No news was bad news. You may have noticed in the wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Irene that it passed over the Outer Banks.
But save the occasional urgent postings on social networks, news of what happened after that has been scarce. Coverage of Irene turned mainly to its impacts to the north and damage to N.C. 12. For the people in the northern villages of Hatteras Island, the severing of the highway link was just the start as they faced the aftermath of what many longtime residents, essentially cut off from the rest of the state, called the worst storm in memory.
Getting on the island has been difficult. Until late last week, the only people allowed to use the Ocracoke-to-Hatteras ferry had a medical reason or were on official business as part of the recovery effort. The only other way onto the island is via an emergency ferry running between Stumpy Point, just south of Manteo, and Rodanthe. The ferry has been reserved for emergency supplies and delivering trucks and earth-moving equipment to work the south side of the breaches on N.C. 12. It's almost a two-hour ride, and at times, service has shut down due to low tides and rough weather.
Finally, on Sept. 10, ferry service opened up for the first time to nonresident homeowners eager to return to inspect their properties, and to the media. Access to the northern part of the island remains restricted, but the lower villages on Hatteras are open to visitors. I hopped a ride in the early morning hours of Sept. 11.
It had been two weeks since Hurricane Irene made landfall, yet there was no doubt as to why the north side of Hatteras Island was still a disaster area. The drive along N.C. 12 from the Kinnakeet area north shakes you; brush, lumber, plumbing, old trailers and other debris line the road. On closer inspection, the piles are mostly the insides of homes hauled out and piled up for pickup. In stretches where feeder roads branch off into neighborhoods, the piles grow to the point where it's hard to imagine there's a couch or refrigerator left intact. The mosquitoes are bad, real bad in places, and bug spray is at the top of everyone's wish list—this, even after an emergency spraying program knocked them back.
Early estimates by Dare County are that nearly 600 homes on the island were damaged, with 16 a total loss and about 51 uninhabitable. Residents say that the number of homes lost could reach as high as 100.
The shutdown on the island has thrown many of its roughly 5,000 residents out of work or without a way to get there. In a three-day effort last week to sign up residents for emergency food assistance, almost a third of the households on the island qualified for aid.
Early on Sunday morning, relief and repair work was still under way. Trucks of sand and bulldozers were at work just north of Rodanthe, trying to fight off another overwash at a breach that claimed several houses and left soundside properties surrounded by water.
Just down the road, in a strip mall in Waves, is the Really Really Free Market, which is usually held once a month. Traffic was brisk. Maggie Dawson said the market, mostly a way for local moms to swap children's clothes, has been going full tilt since the storm, thanks to the shopping center's owners, who offered the space to help residents get relief supplies.
Dawson, who works as a nurse off the island, and a handful of other volunteers have kept the free market open daily, collecting donations and putting out appeals for specific goods (like bug spray and cleaning supplies) on Facebook and anywhere else they can think of.
When Tony Green, a longtime resident who lost his trailer, his Jeep and most of his tools to the flood, stopped by, Dawson got him out of his busted-up flip-flops and into socks and shoes, then tried to help him figure out where he could stay. During the storm, Green said, the trailer floated in the floodwaters with him and his dog, Pez, inside.
"I felt one big gust and it tilted and I said 'There she goes,'" Green said, with Pez lying close by. He said he didn't know where he could stay that would allow him to keep Pez. "I don't know what I'd do without that dog," he said.
Green said he has been flooded out before, but not this badly. The trailer is ruined, but losing the Jeep was worse. "It's like losing my baby," he said. "God has tested me again. I don't know if I can take another one."
Dawson said there are stories like Green's all over the island. "People just don't get how bad it was," she said.
Among the roughly 2,500 people who remained on Hatteras Island during Hurricane Irene, you'd be hard-pressed to find any Jim Cantore or Al Roker fans. As soon as Irene began to threaten New York and other major East Coast cities, those places became the focus. Even as a very large, slow-moving hurricane bore down on them, Outer Bankers who turned to national networks were treated to extensive coverage of rain bands over New York.
The story line was that the Outer Banks were hit, but would be OK—just a Category 1 that "brushed" the coast. Surely, they can handle that. They get storms all the time. But Irene had taken a little jog left and walloped eastern North Carolina.
The storm made landfall near Cape Lookout at about 7:30 a.m. Aug. 27. Winds were clocked there at 85 mph. Like Hurricane Floyd in 1999, this state's most costly hurricane, Irene was a slow mover with a lot of rain. It tracked over low-lying land and the sounds of eastern North Carolina for about 10 hours, flooding towns and washing out roads along the inner coast. The Outer Banks were on Irene's east side, where the highest winds and heaviest rainfall were concentrated.
As Irene headed up Pamlico Sound, the front end of the hurricane drew its waters inland. On the back end they surged back into the barrier island with a vengeance, reaching places not hit since a major storm in 1944. Waters rose through the afternoon and evening as sound-side areas from the old village in Avon north into Salvo, Waves and Rodanthe were inundated by a 13-foot storm surge topped with heavy waves. Oceanside, the wave action tore into N.C. 12, breaching it in several spots and creating a new inlet several miles north of Rodanthe.
On the morning of Aug. 28, as Irene continued to cut a swatch of destruction up the Eastern Seaboard, Hatteras residents were without power and completely cut off from the mainland. Rough weather and an overwash on Ocracoke had halted the only ferry service to the island.
Depending on the track of a storm, villages on the island can have very different experiences. The last big storm, Hurricane Isabel, hit the southern villages hard in 2003. Ten years prior, Hurricane Emily slammed the northern towns. Emily's storm surge was the modern benchmark for the area. Irene changed that.
"We're still in shock," said Bonnie Reardon from behind the counter at Java Junction in Avon. "This was a historic storm."
Reardon, who owns a handful of coffee shops and bead stores along the banks, said she was lucky to get inland away from her place on the sound as the waters rose. "The waves on top of the surge were tearing away the hardiplank," she said. Her main shop, which was damaged by floodwaters, won't reopen for a while. It is hard for her and other shopkeepers to decide what to do with the rest of the season.
Nearly everyone who rode out Irene in the northern "tri-villages" area tells a version of the same story, of watching the waters of the Pamlico Sound rise for hours on end.
"This was probably the worst storm anybody can recall," said Jan Laskow, assistant chief with the Avon Volunteer Fire Department. People he's talked to who remember the legendary storm of 1944 said the waters topped that mark. "Irene flooded places that had never seen water before."
The firehouse has been a community gathering spot and commissary since the storm, with the Salvation Army feeding upward of 600 people a night. Local restaurants, closed indefinitely, have chipped in supplies. Parked nearby is an emergency laundry trailer run by the N.C. Baptist Men's Association.
Laskow said the faith-based organizations have been essential in helping feed people and dealing with the overwhelming need. Dinners at the firehouse have offered more than just meals to residents and recovery crews.
"We've become a place where people can get together and cry on each other's shoulders," Laskow said.
After Sunday services, Walton Fulcher was taking donations at the food bank he manages at United Methodist Church in Buxton. He said he expects to see a drop in demand as emergency food vouchers are distributed, but then another surge when those run out. "There are people who lost everything, and a lot are now out of work," he said.
The Salvation Army's Capt. Chris Thornhill said the organization has produced more than 1,000 meals a day in emergency kitchens on the island offering food and a place where people can comfort one other.
Now, after three weeks, the shock is fading and the reality of losing so much property has set in. The mounting worry is about the future and the long-term economic consequences. Losing Labor Day weekend was bad enough, but save for the southern portion of the island, there's not a lot of hope businesses will be able to reopen in time to see much of a boost. Some may never reopen. Last week, in another blow, organizers of a major annual surfing competition in Buxton reluctantly announced they would move the event to Nags Head.
Meanwhile, the race is on to rebuild N.C. 12 with a $2.6 million temporary bridge more than halfway across the new inlet. Debate has begun about a permanent fix to N.C. 12., which will cost an estimated $10 million.
Given the rise in sea level, is it still worth trying to maintain a roadway? Could Hatteras be one of the state's signature destinations, without it, or would the economy collapse if ferry service, more dependent on weather and water levels, were its only means of access?
And while the Legislature spent time—and $150,000—on a special session to debate gay marriage, no one seemed to be in a hurry to tell coastal residents that help was on the way. Action on hurricane relief was put on hold until at least the special session in November.
There is also some lingering resentment for the new GOP guard of the era when Sen. Marc Basnight, a Dare County Democrat, ran the Senate and championed infrastructure on the coast. One GOP official recently contrasted all the "free-flowing highways to the coast" with the gridlock in Charlotte and called for more balance.
Although Gov. Bev Perdue, who represented New Bern during her career in the state senate, has promised the state will do its part, the federal government's dwindling coffers for disaster relief could be jeopardized in the poisonous partisan atmosphere in D.C.
Hatteras Island still has a long way to go in coming back from the storm. They're tough, as the stars of weather television like to remind us, and they're practiced at weathering storms.
But as many residents there pointed out, that doesn't make it any easier once the damage is done. You've still been hit by a hurricane. You still have a mess on your hands, and you still have to cope with it.
Correction (Sept. 24, 2011): The Outer Banks were on Irene's east (not west) side.