Tourism groups question reopening Hatteras to visitors

This file combination of two satellite images provided by GeoEye shows, above, an area of Hatteras Island, N.C., after Hurricane Irene washed out Highway 12 and, below, the same area of Hatteras Island taken on June 12, 2011, before the island was cut off from the mainland.
This file combination of two satellite images provided by GeoEye shows, above, an area of Hatteras Island, N.C., after Hurricane Irene washed out Highway 12 and, below, the same area of Hatteras Island taken on June 12, 2011, before the island was cut off from the mainland.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For Dare County officials wrestling with the question of whether to reopen at least part of Irene-damaged Hatteras Island, the answer was obvious: the electricity was running and stores were stocked with supplies. And, most importantly, people needed the work that tourists would bring.

"The only hiccup is that the ferry capacity isn't sufficient to accommodate everyone who wants to come," said Dare County Manager Bobby Outten. Parts of the island — the four southernmost villages least damaged by Irene — reopened Sept. 15 to visitors.

But that hiccup is the main reason many groups dependent on tourism opposed reopening the island when it was accessible only by ferry and not via N.C. 12, which Hurricane Irene chewed up, creating a new inlet and several new breaches at the north end of the island. Among those groups were the Dare County Tourism Board and the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce.

A survey of property managers showed the island was 90 percent booked in September, said Scott Leggat, a tourism board member and vice president of Outer Beaches Realty. But the managers also estimated ferries could bring only about 25 percent of the people with reservations, he said.

"The result was that people were told that you can come back, but you just can't get here," he said.

Bridge washed out
Most cars would typically get to Hatteras Island from the north, taking the two-lane N.C. 12 to one of seven villages on the island. But with state transportation officials estimating that a temporary bridge won't be in place and the breaches repaired until the first week of October, Dare County was left with the choice of writing off a valuable part of the fall season or trying to salvage part of it.

Fall is a popular time along the Outer Banks for people who enjoy the less-crowded beaches, restaurants with shorter or no lines, and surf fishing. Sweatshirts replace T-shirts for visitors more fond of the serenity of a long walk than a good tan.

But there's just no easy way to get to Hatteras by ferry — and it's equally difficult to leave. Visitors have to go to Swan Quarter or Cedar Island for a ferry ride to Ocracoke that takes more than two hours. Once on Ocracoke, they drive 10 to 15 minutes across that island to take a 40-minute ferry ride to Hatteras. The state Ferry Division added extra trips and each route is run five times a day, but the ferries are booked solid on weekends through mid-October. With each ferry able to carry about 50 cars, depending on size, that means no more than 500 cars a day can get to Hatteras.

Then there's the issue of Ocracoke, which suffered far less damage from Irene than Hatteras. The limited ferry space means fewer tourists and residents can get to and from Ocracoke, too. The Ferry Division said Wednesday that it will give priority to Ocracoke residents with medical appointments on the mainland.

"It's not what we're used to," said Leslie Lanier, owner of Books to Be Red on Ocracoke. "But normal is not where we are right now, in anything."

Opening Hatteras has definitely hurt business on Ocracoke, she said.

"As I say that, I've got friends and neighbors on Hatteras that need business also," she said. "I don't begrudge them."

Lingering effects of hurricane
After Irene made landfall Aug. 27 in North Carolina, the storm isolated Hatteras. Officials opened the island first to residents via an emergency ferry route, then to non-resident property owners. On Sept. 17, they opened the four southernmost villages of Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras to visitors. The three northernmost villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo suffered the most damage. They won't reopen before Oct. 6.

"You've got ferry capacity that can bring some people over, and you've got villages that are ready to go," Outten said, explaining the reasoning of Dare County officials. "You've got hundreds of people in those villages that are out of work. Businesses can open, but they just don't have any customers. ... The choice became, do you use that ferry capacity to bring over who we can and allow businesses to reopen."

Some visitors bought travel insurance, which reimbursed them for a mandatory evacuation. But the largest insurer for island visitors, CSA, hasn't decided whether to reimburse visitors who couldn't get to the island because they couldn't get ferry reservations. In a statement to The Associated Press, CSA said it's working to see if it can cover the unusual circumstances regarding Hatteras access.

Leggat said some customers have told Outer Beaches that they won't rent with the company again if it keeps CSA as its travel insurer.

But the bigger issue, he said, is the public relations disaster that he believes Dare County caused by reopening the island too early.

"We've fought hard to get people to choose Hatteras and build a brand for Hatteras," he said. "But at the end of the day, they're the ones getting the shaft."

Outten said he wouldn't have handled the reopening differently, even in hindsight.

"We were confident going in, and we're OK now," he said. "The weather is nice. The power held like we thought it would. Commodities are coming over. We're comfortable going forward. ... Nothing happened over the weekend that would change any of that.