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Hatteras Island holdouts snub nose at Ophelia

Many residents on Hatteras Island on North Carolina's Outer Banks have refused to leave even though Ophelia is expected to lash the area with hours of hurricane-force winds .
Sunsets like this one last Tuesday on Pamlico Sound are one reason why folks living on the islands off North Carolina call the area home and why some refused to leave ahead of Ophelia.Gerry Broome / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Residents live here knowing that every year, their road will probably flood, their homes will take a beating and they’ll likely be isolated for days until cleanup crews can dig them out after a big storm.

But for the close-knit residents of Hatteras Island, hurricane season’s annual woes are a small price to pay for watching the sun set over the blue waters of Pamlico Sound.

Now, with slow-moving Ophelia skirting the coast, that loyalty could be tested through hours of hurricane-force wind and rain.

Island residents — at least hundreds of whom decided to stay in defiance of an evacuation order — offered the simplest of explanations Wednesday for staying put:

“It’s your home,” Allen Burrus said with a shrug as he relaxed on a stool in the back room of his “Burrus Red & White” grocery store, eating a bowl of chili. Outside, the wind was picking up speed and fat raindrops had just begun to fall.

Burrus, a lifelong resident of Hatteras Village, said violent storms are simply a part of life here — one he wouldn’t trade.

Family ties
The store was started by his great-great-grandfather in 1866 and is typical of the family-run operations that have kept the standard beach-town kitsch of gaudy souvenir shops at bay on Hatteras Island.

“The village atmosphere is something we work really hard to keep,” he said.

Many of the pristine beaches and rolling sand dunes on Hatteras are under national seashore protection. And the black-and-white-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse — the tallest in the nation — was moved from its erosion-threatened spot near the Atlantic to a new location a half-mile inland in 1999.

Over the centuries, some 600 ships have wrecked around Cape Hatteras, giving the treacherous coastline the nickname, “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

That kind of history may have contributed to the relaxed atmosphere as Ophelia loomed Wednesday, with residents sitting on their front porches, drinking beer and laughing.

Shoppers out for last-minute supplies paused to chat with friends they passed in grocery store aisles.

“It’s real laid-back down here; it’s not the hustle and bustle of the city,” said Buddy Hooper, 56, who has lived in Buxton all his life. “Everybody looks after everybody. It’s something you don’t get elsewhere — it’s still small-town America.”

Resistance at 13
When Hooper told his 13-year-old daughter Avery she would have to leave Hatteras with her mother until Ophelia passed, he said she burst into tears.

“She did not want to go,” said Hooper, who has never left for a hurricane. “She didn’t see any need.”

The hassles of evacuating — limited hotel rooms, traffic jams and difficulty getting back onto the island — also discouraged many from leaving.

“It’s miserable either way you go,” said Bill Evans, 43. “And when you stay here and there is some damage, you feel like you can pitch in and help people.”

While some might think island residents are crazy for living on such a narrow, exposed spit of land, Hooper said it’s all a matter of perspective.

“Sure it’s dangerous, but it’s mighty dangerous going down the road with drunk drivers around,” he said. “I’d be a hell of a lot more afraid out in the Midwest in a tornado.”