Outer Banks beach towns need their vacationers back
Construction accident shuts down tourism.
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.