teras with the rest of the Outer Banks to the north, in­ad­ver­tently dropped a steel casing on three un­der­wa­ter elec­tric ca­bles run­ning to the is­land. The ac­ci­dent sev­ered most of the power to Hat­teras and cut off tourism com­pletely. To avoid over­tax­ing backup gen­er­a­tors, some 60,000 visi­tors were evac­u­ated. Work­ers are la­bor­ing fu­ri­ously to re­store the bro­ken elec­tric con­nec­tion.

Sher­iff’s deputies have been keep­ing the nor­mal swarm of tens of thou­sands of tourists at bay, sit­ting at the north­ern end of the bridge to stop every­one but this bar­rier is­land’s res­i­dents from en­ter­ing. The check­point has cut Hat­teras — and Avon and Bux­ton and Ocra­coke and Ro­dan­the — off from the main­land, chok­ing th­ese towns of their sum­mer lifeblood just as the sum­mer heads into its fi­nal stretch.

Hat­teras Is­land is in a state of sus­pended an­i­ma­tion.

Shop own­ers re­treat into back of­fices but leave their “open” signs up, in the off chance some­one might stop in. Restau­ra­teurs re­view food order forms, but don’t hit “send.” The sign out­side the Lit­tle Grove United Methodist Church bears the mes­sage “Wel­come va­ca­tion­ers!” right below the times for Sun­day ser­vices. Con­dos are cleaned; ho­tel room beds are made. The wa­ter is per­fect for swim­ming, but no one’s at the beach — those who live here and de­pend on this pris­tine shore­line are all at home, check­ing Face­book for up­dates on when the is­land will re­open.

This va­ca­tion­land is ready. It just needs its va­ca­tion­ers back. Badly.

The Outer Banks’ tourism in­dus­try is worth more than $1 bil­lion and it em­ploys the ma­jor­ity of Hat­teras Is­land’s roughly 5,000 per­ma­nent res­i­dents.

“Peo­ple work all sum­mer to get through the win­ter,” says Danny Couch, a Re­al­tor and tour guide who rep­re­sents the is­land on the Dare County board of com­mis­sion­ers. Couch es­ti­mates that Hat­teras busi­nesses have lost as much as $18 mil­lion dur­ing this week of clo­sures.

Just one cus­tomer has rented any­thing from Ed­die Skakle’s beach equip­ment store since Saturday. But he and his wife Gail keep their front door open.

The cou­ple spent tens of thou­sands of dollars over the win­ter to re­place golf carts and bi­cy­cles that were de­stroyed when Hur­ri­cane Matthew flooded their shop with 12 inches of storm surge in Oc­to­ber. They were de­pend­ing on a good sea­son to re­coup the ex­pense.

Plus, they miss the tourists: the rowdy crowds that pack the shop in the morn­ings to bor­row pad­dle boards and road bikes, and the way they come back at the end of the day, worn out and with weird new tan lines.

“You know in the spring, as we lead up to the sea­son, Gail looks at the win­dows as we ride down the road to the beach and goes, ‘Oh, are there lights on?’ “Ed­die Skakle says. “She can’t wait for the peo­ple to come.”

Driv­ing that same road on Wed­nes­day, they pass clus­ters of rental homes with sun­bleached sid­ing and hokey names like “Sea Whis­per.” Not a sin­gle one looks in­hab­ited.

Lo­cals say it’s as though Jan­uary has struck their is­land in July. Sev­eral peo­ple de­scribe it as “eerie.”

“I feel like I’m in a young adult dystopian novel,” says GeeGee Rosell, who runs a book­store in Bux­ton, quickly jump­ing a “Hunger Games” com­par­i­son. “Where’s Jen­nifer Lawrence?”

Price’s seafood grill, Ketch 55 in Avon, has been shut­tered all week. Af­ter throw­ing out $4,500 in beef, shrimp, scal­lops and other food that spoiled when the is­land ini­tially lost power, Price couldn’t jus­tify stay­ing open.

Power out­ages af­ter hur­ri­canes have hurt the busi­ness be­fore, but those times, there’s al­ways work to do, streets to clean, a com­mu­nity to rally. It’s dif­fi­cult to blame Mother Na­ture for be­ing Mother Na­ture. This is a “dry hur­ri­cane” — there’s noth­ing to do.

A friend sug­gests that Price go to the beach, but she is too anx­ious to take a break. She fills the time in other ways: Clean­ing the kitchen. Bit­ing her nails. She went to the gro­cery store just for a gal­lon of milk, know­ing there wouldn’t be any lines. The trip still took 2 1/2 hours, be­cause she knew every­one she saw, and they all wanted to talk. Ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion be­gan the same way: “Heard any­thing?”

All week, no one has been cer­tain how long the is­land’s iso­la­tion will last. The time­lines for re­pairs keeps shift­ing: Two weeks, six to 10 days. By Wed­nes­day, the Cape Hat­teras Elec­tric Co­op­er­a­tive, which has been work­ing on sev­eral so­lu­tions to the out­age, announced that it would move for­ward with a plan to by­pass the bro­ken power ca­bles by build­ing an above­ground trans­mis­sion line. The com­pany ex­pects it is pos­si­ble that tourists could be al­lowed back in time for the start of the next week­long rental pe­riod that be­gins Saturday. Or they might not. “We al­ready have peo­ple calling us ask­ing, ‘Can I come?’ and I can’t tell them yes or no — so that’s an­other week­end gone,” says Jan Daw­son, who owns the Cape Hat­teras Mo­tel. “It’s hor­ri­ble.”


Cus­tomers en­ter a dark­ened con­ve­nience store in Ro­dan­the on Hat­teras Is­land, N.C. Af­ter a con­struc­tion com­pany caused a power out­age, tourists were evac­u­ated and only res­i­dents have been al­lowed on the is­lands.


A beach on Hat­teras Is­land, N.C., sits empty as the wait con­tin­ues for a so­lu­tion to sev­ered elec­tri­cal trans­mis­sion lines. The Cape Hat­teras Elec­tric Co­op­er­a­tive an­tic­i­pates that tourists could be al­lowed back in time for the start of the next week­long rental pe­riod, which be­gins Saturday.

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