Image: Highway 12
Steve Helber  /  AP
Officials survey the damage to Highway 12 on Hatteras Island, N.C., on Aug. 23, a day after Hurricane Irene swept through the area.
updated 10/10/2011 3:45:40 PM ET 2011-10-10T19:45:40

The highway that's the economic lifeline for Hatteras Island is scheduled to reopen by Tuesday, more than a month after Hurricane Irene chewed a new inlet through the road. Business owners are relieved, but some wonder if they can salvage any of the fall season at this point.

"Anything we can get will be better," said Beth Midgette, reservations manager for Midgette Realty on the island. "We're tickled to death to see it open. October is a gorgeous month. We have lots of fishermen, lots of wind surfers, and they're ready to get here without having to take the ferry."

Hurricane Irene made landfall Aug. 27 in North Carolina, severing road access to Hatteras Island by creating what residents are calling the New New Inlet north of Rodanthe on N.C. Highway 12. The state Transportation Department is building a temporary bridge over the inlet that's supposed to open by Tuesday and also filling in other, smaller breaches with sand and sandbags.

The temporary bridge will be 24 feet wide, slightly narrower than a normal bridge, DOT division engineer Jerry Jennings said Thursday. It will stand about 15 feet above the normal water elevation; the road is about 5 feet to 6 feet above the water. The speed limit will be 25 mph.

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The total repair cost for the damage is $11 million to $12 million, Jennings said.

The villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo have been closed to visitors since the storm. The villages of Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras reopened Sept. 17 to visitors, but access was limited to ferries, which don't have nearly enough capacity to meet the demand of rental cottages that were 90 percent booked and residents.

Story: Tourism groups question reopening Hatteras to visitors

The months of June through September account for 80 percent of business, said Lee Nettles, head of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. So business owners such as Debbie LeMasters are struggling to find ways to make some money from the fall season.

"It's basically lost," said LeMasters, who owns the Down Under restaurant in Waves with her husband, Ron. "October is a slow time. Mostly what you get are fisherman and people who don't have small kids who are in school."

She and her husband usually close the restaurant at the end of October but are considering staying open in November, perhaps only on weekends. The restaurant itself survived the storm pretty well, with water in the bottom of it and salt water damaging freezers and air conditioning units, she said.

Nettles said about 70 percent of Outer Banks business goes north of Hatteras Island to areas such as Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills. Those people also often plan to visit the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton or spend a day on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, so reopening the road will be good news for those visitors as well, he said.

"There's no doubt that having the road open will just help in a lot of different ways," Nettles said. "There are a lot of residents who literally haven't left the island since the storm. Some of it is just psychological, just being reconnected with the Outer Banks. It's going to lift spirits and certainly make it easier for the visitors."

The bureau is planning a promotion called OBXmas to try to get more visitors to the Outer Banks during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Retailers are discussing discounts, and events such as a tour of the lighthouse are planned.

"It's the kind of thing we're hoping will grow over time as a different idea for a holiday tradition," he said.

Despite the stress that Irene caused, LeMasters has no regrets about moving to Waves from northern Virginia more than a decade ago to buy the Down Under.

"The trouble you go through like right now — a 12-hour ride is not unusual if you have to go to Nags Head — it is still worth it if you love nature and like looking at the water. It's worth all that. But you can recover from it because you do love it so much," she said.

The Outer Banks' residents and businesses will undoubtedly survive this economic and environmental blow, Nettles said. It's not the first time a hurricane has wiped out part of the road: In 2003, Hurricane Isabel also cleared out a piece of the highway.

"We'll get through it just like we have before," he said. "It's part of living out here."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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